John Aglionby sees the IMF, World Bank and political activists become unlikely allies in the fight for freedom of speech in Singapore
Tuesday September 12, 2006
[Police officers stand guard in front of the Suntec Convention Centre in Singapore, venue for the International Monetary Fund annual conference. Photograph: Wong Maye-E/AP]
Singapore's streets have been swept, buildings spruced up and thousands of additional flowers planted to welcome the 16,000 delegates for the annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank group, from September 14-20.
But if the tiny nation's government is hoping the gatherings will project the island on to the world stage as a modern, funky business hub then its PR machine will have a lot of firefighting to do in the next few days.
Virtually all the publicity to date, including in the tightly controlled domestic media, has been about the authorities' refusal to grant visas to an uncertain number of non-governmental organisation activists whom the World Bank and IMF have accredited to attend the civil society sections of the meetings.
The Singaporean police chief, Soh Wai Wah, said yesterday 28 people are blacklisted, because they pose a threat to law, order and security. Senior World Bank officials say they only know of 17 people who have been refused entry while some NGOs believe the number is much higher than 28.
Among the 28 banned is Walden Bello, a 60-year-old Filipino who heads an NGO called the Focus on the Global South. His 'crimes' according to the police, were to break into the World Bank headquarters to steal documents and occupy a consulate in San Francisco.
Mr Bello told Reuters he published a book in 1981, based on leaked World Bank documents and in 1978 staged a sit-in in the Philippines' San Francisco mission to protest the regime of the then dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
Another activist denied entry is Antonio Tricarrio, a co-ordinator of the Italy-based Campaign to Reform the World Bank, which has been engaging with the two institutions for more than a decade.
"We have never been involved as an organisation or as individuals in undemocratic and violent behaviour, we have never been charged in our lives and we don't understand why this is happening," he was quoted by Singapore's Straits Times newspaper as saying.
The 508 civil society representatives from 261 groups who have been given visas - more than for any other IMF/World Bank meetings, according to one World Bank official - are being kept on a very tight leash. Outdoor protests have been banned - out of fears they might be used as cover by terrorists to launch an attack - and indoor demonstrations have been confined to one section of the conference centre lobby that is about 50 square metres, less than the size of a volleyball court.
World Bank officials, including the president, Paul Wolfowitz, have condemned both the banning of the activists and the restrictions on demonstrations.
"What makes us mad is the fact that people we've accredited are not allowed in," the World Bank's Indonesia country director, Andrew Steer, told Guardian Unlimited.
"This has forced the World Bank to clarify what it believes in, and what it believes in is freedom of speech."
Some NGO activists believe the World Bank and IMF are shedding crocodile tears in that they were fully aware of Singapore's attitude to dissent when the country won the right to host the meetings five years ago.
Singapore's riot police will probably get the chance to flex their muscles, however, because one of the nation's minority parties, the Singapore Democratic Party is planning a gathering at the city's speaker's corner this Saturday - which legally the authorities cannot stop - and from there to march to City Hall, which the police have refused to grant a permit for.
"We're just against the fact that there's so much repression in Singapore, that we can't say what we want to," Chee Siok Chin, one of the organisers, told Guardian Unlimited.
"Realistically, however, I would be surprised if we get more than 10 people showing up beyond the hardcore of activists here."
Singapore has also banned civil society organisations from holding their own parallel forum to the formal meetings. So some 800 activists are gathering on the Indonesian island of Batam, a half hour ferry ride from Singapore, for an international people's forum this Friday to Sunday.
The local police initially did not object to the event but then, according to one of the organisers, Donartus Marut, after pressure from the Singaporean authorities, they banned it. Indonesia's police chief then intervened and ordered the local police to grant permission for an indoor event to go ahead.
Singapore has denied putting pressure on the Batam authorities. Mr Steer said he asked to attend the event but was refused permission "out of respect for those NGOs with a no-engagement policy [with the World Bank]."
Hear Africa 05
Infid (organiser of the Batam conference)
Focus on the Global South
Campaign to Reform the World Bank