Not Welcome Here


Over the last few weeks we have been flooded with articles about the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Conference being held in Sydney this week. Many news reports have commented on the extensive police preparations for dealing with the expected protests.

Considering that many of these reports, and the police themselves, are emphasising the violent and radical nature of the protests, it is strange that few explanations have been given of why it is that people would protest the APEC meetings.

It seems pertinent, then, in this week of the Conference, to examine exactly that.

The reasons people give for protesting at APEC are as diverse as the protesters themselves ranging from a simple ‘Not In My Back Yard’ to outrage at the idea that Sydney would play friendly host to leaders such as Vladimir Putin and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who have been plagued by accusations that they run repressive and unjust regimes.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

Paddy Gibson, a 24-year-old university tutor and organiser with protest group Stop Bush, says there are a number of reasons to protest the economic conference. Legally, however, Gibson will not be allowed to participate in the main protests on Saturday 8 September, as his name has been placed on a list of ‘excluded persons’ who will not be allowed in the ‘declared zones’ during the APEC period.

Gibson, whose fervent dedication to anti-war activism has seen him arrested at protests before, but never found guilty in court of any offence, believes that the list of excluded people, along with the other legislation passed for the APEC period, is part of an attempt by the Federal Government to isolate the protest movements. He says, ‘Given the extent of the crisis of legitimacy around the [Iraq] War, the Government really doesn’t want large protests on the streets highlighting its unpopularity.’

‘I think George Bush’s visit to Sydney and basically all the Howard Government’s movements around this Conference have been to try and cement and promote the military alliance between Australia and the United States.’ Because of that, says Gibson, anti-war activists have been one of the main groups organising around APEC.

He notes that the scare campaigns and intimidation of protestors in the lead up to APEC, have ‘made it a lot harder for more mainstream social movements like major trade unions, NGOs, environment groups and Churches to come on board.’ However, he also believes that the laws have highlighted the effect that the War on Terror is having on domestic law and order policy.

Gibson is part of another group, Stop the War, who have brought US activist, Matt Howard, to Australia to speak at the APEC protests. A seemingly shy young man, Howard is a former US Marine who is now part of the US group Iraq Veterans Against the War.

Howard joined the Marines to support himself through college, and was deployed twice in Iraq. He says he changed his mind about the War when he realised that all the values he was taught as a Marine ‘[went]out the window’ in combat. ‘Even from a very tactical, military perspective, if you want to take morality out of the equation, we are taught to be very disciplined fighters as Marines you know, one shot, one kill and all that and yet the reality on the ground, what I witnessed, was people who almost had a bloodlust.’

Howard says he frequently witnessed cruelty and criminal actions perpetrated by fellow US fighters. When I ask him for an example, I am shocked by the story he tells me:

I remember at one point I came upon these buses that had been completely blown up. The front of the bus was on fire, and there were women and kids dead on the pavement.

I was told that somebody had popped out the window of one of these buses and started firing once they got into our column. But even if that was the case, there are appropriate levels of force. Even if somebody shoots you with a rifle you don’t blow up the whole bus, especially with women and kids in it.

I came to find out later, when I was talking to someone on the tank that was responsible for the bus kills, that the lieutenant on the tank had just gotten bored and wanted to shoot something.

Howard says he was appalled to realise that for many US troops, Iraq was considered primarily a good opportunity to use their training. ‘There was no way that they weren’t going to use their weapons. People just want to shoot stuff. It sounds sick, and it is sick, but in all honesty that’s what it came down to.’

He says that while the world was being told that the War might not happen if Saddam gave up his Weapons of Mass Destruction, the US was already beginning to strike Iraq. ‘We were in Kuwait, bombing Iraq, two months before the War even officially started,’ he says, ‘When we got to Kuwait there were thousands of people waiting for us, including KBR, a subsidiary of Halliburton.’

In light of his experience, Howard believes that the US will attack Iran too. It is this, along with the Coalition’s continuing occupation of Iraq, that makes him believe it is important to protest against APEC.

During his short time in Australia, Howard has been surprised how much more ‘blatant’ the NSW Government has been in its intimidation of protesters than governments in US are. Still he says, ‘If anything, that’s just a reason to fight harder.’

But Iraq isn’t the only reason people will protest at APEC. Australia’s increasing military role in the Asia-Pacific region is a source of anger, says Paddy Gibson.

Since 1999, says Gibson, ‘We’ve seen a roll-out of a far more militaristic attitude towards the area immediately surrounding Australia. This has been accompanied by a huge increase in Australian military capacity more generally.’ He cites cases such as the Solomon Islands, where, ‘It’s essentially Australian bureaucrats who control the judiciary, who control the purse strings, run the police service and the prisons,’ and so exercise control over the major political and economic decisions made by the country’s leaders.

Australia’s reasons for trying to increase its power in the region are primarily economic, believes Gibson. If Australia is seen to have control over many countries in the region, then ‘the leverage that gives [the Government]over potential trade partners is vastly increased’ not to mention also locking out rivals such as China from the region.

‘I think what you are seeing is a heightening of rivalry between the big powers, which is leading to not great outcomes for the people who are living in the region.’

In light of the long list of complaints against the APEC Conference ranging from the actions of the leaders participating in it, ro Australia’s militarisation of the Pacific, or just the enormous ($300 million) cost of the event it is disturbing how little attention has been paid to it in the mainstream media.

What remains to be seen is to what degree Gibson and others will be allowed to voice their protest on the streets of Sydney this weekend.

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