Philippines: Thousands protest at 'Asia Pacific Exploiters Club' summit

Shutdown APEC march on November 18. Photos: Peter Boyle

Thousands marched in protest during the APEC Summit held in Manila on November 18-19. US President Barack Obama turned up with a "gift" of two warships to the summit perversely themed of this APEC Summit is "Building Inclusive Growth".

More than a quarter of Filipinos are struggling to survive on less than US$1.25 per day but Obama does not come with food, clothing, housing or anything urgently needed by these millions in extreme poverty, but with two warships to underline Washington's latest military build up against China.

The APEC summit regurgitated a familiar line: Privatise, deregulate, boost corporate profits and the economy will grow. However, while the Philippines has experienced higher than average GDP growth with no dent in poverty so its people have good reason not take this seriously. In 2013, the country's GDP growth was 7.2% yet, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority, the official poverty rate increase from 24.6% in 2013 to 25.8% in 2014.

That's the official rate of poverty, the real rate is much higher and closer to 30%, according to social activists in the Philippines. Indeed, they argue that life remains a tough struggle for a majority of Filipinos and millions are forced to go overseas in search of work.

So what is this economic growth based on? Property speculation, rapacious exploitation of labour through a shift to precarious work and the increased corporate plunder of an estimated US$13 trillion in untapped mineral wealth. Each of these has resulted in entire communities being violently displaced, urban poor communities as well as indigenous communities in remote areas.

The Benigno Aquino government made sure that the heads of state at the summit, which included Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull, and their entourages would not see any of this poverty. The poor people who usually live on the street and the street vendors were whisked away in a clean up operation. Thousands were detained for the duration of the summit or banished outside the city.

No wonder, the protesters dubbed APEC the "Asia Pacific Exploiters Club".

On November 18, protesters from various organisations mobilised in opposition to this summit of oppressors and exploiters under the slogans "Slam APEC", "Junk APEC" and "Shut APEC down". They all agreed that the ₱10 billion lavished on this talkfest for the rich would have been better spent on the country's impoverished people.

SLAM APEC conference

President Aquino said the summit would discuss plans for "development that will leave no one behind" but the people at two conferences I attended in the working class district of Marikina in the lead up to APEC thought this was a sick joke.

Marikina was the centre for shoe manufacturing in the Philippines. It once had 278,000 shoe manufacturing enterprises but now that has been reduced to about 120. While I attended a one-day Solidarity of Labor And the Movements against APEC (SLAM APEC) conference organised by militant trade unionists on November 14, out in the town square, the local community was rallying in defence of the shoe industry that has been all but destroyed by neo-liberalism.

SLAM APEC was formed in 1996 when the Philippines hosted the first ever APEC conference.

Mike Garay, the general secretary of Solidarity of Filipino Workers (Bukluran ng Manggagawang Pilipino, BMP) explained systematically the impact of neo-liberal institutions like APEC. They promoted economic liberalisation, deregulation, privatisation and contractualisation of work. The result, he said, was a increased inequality between rich and poor and mass unemployment for the working class.

Gerry Arrances, a veteran environment campaigner explained the dire global threat of climate change. The Philippines is among the top 20 countries facing catastrophic consequences of climate change as every monster typhoon season underlines.

One of the participants at this conference was Tita Flor Santos, an organiser with the Metro Manila Vendors Association which organisers the street vendors who were “cleaned out” of the city for the APEC summit.

She told Green Left Weekly that this reminded her of a common practice in the days of the notorious Marcos dictatorship.

“Every time we had foreign dignatories visiting, the Marcos regime would paint the front of the shanty towns in white. We called it 'the cemetery'. Marcos didn't want the visitors to see there were poor people in the Philippines. It's the same now under P-noy (President Aquino).”

Santos said that when Pope Francis visited last year, the urban poor were taken off to faraway “resorts” for three days. When the pope left they were dumped back on the streets.

Socialism conference

The following day, I attended a conference on socialism organised by the Party of the Labouring Masses (Partido Lakas ng Masa, PLM) held in the Marikina city hall. It was attended by the local mayor, Del De Guzman, who thanked the PLM for its support in the campaign in defence of the shoe industry.

PLM chairman Sonny Melencio told the conference that capitalism didn't offer any way forward for the working people. The way forward was socialism, he argued, and in the Philippines many people responded to this message because of the strong tradition of indigenous “bayanihan socialism”.

Melencio welcomed a message to the conference from Walden Bello, a prominent global justice campaigner and former member of Congress who will be running as a Senatorial candidate in the May 2016 elections. Bello called for the left to embrace a “new socialist paradigm”.

“Socialism is essentially the democratic organisation of economic life for the benefit of working people. I do not say for the benefit of all because the elites — and those politicians and technocrats who serve their goals — are against socialism, and many of them are anti-social as well. When I say working people, I refer to the more than 95% of people who apply their bodies and their minds to earn a living...”

“Socialism has other names. Some call it social democracy. Other call it a people's economy. Other names for it are popular democracy, workers' self-management, the alternative economy.

“What is common to to all the systems denoted by these terms is an economy that is not driven by market forces and profits but one government by the fundamental values of cooperation, justice, solidarity and democracy.”

The socialist conference was also addressed by retired General Dado Valeroso, a PLM senatorial candidate, who put forward platform based on the revolutionary program that he and other rebel officers had espoused during the fight against the Marcos dictatorship.

People's Forum on APEC

On November 17, I also attended the People's Forum on APEC held at the University of the Philippines in Quezon City. It brought together various NGOs and people's organisations

Once again the keynote presentation was by Walden Bello.

“It has been nearly 20 years since the APEC Summit that was held in Subic in 1996. APEC then was the spearhead of globalisation. It was the fountainhead of neoliberal ideology. The Subic Summit took place amidst triumphalist rhetoric about how corporate-driven globalization would sweep everything before it. The Ramos administration boasted of the neoliberal transformation that would make the Philippines a 'Newly Industrializing Country' by the year 2000.

“Against this triumphalism, the Manila People's Forum on APEC, which united civil society organisations across the country, had a different message. We said that neoliberal globalization would drag our economy into even greater crisis, that the promise of prosperity was a mirage.

“Our side was right. They were wrong.

“Nearly 20 years after Subic, the promise of corporate-driven globalisation has withered throughout the globe.

“In 1997, just one year after the Subic Summit, the Asian economies, including the Philippines, were devastated by the Asian Financial Crisis. In December 1998, the resistance of developing country governments and global civil society brought about the collapse of the third ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation, the so-called crown jewel of globalization, in Seattle. In 2007, the Global Financial Crisis broke out, bringing about the near collapse of the global financial system and recession and stagnation in the US, Europe, and throughout the world. Today, the global economy remains mired in crisis.

'They are fooling themselves not the people'

“Two decades of neoliberalism have devastated the Philippines. The elimination of import quotas led to the severe destabilisation of vast sectors of our agriculture, including the corn, meat and poultry, and vegetable sectors. Bringing down tariffs to 5% and below severely deindustrialised the economy, with our garment, textile, footwear, and other once vibrant industries now a shadow of their former selves. Only 20 of the 200 textile and garment firms we had 40 years ago are still in existence. You need only go to Marikina to see how our once dynamic shoe industry has been nearly destroyed by free trade.

“Neoliberalism promised prosperity. Instead, the percentage of people living in poverty remains at 28%, practically the same proportion as 20 years ago, and inequality remains among the worst in East Asia. Close to 35% of the national budget goes into the pockets of the banks as interest payments while education, health, and other public services deteriorate owing to lack of funds. Many of our people have departed as economic refugees, leading to a situation where 10 million Filipinos, some 10% of the population, are either migrants or residents of other countries.

“This is the grim reality that surrounds this glitzy summit of leaders that will take place in Manila. This is the sordid reality behind the statistics of economic growth that the Aquino administration parades before the world. Yes, there has been growth, but that growth has a fragile base, that growth has been cornered by a few and thus led to greater inequality, that growth has not been felt at all by the great masses of the Filipino people. Aquino may be able to fool the APEC heads of state, but he cannot fool the people.

“Once the cutting edge of globalisation, APEC is an organisation whose time has passed, APEC is a group that has lost its way, lost its meaning, lost its reason for existence. What we will witness these next few days in Manila is a time warp, the rituals of a mummy that belongs to the dead past.

“Likewise, the economics of the Aquino administration belongs to the past. Nobody seriously believes any more that the rate of growth of GDP and the increase in foreign investments are serious measures of the well-being of the people, yet Aquino and his technocrats continue to perpetuate this illusion.

“They are only fooling themselves, not the people.”