Peace convergence challenges US-Australia war games


Up to 1000 activists descended on the town of Yeppoon on the central Queensland coast for the June 22-24 weekend of action against Operation Talisman Sabre — joint US-Australia war games.

The military operation, held every two years at the Shoalwater Bay base, is designed to heighten "interoperability" between the two forces. It is widely viewed as a demonstration of Australia's "deputy sheriff" relationship with the US war machine, and is criticised for the environmental and social damage it wreaks on the Shoalwater area. The base stands on land traditionally owned by the Darumbal people and threatens sacred sites.

The weekend of action was kicked off with 400 people packing Yeppoon Town Hall for a forum on June 22. The meeting was addressed by a range of speakers including Steve Bishopric of the Shoalwater Wilderness Awareness Group; Dr Helen Caldicott, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee and a prominent member of the Nuclear Policy Research Institute; Dr Zohl de Ishtar, also a Nobel Peace Prize nominee and a member of the Australian Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (ACPACS); Finai Castro, a Guam activist who has campaigned against the US military presence on her island; Terri Keko'olani, a Hawaiian anti-militarism activist; Hannah Middleton of the Australian Anti-Bases Coalition; Kim Stewart of Friends of the Earth; and Kevin Clements of ACPACS.

The following day, hundreds of activists converged on the military base's "green gate", the main vehicular entry. A police road block 12 kilometres from the site halted all buses and cars. However, a protest assembly decided that protesters would march to the gate, with 150 people making the long trek.

On arrival at the gates three hours later, protesters were met by a group of federal police, augmented by military police behind the fence. There were attempts to breach the barrier; several protesters gained access but were ejected by military police. Protesters chanted "Hey soldier, it's not your cause, you don't have to fight their wars", "Always was, always will be Aboriginal land" and "Peace is possible, war is not the answer".

Iraqi refugee Sajad Alotham told the military behind the fence: "I'm Iraqi. If you don't throw your weapons to the ground, you risk killing people like me, and like all the people here."

That evening, Yeppoon Town Hall was again packed with hundreds of locals and interstate activists dancing and singing peace songs while footage of the day's protest played in the background.

The following day, 600 people marched through Yeppoon to the waterfront. Protesters held a banner reading "Protect Shoalwater", painted 15 years ago when the bay was threatened by sandmining.

At the ensuing meeting on the waterfront, Democrats Senator Andrew Bartlett said that "disarmament" was a word that must re-enter Australian debate. Caldicott reminded the assembled crowd that "Australia is embedded in the US military machine". Castro spoke of the environmental damage that military bases cause.

Representatives from the Shoalwater Wilderness Awareness Group recognised the efforts of 16 protesters who had entered the base during the previous week and been arrested. These included June Norman, a grandmother, who spent four days inside the base and was reported in the media as being missing. She wasn't missing at all, she said. "They couldn't find bin Laden. They couldn't even find us", she quipped.

That afternoon and evening, while a peace vigil was held on the beach, 70 protesters travelled to Rockhampton military barracks. Here they protested at the gates in the hope of reaching the ears of the soldiers inside. Despite a strong police presence and orders to stay well away from the fences, many soldiers gathered at a distance to hear the chants and speeches.

The weekend was a great success for the peace convergence, with numbers involved in the protests throughout the weekend much larger than previous convergences. There was broad sentiment that protesters would converge in even larger numbers in 2009 if the base has not been closed.