Just who is clamping down on protests in Batam?

Authorities in Batam have stated that they will not allow protests during the WB-IMF meeting scheduled to take place two weeks from now. Does the Singapore Government have anything to do with this?

Anti-WB/IMF protestors have nowhere to go
Kalinga Seneviratne
4 Sep 06

Threatened with arrests and canings, activists planning demonstrations at the annual meet of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB), to be held here this month, are organising a parallel event on the nearby Indonesian island of Batam. But, even in that ‘free trade zone’ they are going to be less than free.

Commander Anggaria Lopis, a spokesman for police in the Riau Islands province (where Batam is located) told the ‘Jakarta Post’ newspaper on Thursday, that permits would not be issued for holding the parallel event.

Freedom of expression laws, introduced in Indonesia after the fall of dictator Suharto in 1998, have done away with permits for public gatherings or demonstrations. All that is needed is to inform police three days beforehand so that security arrangements can be made. However, Indonesian law does not allow foreigners to protest on the streets. Thus, foreigners taking part in a proposed anti-IMF/WB protest rally on Sep.18 could be breaching Indonesian law.

Except for the restrictions on foreigners demonstrating, Batam might have been the ideal location for the parallel International People’s Forum (IPF) being planned by a consortium of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and community-based organizations from around the world, coordinated by the Jakarta-based International NGO Forum on Indonesian Development (INFID).

Singapore and Batam present either side of the development coin. Affluent, savvy Singapore creams away the benefits of globalisation while impoverished Batam is exploited by the same forces. The two islands are living examples of how IMF/WB policies create wealth for some at the cost of others.

Thanks to easy investment rules and cheap labour in Indonesia, Batam has developed rapidly into a manufacturing centre especially for the electronics and garments industries. Less than an hour away by ferry, the island has also developed an unsavoury reputation for pandering to the needs of affluent Singaporean men who want to evade the sanitised environment of their ‘nanny state’ — fuelling the rise of sex and gambling industries.

Lopis told Jakarta Post that if foreign NGOs insisted on coming to Batam, police will close down the forum. “It’s not true that they have been permitted to hold the forum in Batam. The forum is of no benefit to Batam,” he was quoted as saying in the newspaper.

The IPF organizers believe that Singapore has put pressure on the Indonesian government to stop the protests. Singapore, with its management expertise, is formally collaborating with Indonesia to develop Batam into a major special economic zone capable of attracting foreign investors from Japan and other major industrialized countries.

There already have been demonstrations outside the Singapore embassy in Jakarta urging the Singapore government to allow outdoor protests on the island republic during the meeting. In fact, the police spokesman made the statement to Jakarta Post following this demonstration.

According to INFID, over 1,000 people are expected to attend the Sep. 15-18 IPF, with about 300 of them coming from some 40 countries.

Donatus Marut, co-chair of the international steering committee of IPF told Singapore’s ‘Today’ newspaper that Indonesian government officials have suggested shifting the forum from Batam. Marut was due to discuss the arrangements for the forum with Jakarta police officials before meeting Singapore embassy officials on Monday to explain their plans. “The protests are against IMF and the World Bank and not against Singapore,” he said.

Over 16,000 people from 184 countries are expected to attend the week-long IMF/WB talkfest beginning on Sep. 13. This is the biggest international gathering hosted so far by this affluent city state of four million people and the government has already spent some 60 million US dollars on it in the hope that it will establish Singapore’s growing reputation as an efficient and safe place to hold international conventions.

The event is also shaping out to be the country’s biggest security operation ever, with the entire police force along with 23,000 National Servicemen deployed to prevent terrorist attacks or illegal demonstrations. Early morning drills have been held near the convention centre, where Molotov cocktail-wielding demonstrators (played out by police reservists) have been confronted by regular police officers in full battle gear. Ships entering the bustling Singapore harbour, this month, may be searched. Surveillance helicopters will be hovering overhead and residents can expect to be checked randomly on the roads.

Singapore police chief Soh Wai Wah says that IMF and WB-accredited activists will be given permits and allocated a designated area at the conference venue to “gather” and “engage” the delegates. According to guidelines issued by the police, licenced activist groups must not move out of the designated areas, and are not allowed use of amplification systems or burn items or behave in a manner that would “provoke a breach of peace.”

A spokesman for the IPF organizers told IPS that civil society groups first considered holding the forum in Singapore but, after seeing the conditions imposed on them, they decided to hold most of the events in Batam “since the WB and IMF deliberately wanted to get a shield from a nanny state”. The spokesperson said, since any event with the presence of foreign speakers needed Singapore government clearance, IPF could not risk allowing Singapore to control the agenda.

“Although Singapore could have maximized our potential coverage because the big media outfits will flock there, IPF is also organizing media events in Batam and has invited foreign media there,” said the spokesman, adding, “some media people will be shuttling from Singapore to Batam and vice-versa.”

Ramches Merdeka from the NGO Children’s Protection Forum and a member of the IPF organizing committee told Jakarta Post on Thursday that even though the Indonesian police has been threatening to close down the forum, they are going ahead with preparations since they have no official word, as yet, from the police.

“If they do it (ban the protests), Indonesia will revert back (sic) to the time under former president Suharto,” he said. According to him the foreign ministry has said that they have no objection “as long as the protests don’t target Singapore.”

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