Chiang Mai, January 9:

Thousands of Thais took to the streets Monday to protest the latest free-trade talks with the United States, claiming the deal would hurt farmers and reduce access to life-saving drugs.

The demonstration came as the two countries began their sixth round of talks, expected to last until Frid-ay, since they launched negotiations in June 2004. Ne-ena Moorjani, spokeswo-man for the US trade representative, said negotiators were fleshing out the language of the deal.

“We are meeting to talk about how we make sufficient progress to make sure we finish by the spring,” she said. Negotiators are still hammering out differences over sensitive issues such as agriculture, drug patents and the liberalization of Thailand’s financial sectors, according to Thai officials.

The noisy but peaceful group of farmers, AIDS activists, consumer advocates and other protesters mar-ched to the US consulate general in Chiang Mai. Around 10,000 demonstrators were on hand.

Protesters decapitated two mannequins and burned a coffin in a show of street theater dramatizing what they said would be the negative effects of the deal. Others carried a huge placard showing King Kong wearing a necklace with a picture of US president George W Bush on a locket.

Witoon Liamchamroon, who coordinated the protest for an umbrella group of activists called Free Trade Watch, said the talks were at a critical stage. “The FTA with the US is not fair for Thai people. Only the United States will get benefits out of this deal,” said Witoon.

The group, which was formed in 2003 by activists, academics and non-governmental organizations, has been campaigning for greater public involvement in Thailand’s free-trade agreements.

For Thailand, key issues include Washington’s proposal to enforce 25-year patent protection for US-made pharmaceutical dru-gs, which is tougher than WTO rules that offer only 20 years. Witoon said the US proposal would effectively restrict public access to cheap generic drugs in Thailand, which has one of Asia’s highest rates of HIV infection with 670,000 HIV or AIDS patients or one per cent of the population.