APEC Summit Reveals Howard’s Government Fears Protests

23 Aug

When the IMF World Bank held its meeting in Singapore last year, the government took precautions in ensuring that the visibility and number of protests were reduced and minimised. Even though the Singapore government has banned protests in the country, they reluctantly succumbed to international pressure by allowing foreign protestors to demonstrate, though in a controlled situation.

They manage the dissent through a series of red tape and intimidation efforts such as preventing listed activists (or at least holding them for questioning at the immigration) from entering the country; drawing up a small enclosed area for indoor demonstrations to control the protests; and openly stating that they will come down hard on any protesters engaging in any violent behaviour.

Prior to the event, the police in Singapore had little experience in dealing with any large scale protests let alone riots. As such, they went overseas to be trained by police forces in countries with such experience.

Much to the delight and relief of the Singapore government, none of the foreign protestors took up the bait to challenge their right to freedom of assembly. Instead, the overseas NGOs and activists organised an alternative forum in neighbouring Indonesia island, Batam.

The only protest and march that resulted in a stand-off during that period of time, was a local grassroots effort by a small group of Singaporean activists who had been incensed at the government’s economic and social policies that created a large wealth gap while stifling dissent.

In less than a month’s time, 2 to 9 September, Australia will be hosting the APEC summit which will be attended by the government officials and business representatives.

While Australian guarantees its people the right to freedom of assembly, the Howard government is naturally jittery when it comes to this large- scale upcoming event. After all, it includes governmental leaders from within the Asia Pacific, which also includes US President, Mr George Bush, who invites disdain, dislike and protest wherever he goes – chiefly for his disastrous and genocidal decision to invade Iraq.

As such, it is pertinent that the government should ensure that top security and safety be extended to all, whether living, working or travelling in Sydney during that period of time.

Except for perhaps a few inconveniences to ensure safety, the government should still allow forms of peaceful protests to happen.
However, this does not appear to be so, based on recent developments.

Drawing a leaf from authoritarian regimes such as Singapore, which has a successful history of repressing civil and political rights, the current Australian Howard government is keen to neutralise and reduce public protests during this period of time since an outright ban is out of the question as it will more likely create public outcry, and make the government look draconian and ridiculous.

So it does what it can do given the situation. Neutralise the efficiency and visibility of protests. It does so using a combination of strategic and intimidation efforts:

a) Dissuading activists to protest.

Premier Morris Iemma has warned school students from being exploited by feral protestors. The NSW Education Minister, John Della Bosca, has similarly warned students not to engage in the upcoming APEC protests as it is likely to turn violent. Students who skip classes to protest will be marked as absent. This provoked an response from the activist group, Resistance, who was trying to stage a national walkout on September 5 to protest the arrival of Bush.

In another Sydney Morning Herald article, the NSW Police has denied allegations that they have told activist groups to stay away from the APEC protests.

The NSW president of the National Union of Students, Tom Patton, said the police him that, “… we hope the NUS isn’t in APEC, we don’t think it’s a good idea.” He also claimed that the police asked him if he had any details of student groups or individual students who were organising APEC demonstrations.

The president of the Sydney University student representative council, Angus McFarland, also said in the same news report that he was asked to provide details of protestors and given a similar warning in a meeting with the police after the May 2 protest.

b) Intimidation tactics.

While public dissuasion may reduce the number of protestors, police harassments and intimidation acts are employed as a second and additional tool to further decrease the strength.

Besides the allegation of police blackmailing an activist, Daniel Jones into spying protestors to get charges reduced or dropped in return, the NSW Police, the Crime Commission and the Australian Federal Police have also approached universities for personal student information without their prior approval or a warrant.

Says Lucy Sanders, general secretary of The Student Representative Council at Sydney University, “It’s creating a climate of fear assuming police have a right to get any type of information they want without justification or consultation.”

In another case reported by Green Left Weekly and StopBush2007.org, an activist was targeted at the customs for listing “activist” as her occupation. According to the StopBush2007 website, the activist was subjected to frisking, while her bag was searched and computer confiscated. She relates, “One official told me that I was being searched because of the APEC forum scheduled for September 7th – 9th, 2007. This is despite the fact that I had a plane ticket that had me returning to the United States on August 22nd, two weeks prior. Other officials wouldn’t state why I was being searched.”

In another chilling account of police intimidation, journalist, David Marr, in an essay for “His Master’s Voice”, Quarterly Essay, #26, 2007, wrote of police raids in Sydney on the 14 March, resulting in the arrest of 5 student activists.

According to the article, “the bail conditions of the twenty-eight Victorians charged require them to stay out of New South Wales. Going north to demonstrate at APEC will land them straight in gaol.”

c) Impede demonstration – protest route (in)visibility, displaying naked force; and widespread police powers.

While Iemma has said the recently acquired $700,000 water cannon, which can cause serious injury was a coincidence purchase not intended to coincide with the APEC summit; and that it will only be used against rioters, it psychologically deters peaceful protestors for fear of being hurt during the demonstration process. NSW Greens MP John Kaye said that demonstrating the device “could act as a needless provocation to APEC protesters, which could increase the risk of violence during the summit.”

A 5 kilometre, 2.8 metre fence to “lock up sections of the CBD during the APEC summit” will effectively prevent protestors from entering the “declared zone.” As Alex Bainbridge, spokesperson for Stop Bush Coalition said, the change to the protest route would “hide us out of sight”.

This is in addition to the police having extraordinary powers to stop and search individuals in the declared area during the APEC summit.

As has been explained, in using various heavy handed efforts to reduce the visibility and scale of protests for the upcoming APEC summit, the Howard government reveals its innate fear of public dissent.

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