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Jane Kelsey WTO: Opening skirmishes

Opening skirmishes

BULLETIN #3 FROM HONG KONG: 14 December 2005
By Dr Jane Kelsey

See also:
BULLETIN #1 - Creating a Climate of Fear in HK
BULLETIN #2 - The Antidote to Fear-Mongering

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The opening day of ‘MC6’ (the sixth ministerial conference of the World Trade Organisation) followed a now-standard format: mass protests on the outside, disruption of the opening ceremony by non-government organizations accredited to attend the fringes of the meeting, and preliminary skirmishes over the process and the negotiating text.

For the public of Hong Kong the opening meant another protest march through the streets by an estimated 5200 local and overseas activists and accompanying tariff jams. Barriers now block people’s entry to parts of the city near the Convention Centre and police are much more visible than usual, displaying an alarming array of weaponry.

This march was very different from the first mobilization three days ago. Taking the place of the migrant women workers, who were the dominant presence on Sunday, were several thousand Korean farmers. A multi-coloured funeral pyre, symbolized both death to the WTO and ever-present memory of the self-sacrifice of Korean farmer Lee Kyung Hae in Cancun in 2003. Most wore t-shirts that carried their blunt message –“WTO Kills Farmers”.

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As people gathered in Victoria Park it was obvious the Koreans would play a central role. Relaxed, but strictly self-disciplined, they exuded an aura that is hard to describe.

The march itself was uneventful until it reached the designated demonstration area, a small concrete holding pen from which the only exit was over the wall into the sea. That is just what some 80 Korean farmers chose to do. Bedecked in bright orange lifejackets, with the lead swimmer holding a Korean flag, they aimed to swim (badly) to the Convention Centre where the meeting had just begun.

The police were forewarned and made a measured response. Five of those plucked from the water were held for a short time at a fire station and released. One swimmer suffered back injuries entering the water and a second collapsed. Both were hospitalized, but the latter refused to stay.

As the rally ended a breakaway group of farmers burnt the funeral pyre. This was followed by a period of jostling back and forth, which ended with the use of pepper spray. One of the first affected was Leung Kok Hung ‘long hair’, member of Legislative Council. There were no other injuries.

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In a coordinated action, inside the Convention Centre 30 to 40 accredited NGO activists attempted to drown out the opening speech of Director General Pascal Lamy with placards and chanting. Using a similar strategy to Cancun, they held up multilingual signs reading ‘No deal is better than a bad deal’, ‘WTO Kills Farmers’, ‘Reject the Doha-Anti-Development Package’ and unfurled a large orange banner.

Lamy soldiered on. Many delegates resolutely kept their eyes to the front. Many others, and almost all the media, refixed their attention on the sideshow. Later reports said that many of the developing country delegations were quietly delighted. The inevitable media scrum gave more publicity to the dissidents, outweighing the rather bland appeal from Lamy for a successful meeting.

Coordinator of the Hong Kong People’s Alliance Mabel Au later criticized the police for failing to follow the code of keeping two metres distance when using the spray, and avoiding people’s faces during the first warning phase.

Mabel Au also objected that this one incident at the end of another peaceful mobilisation had been blown out of all proportion. Some local activists believed the TV station was deliberately sensationalizing its reports, making the tussle appear more like a war situation. Its anchorman was wearing a helmet in all his reports.

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In contrast, she said, local Chinese language radio said not very much had happened and only in demonstration zone. Both sides came in for criticism: the protestors were accused of breaking the rules because the demonstrations were no longer peaceful, and the police were criticized for their use of pepper spray.

Attention now shifts to the inside the Convention Centre, where the first meetings on non-agricultural market access and services began last night – along with the first invitation-only Green Room meeting where the main decisions will be made and conveyed to the majority of delegations who remain, excluded and frustrated, on the fringe.

-----STORY ENDS-----

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