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The Emperor Goes To Asia and Talks Terror


Fresh from visiting California’s Governor-Terminator, His Imperial Majesty jetted off to Asia …

Congressman Crispin Beltran, from the leftwing Bayan Muna party, described the nature of George Bush’s eight-hour Philippine visit, on the eve of the 2003 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Bangkok, as “one a master does to the home of his slave, an emperor surveying the territories of his empire, and inspecting the lay of the land”. It is an apt description for the whole Asia/Australia trip. Beltran, a veteran trade unionist with the militant Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU), was one of seven Filipino Representatives to walk out in protest at the start of Bush’s address to the Philippine Congress.

It has been 43 years since a US President – another tough-talking Texan – Dwight Eisenhower, addressed Congress in the Philippines to rally Philippine support against communism.

USA Today journalist Richard Benedetto (20/10/03) noted the striking similarities between the two speeches, suggesting that Dubya’s speechwriter had clearly read Dwight’s Cold War address.

Eisenhower had said: “Communism demands subservience to a single ideology, to a straitjacket of ideas and approaches and methods. Freedom of individuals or nations, to them is intolerable… They use force and threats of force, subversion and bribery, propaganda and spurious promises”

This time the Emperor warned: “A new totalitarian threat has risen against civilization”. The remark was clearly not meant to be taken as self-referential.

“Like other militarists and fascists before them, the terrorists and their allies seek to control every mind and soul. They seek to spread chaos and fear, intimidate whole societies and silence all opposition,” he said.

Tellingly, it was opponents of Bush’s militaristic and imperial policies who were facing intimidation and being silenced in Asia in honour of his visit. Philippine President, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, in her ongoing crackdown against progressive organizations and social movements critical of her ardent support for US economic and military dictates, is the latest in a long line of US-backed Philippine Presidents – from the Cold War to the War on Terror – which have waged wars of terror at home.

In another part of his speech, Bush said: “America is proud of its part in the great story of the Filipino people. Together our soldiers liberated the Philippines from colonial rule. Together we rescued the islands from invasion and occupation.” Millions of Filipinos would disagree with Bush’s revisionist version of the history of US involvement in their country.

In fact, one reason for the strength and resonance of anti-war sentiments in the Philippines is the fact that under the guise of “training and advising”, in this “second front” in the “war on terror” the troops of its former colonial ruler, the USA, are back on Philippine soil, with a vengeance. And – especially in Mindanao – many people know the sickening realities of war all too well. Death, displacement, disappearances, rape, torture, and despair. On his visit, the Emperor promised yet more US military aid and thanked his loyal subject for supporting his imperial exploits. According to his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, the Philippines “is a very good warrior in the fight on terrorism.”

Beltran noted with irony that both Bush and Arroyo are the children of former presidents, both “became presidents not through victory in the polls. Mr. Bush became president through a decision of the United States Supreme Court. Mrs. Arroyo ascended to the highest office because of People Power 2 and also on the say-so of the Supreme Court. Both have been hounded by election-related scandals – Bush was haunted by the contributions made by Enron, while Mrs. Arroyo is being linked to money laundering charges”. And both want to stay in office past next year’s US and Philippine elections.

Urban poor dwellings near Congress were demolished before he arrived. Thousands of police and armed forces turned Manila and parts of Central Luzon into a militarized zone. Surveillance and harassment of activists was stepped up. It is estimated that Bush’s eight-hour stay cost the Philippines US $1.45 million. After all, the Emperor of the World was in town. And nothing is too much fuss to keep the Emperor happy.

Then it was on to Thailand, which like the Philippines, has sent troops to Iraq and is viewed as a key US ally in the region.

A rectal swab, anyone? It’s OK, I will understand if you say no. But at least you have a choice in the matter. Hundreds of catering and waiting staff at the hotels accommodating dignitaries for the APEC Meetings in Bangkok didn’t. They were forced to have rectal swabs to ensure that they were not carrying any infectious diseases that might contaminate the VIPs’ food.

The mice that were injected with samples of dishes before they were served to the Emperor didn’t have much choice either. The Thai government excelled in the APEC summit security and sanitization stakes. Its attitude towards the homeless, the poor and its critics was little different from the treatment it meted out to the rodents.

Or dogs.

In the weeks leading up to the meeting, thousands of stray dogs were rounded up. Some 10,000 homeless people were pushed off the streets before APEC and the Bush state visit on the orders of Bangkok Governor Samak Sundaravej who likened them to “stray dogs”. 900 street people, originally from Cambodia, one of the WTO’s newest members, were rounded up and flown to Phnom Penh by a Thai Air Force plane. Sex workers and street hawkers were ordered off the streets, schools and many businesses were closed for a week, and sections of the city received a cosmetic makeover. As in Manila, a large US security contingent swept into Bangkok, with 20,000 Thai police, troops and other security militarizing large parts of the city.

The Thai government has not divulged the costs of hosting this year’s APEC Summit. As with other such operations, many locals have questioned the priorities of the government, which seems far more interested in projecting a contrived international image than addressing their needs.

Writing in the Bangkok Post on 20 October Thai journalist Heamakarn Sricharatchanya expressed her irritation with the priorities of the Thai government: “As a Thai citizen, I can’t help but feel that the leaders of my country care more about the health of foreign VIPs, who will only be here for a couple of days, than the health of residents who live here their whole lives. In all my life, I have never known the government to pay such serious attention to the food that its citizens consume”.

It is axiomatic for governments which advocate neoliberal model of development, to try to render all evidence of the failure of this model as invisible as possible when an international spotlight is shone on them. Repressive security operations go hand in hand with state visits and summit meetings all over the world. APEC summits are synonymous with security overkill, human rights abuses, and lavish expenditure.

A huge banner featuring a giant picture of Bangkok grand palace, placed strategically to hide urban poor dwellings by Chao Phraya river was emblematic of the way in which advocates of free market capitalism will do almost anything to stop the facts getting in the way of a good story – or photo-op.

Thailand’s billionaire former police officer/telecommunications magnate-turned-Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, demanded that there be no protests during APEC and stepped up surveillance on a number of social movements, activists and NGOs. The Thai government warned that immigration police would stop foreign activists from entering Thailand to join anti-APEC and anti-Bush mobilizations.

Displaying an adherence to a Bush-like understanding of democracy, Thai Foreign Ministry Spokesman Sihasak Phuangketkeow defended these moves in a media interview, saying demonstrations could deflect from the importance of the APEC Summit:

“Thailand is a free country where democracy activities of this kind are allowed … but I think that for this APEC event we want to concentrate on holding a successful APEC meeting.”

“We wouldn’t want activities that would side-track us from the APEC meeting and that is the purpose of some of the steps we have taken with regards to the activities ban on NGOs.”

And what of APEC itself? It’s the same 21-member forum, but not quite as we knew it at the height of regionwide mobilizations against its neoliberal agenda and its profoundly anti-democratic nature.

Its goals of free trade and investment by 2010 for industrialized members and 2020 for developing ones remain. With the region’s free marketeers licking their wounds after Cancun, the Bangkok APEC Leaders Declaration, “Partnership for the Future”, and this year’s APEC Ministerial statement threw their support behind the WTO multilateral trade system and sought to re-energize the talks.

Among other things, the Ministerial statement promoted structural reform and agricultural biotechnology. While APEC meetings have been ridiculed for their lack of concrete achievement, they still function as opportunities for bilateral and subregional trade and economic deals to be discussed. Both within the Asia-Pacific, and beyond, these lower-profile agreements are proliferating. The three “pillars” of APEC – trade and investment liberalization, business facilitation and economic and technical cooperation – remain. But since 2001 they have become increasingly obscured by the long shadow of a new raison d’etre thrust upon the forum – security, according to the Dubya Doctrine. On the eve of her Emperor’s departure, Condoleezza Rice had told journalists that he would “stress the need to put security at the heart of APEC’s mission because prosperity and security are inseparable.”

Just as former Thai Deputy Prime Minister and current WTO Director General Supachai Panitchpakdi claimed after Doha that the September 11 attacks had been a “blessing in disguise” for the WTO, the Bush-led “war on terror” has breathed new life and meaning into the APEC forum which had barely managed to limp into the 21st century.

Just as we argued in the 1990s that it was the US-driven neoliberal agenda that defined the dominant version of economic development promoted through APEC, so now Washington seeks to shape the forum for its own economic, military and geopolitical ends in the region. The empire continued to strike back, however. Besides the walkout from Congress, throughout the Philippines, in many cities and towns, tens of thousands took to the streets to oppose Bush’s visit, US military and economic imperialism, and denounced Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo as the number one puppet of the US Administration.

In Manila, protests, ignoring threats of violence from the police, delayed his speech to Congress by almost an hour while the government bussed in “pro-Bush” supporters to wave flags for His Imperial Majesty. In Manila, effigies of Bush and Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo were burnt along with dozens of US flags.

Despite the climate of repression and Thaksin’s threats of “long and painful consequences” for organizations involved with protest actions, Thai activists in Bangkok and elsewhere took to the streets to protest Bush’s visit, US war, and APEC’s free trade and investment agenda.

After a demonstration at the US consulate in Chiang Mai, in Thailand’s north, a ceremony was conducted in which a shaman captured his spirit in a clay pot to be thrown into the Ping river in protest at US agricultural policy, US militarism, and a proposed US-Thai free trade agreement which Bush has pledged to begin negotiating next year.

“This is a traditional northern Thai ceremony aimed at keeping his spirit down on the riverbed so he could not come and exploit our natural resources or suppress our (farming) brothers with his superior influence,” Weerasak Wan-ubol, an executive of the Northern Farmers Alliance explained to reporters.

As the Emperor climbs back onto his throne after smiling at Muslims in Indonesia and visiting his “sheriff” in the region, Australia’s John Howard, and as Chile prepares to take on the hosting responsibility for APEC in 2004, two things are for sure.

All the rectal swabs in the world won’t protect us from contamination by Bush’s belligerent bullshit.

And resistance against imperialism, war and neoliberalism will continue.

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