By Dick Nichols
The first three meetings of the leaders of the countries of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation held in Bogor (Indonesia), Osaka (Japan) and Vancouver (Canada) all went off with hardly any protest. But after last weeks meeting in Subic in the Philippines a spectre now haunts APEC — a popular movement against this regional institution of capitalist globalisation.
This APEC summit, hosted by the government of President Fidel Valdez Ramos (former chief of security under the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos), not only gave rise to three counter-APEC conferences, it was also the occasion of a huge "peoples caravan" from Manila to Subic.
This time the real purpose of APEC, in case anyone had ever been in doubt, was on flagrant display. "APEC Means Business" screamed banners all over Manila, and Ramos addressed the 500 chief executive officers who attended the first APEC business forum as "my fellow tigers", urging them to "go for it. Go. Go. Go. Go."
The pressure of mass opposition affected Ramos. He told a meeting of delegates to the most moderate of the three counter-APEC conferences, the Manila Peoples Forum (MPF), that "economic growth, if we are not careful, can also cause the phenomenon of jobless growth, the growing disparity between rich and poor, suppression of democratic space, decline of culture and unleashing of environmental catastrophes".
Ramos told the MPF delegates that as this years APEC chair he would urge other members to formalise the role of non-government organisations (NGOs) by setting up an APEC NGO advisory forum along similar lines to the APEC business forum.
However, the real level of government sensitivity on human development issues was revealed before APEC in a massive operation to clean up shanty towns which might be offensive to the delicate APEC delegates. Thousands of the urban poor, who make up one-third of Manilas population and are officially defined as "illegal squatters", had their shanties destroyed, were left on the street for up to six weeks and then relocated to distant sites without work.
So that APEC delegates would not have to spend hours stewing in Manilas traffic, the government opened up APEC-only "friendship lanes" , squeezing the citys appalling traffic congestion into an even smaller space and causing seven deaths.
Official policy on the protest movement was termed "maximum tolerance" by APEC security chief General Lisandro Abadia. But if this operation, which began with the illegal arrest of Filemon "Popoy" Lagman, president of the BMP (Bukluran ng Manggagawang Pilipino — Solidarity of Filipino Labor) was "maximum tolerance", what would "minimum tolerance" have been?
Ramos and the entire Philippines establishment could not disguise their nervousness about the anti-APEC movement. Sneering editorials and comment pieces were run about "jurassic" 1970s-style protesters. "Reporting" of protests left out every major fact and headlines that screamed of Ramos' triumph all pointed to a concerted effort to minimise the impact of a rising tide of opposition. Government appeals were made to readers not to "allow this opportunity to be upstaged or spoiled by the activities of a misguided few".
The entire area of central Luzon was militarised, prompting a letter of protest from Bishop Leo Drona and other church figures which cited "arming and training of civilians, youth and tanods [thugs]; the surveillance and intimidation of leaders and members of peoples organisations, and all forms of military acts and exercises inflicting terror and fear among the people".
A "top secret Philippines police report" leaked to the Manila press warned that "there are strong indications that the Alex Boncayao Brigade (ABB) will employ terrorism such as kidnapping, bombings and assassinations as their means of disrupting the summit". Police claim the ABB is the armed organisation associated with the Manila-Rizal Regional Party Committee, which has broken away from the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP).
According to the Inquirer, the decision to have cloud-seeding aircraft on stand-by in order to provoke a downpour on the caravan route if conditions were favourable was taken at the highest levels of the secret service.
R.C. Constantino Jnr, the national president of Sanlakas and chief spokesperson for the main protest coalition, Solidarity of Labor Against APEC (Slam APEC), made this assessment: "Of course Ramos would like to give the impression to the general public that hes on top of everything and any voices to the contrary simply belong to misguided troublemakers. But the fact that even months before the APEC conference we experienced a series of intrigues from government aimed at Sanlakas, BMP and the rest of our organisations indicated that the government was worried about the inroads that we seemed to be making. We took this as a confirmation of the success of our activities.
"They were worried that our message was being accepted by different sections of the people with very diverse political outlooks and levels of political awareness, and they seemed to gravitate to a group like Sanlakas. It confirmed that were a group with large mobilising capacity, one that cant be trifled with."
Three caravans tried to get through to Subic. They started from the three separate counter-APEC conferences, organised by Slam APEC, the Peoples Conference Against Imperialist Globalisation and the MPF. (Each conference and caravan corresponded to a coalition built by the three separate currents arising from the split in the CPP in the early 1990s.)
The largest caravan, Slam APECs, made up of hundreds of Manilas distinctive jeepneys bedecked in red flags and banners, was only given permission at the last moment to drive the 80 kilometres from the Philippine capital to Olongapo City (near Subic), and faced systematic police and army provocation all the way.
The 12.5 kilometre-long caravan was sponsored and organised Sanlakas, BMP, the KPUP (Kapatiran ng mga Pangulo ng Unyon sa Pilipinas — Fraternity of Union Presidents of the Philippines), NCL (National Confederation of Labor) and BPMP (Bukluran ng Progresibong Magbubukid sa Pilipinas — Solidarity of Progressive Peasants of the Philippines).
Even before they left Manila, jeepney drivers were being booked on minor traffic infringements and subjected to licence checks. It took nearly 24 hours for the caravan to travel past 18 police and army checkpoints. However, in an impressive display of organisation and self-discipline, the caravan, carrying tens of thousands of protesters from the unions, shanty-towns, plus rural workers, youth and students, carried the anti-APEC message as far as a final impassable blockade of 2000 paramilitary backed by a dozen dump trucks and graders.
Onlookers met the caravan with sympathy and a special anti-APEC issue of the ABBs Ang Partisan (The Partisan) provided absorbing reading for Manilas mass of early morning commuters.
Despite all the provocation and frustration, the spirit and determination of the protesters remained high. When the caravan was stopped in the early hours of the morning the banners on the side of the jeepneys were converted into bedding, spread on the road and on top of the jeepneys. Some smart folk even converted them into hammocks, slung amidst the sugar cane.
When it became clear that the authorities were not going to allow the caravan to enter Subic, an impromptu demonstration was held at the final blockade. Speakers condemned the governments cowardice, its fear of the voice of the people and the unending campaign of harassment.
Negotiations then began between the caravan organisers and the government, resulting in a 20-strong delegation of Slam APEC leaders being allowed to present the resolutions of the Slam APEC conference to Ramos principal secretary.
The day ended in a vicious attack on Sanlakas supporters in Olongapo City. Although isolated from the caravan by the police and army blockade they bravely decided to carry on with a planned anti-APEC protest and were attacked by hired goons wielding steel pipes and baseball bats (called "pro-APEC demonstrators" in the press). Many protesters were injured and hospitalised.
Even in the midst of this thuggery there was some compensation. The goons had been hired one by one for 200 pesos (A$10) by Olongapo City mayor Kate Gordon and so most didnt know each other. Having been told by their handlers that they wouldnt be paid unless they did a good job bashing demonstrators, many set about thumping each other.
The Philippine people have set a standard in anti-APEC protests that other countries of the region must now struggle to match.
[Dick Nichols participated in the Slam APEC conference as a representative of the Democratic Socialist Party and Links, the international journal of socialist renewal.]