17 Sep 06
A Singapore opposition leader, who was surrounded by police in a prolonged downtown stand-off over the right to protest, said on Sunday that he would refuse to move until Tuesday’s formal start of the IMF-World Bank meetings.
Chee, who heads the tiny Singapore Democratic Party, had planned to hold a rally in a city park on Saturday, followed by a protest march to parliament past the convention centre where thousands of financial big shots, bankers and journalists are attending the IMF-World Bank meetings.
But Chee, his sister Chee Siok Chin, and five supporters, were never allowed to leave the park. About 30 police formed human barricades around the Chees, at times linking arms and pressing in close to them to prevent their movement.
“They are physically preventing us from walking to the parliament. But they won’t arrest me,” Chee said. “We need to send a message to be firm, to continue to insist on freedom of speech.”
Chee had wanted to protest about the city-state’s restrictions on freedom of speech and its widening income gap. Under Singapore law, public gatherings of more than four people require a police permit.
Throughout the night, changing shifts of police kept guard over Chee and his sister on a corner of Hong Lim park, close to Singapore’s Speakers’ Corner.
Supporters brought the Chees and the other activists food and water, and the pair slept briefly on the pavement. Puzzled passers-by, among them party-goers on their way home, the odd cyclist and early-morning joggers, stopped to stare or chat.
Area Cordoned Off
British tourist Christopher Osborn, 27, who saw the stand-off as he walked by on Saturday, decided to stay the entire night.
“I’m astounded by the police preventing the legitimate movement of people. The manner in which they are implementing it would be classified as intimidation. There’s a disproportionate reaction and it shows another side to Singapore,” he said.
While U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and other Group of Seven finance ministers and central bankers discussed the Chinese yuan at the convention centre on Saturday, the Singapore police were busy interviewing those people who had gathered at the park to find out who they were and why they were there.
About 200 people, including media, had gathered for the rally.
Police with video cameras filmed Chee, his supporters and journalists present for several hours. Several plainclothes policemen and women mingled among the reporters and supporters.
“Police are at the scene and are engaging Chee Soon Juan and his associates. We advise them not to commit any offence or pose a threat to public order,” a police spokeswoman said on Saturday.
Soon after Chee arrived at the park with his supporters on Saturday morning, police cordoned off the area. Speaking through loudhailers, they told the crowd of supporters and journalists not to participate in the protest march as this would be breaking the law.
As Chee Siok Chin tried to walk to a nearby public toilet, police stopped her. Only after much argument was she allowed to use a bathroom — in the nearby police station.
Chee, an acerbic critic of the government, has had several run-ins with Singapore’s leaders. On Tuesday, the High Court ruled that Chee and his sister had defamed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his father, Lee Kuan Yew. No damages have been announced yet.