BATAM, Indonesia - Civil society representatives denied entry into Singapore to attend the annual meeting of the World Bank (WB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have vowed to take legal action for abuse and humiliation suffered at the hands of airport immigration authorities.
Coming on the second day of a civil society gathering on this Indonesian island, a ferry-ride away from the affluent city-state, the plan to take legal recourse is in spite of the Singapore government bowing to international pressure and announcing on Friday that it would lift a ban on 22 of 27 international activists it had blacklisted.
But, the recourse to legal remedy is for a batch of 30 other activists and researchers who were detained, grilled over long hours and evicted after they flew into Singapore's international airport en route to Batam.
'We are collecting all the information from our colleagues, including getting affidavits from them, to prepare a case to sue the Singapore government,'' says Lidy Nacpil, a leading Filipina activist and an organiser of the International People's Forum (IPF), the Sep. 15-17 civil society gathering being held here because Singapore banned such an event within their borders. 'We will also target the WB and the IMF,'' she said.
'It is for all the psychological and mental anguish and humiliation that the people were subjected to,'' she explained in an interview. 'It is really too much if they (Singapore authorities) thought they could get away with it. Their characters have also been defamed.''
The cases of two Indians who were heading to the IPF to present a paper on
reforming the power sector in India were typical. 'We were denied entry by the Singapore immigration authorities. We were detained for 38 hours and no one would answer anything and we were treated badly (several rounds of questioning, interviews by police, fingerprints, photographs, screenings, not allowed to contact anyone),'' wrote K. Raghu in an e-mail to the IPF.
'They were treated like criminals,'' said an enraged Ashok Rau, general secretary of the Indian national confederation of officers of the power sector association, on Saturday morning. 'Since when has it become a crime to present a paper at an international meeting?''
One well-known water rights activist from India, Wilfred D'Costa was not only detained under guard at the airport for five hours but had his two-year, multiple-entry visa cancelled before he was bundled into a plane headed for Mumbai. 'I was frisked several times over and my baggage searched repeatedly,'' he told IPS correspondent in New Delhi, Ranjit Devraj.
But the legal challenge is not the only surprise that the IPF, which has attracted some 500 activists from across the world, has sprung on Singapore. On Saturday, IPF participants, who had their bans revoked by the Singapore government, turned down the invitation to participate in the official WB-IMF meetings on Sep 19-20 and stick to a mass boycott called by the NGOs on Friday.
'The Singapore government's decision, based on input by the IMF and the WB, is nothing but a desperate face-saving exercise,'' declared an IPF statement read out at a press conference. 'We will not allow these three actors to cover up for actions which we consider to be egregious violations of democratic principles, and which have been met with universal condemnation.''
The showdown with Singapore authorities and the WB-IMF is already threatening to steal the limelight from an event that South-east Asia's richest state had hoped would pay rich rewards. In the days leading up to the annual meetings, the Singaporean media, largely controlled by the state, had billed the occasion as a moment to share the sleek and efficient achievements of Singapore. Their target were the 16,000 delegates to the annual meetings, among whom are ministers of finance and major figures in the world of economics and public policy.
But the city-state's dark and repressive side, where the rights to free expression and association are heavily restricted, broke through. And NGOs, seeing themselves the victims of Singapore's police-state measures, found a sympathetic ear in a number of governments, most of them from Europe.
In fact, the strong statement made by WB chief Paul Wolfowitz against Singapore's harsh tactics is being linked to pressure being brought on the WB-IMF by the Europeans, says Antonio Tricario, director of Campaign to Reform the World Bank, a Rome-based NGO. 'Enormous damage has been done, and a lot of that has to do with Singapore,'' Wolfowitz was quoted in the media as having said on Friday.
Among those who expressed displeasure at Singapore's treatment of NGOs
was the Italian finance minister. 'I regret that such action will impact the relationship between the civil society, the Fund, the Bank and their shareholders,'' wrote Tommasso Padoa-Schioppa, in a letter to the governors of the Bank seen by IPS. ''(It will) put to strain the synergies that characterise our relationship with civil society organisations, which through their vocal, yet peaceful, expression of views are truly interested in having an informed dialogue.''
'We believe that all individuals who have been accredited to the Annual Meetings should be allowed to attend, consistent with the memorandum of understanding between the WB-IMF and the host government,'' he added.
Singapore's few outspoken activists who dare to stand up to a repressive system are elated at embarrassing corner the one-party state finds itself in. 'They thought they could micro-manage and control international events like they do with domestic politics,'' Sinappan Samydorai, president of Think Centre', told IPS. 'They could not think outside the box, so it has led to this shameful situation.''
'What the world has got to see is the true Singaporean reality. The colours of its oppression exposed,'' Samydorai said. ''This is what is uniquely Singaporean.''
© Copyright 2006 IPS - Inter Press Service