By John Tognolini
CANBERRA — "This exhibition is one which has attracted controversy and I stress once again that this event is not the 'arms bazaar' its opponents claim it to be", claimed defence minister Robert Ray in the magazine distributed in showbags at Aidex '91, held in a state of near siege here from November 26 to 28. It would be interesting to know what Senator Ray would class as an arms bazaar.
This certainly looked like one, with displays ranging from Rapier missiles through military computer systems, machine guns, chemical warfare clothing down to stainless steel kidney dishes.
"As Battled Tested in The Gulf War", declared the placards surrounding some of the exhibits, complete with photos of the handiwork of the goods in question. But the only bodies on display were clean-cut, live North Americans operating the hardware. In fact, bodies were referred to, but only in the language of military euphemism: "collateral damage" and "soft targets".
"What we really need is the Patriot missile, then we'll be safe", said an Australian soldier on the Rapier missile display. Safe from whom?
Amid the 90 exhibitors, one stood out from the rest. The Quakers had paid $3000 for a place to set up an antiwar stall.
Across the road from the National Exhibition Centre, in Canberra's horse racing track, was the peace camp, temporary home to more than 1000 people from around the country.
"We've had solidarity messages from Canada, the United States, East Timor, Britain and the Philippines", said Hannah Middleton of the Stop Aidex Committee. "Australian embassies are being inundated with messages condemning Aidex."
Actions organised by the protesters included a rally and vigil at Parliament House, a march to the Aidex site, a 300-strong youth rally in Canberra's Civic Centre, followed by a women's protest at the war museum. Then, of course, there was the picket-blockade, which was attacked repeatedly by police and thugs.
Filipino Professor Roland Simbulan joined the protesters, bringing messages of solidarity from 11 trade union, student and church organisations.
"Countries like the Philippines, Indonesia, Burma, including the highly militarised government in Thailand, bear the brunt and are the victims of big business and public relations campaigns like Aidex '91, where the instruments of death and destruction are being supplied to repressive governments", he said.
"I myself was a victim of military government and martial law. For two years and nine months I was detained without any trial or due process and for almost two months kept in solidarity confinement. Even today, many parts of our country are still highly militarised. We see ces in so-called counterinsurgency, engaged in the massive relocation of civilian populations, bombing their villages.
"All the suppliers of weapons to Third World countries like the Philippines and Indonesia are fully aware of where these weapons are to be used. Since 1965, for example, after the military coup in Indonesia, Amnesty International has fully documented the massive genocide, massacres, illegal arrests, by the Indonesian military against the people of Indonesia and East Timor.
"Governments, including the United States, Australia, Germany, continue to supply weapons of destruction to this repressive regime, fully aware that these weapons are not going to be used against an external aggressor. In my country and in Indonesia they don't arrest people, they shoot them with automatic weapons to disperse rallies."
Another Third World visitor to the protests against Aidex was Leonel Granillo, representing the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front of El Salvador. "We have had over 70,000 people killed in a war that has been going for 11 years", he said. "It has destroyed our economy and our ecology and has imposed tremendous suffering. There is hardly a single family in El Salvador that has not experienced a casualty in this war.
"In our part of the world, it is the United States that is selling over $85 million in weapons every year. At this moment, military aid to El Salvador is being postponed so negotiations can produce some positive results."
Another speaker at the protests was NSW Teachers' Federation vice president Sharon Burrow. "As an educator and a trade unionist, it is appalling enough that the arms trade still exists, but it is even more unacceptable that our government would support a commercial celebration of an industry that deals in the eradication of people", she said.
In Australia at the moment, "teacher numbers only just outstrip military numbers, and that says something about the way we shape our world. For every soldier, $36,000 is spent, compared to $1100 per student in the education system."
Aidex is over, but the struggle goes on ... George Bush is scheduled to visit Australia in late December and early January.