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16 Sep 06
Singapore police stopped an opposition politician from leading a protest march past the venue for the annual IMF-World Bank meetings on Saturday, again highlighting the city-state’s restrictions on freedom of speech.
Singapore, which had hoped to show off its economic success by hosting the International Monetary Fund and World Bank meetings this month, has instead attracted surprisingly strong criticism from the two bodies and from NGOs when it blacklisted accredited activists.
With some 16,000 delegates in town for the meetings, including central bankers and finance ministers from around the world, Singapore’s curbs on its critics have come under scrutiny.
Opposition politician Chee Soon Juan, secretary-general of the tiny Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) and six other activists wearing white tee-shirts with slogans such as “Freedom Now” held a rally at “Speaker’s Corner.”
But police stopped their planned march to the convention center, where the IMF/World Bank meetings are taking place.
“The objective of this rally is to highlight that it is our right as citizens of Singapore to gather freely,” Chee told a crowd of about 200 people, including journalists. “Singapore is the only economically developed country to oppress its citizens to this extent.”
Under Singapore law, public gatherings of more than four people require a police permit. Before Chee arrived, police asked members of the crowd for their names and their reason for gathering at the park.
The moves to stop the protest march came a day after Singapore said it would allow 22 blacklisted globalization foes to enter the country.
Following withering criticism from World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz, Singapore said on Friday night it would allow 22 of the 27 activists on an immigration blacklist into the country. The remaining five would be “subject to interview and may not be allowed in,” the Singapore organizing committee for the meetings said in a statement.
The World Bank said it was pleased the government had relented, but called for the other five to be allowed in, too.
“The World Bank still requests that all accredited individuals be permitted to participate, consistent with our Memorandum of Understanding with the Government of Singapore,” the bank said in a statement late on Friday.
It added that open dialogue with civil society is important for the effective operation of the institution.
On Friday, Wolfowitz said Singapore had damaged its own reputation by imposing “authoritarian” restrictions on the entry of activists for the meetings.
“This could have been an opportunity for them to showcase to the world their development process,” Wolfowitz said at a meeting with activists.
Anti-globalization activists have staged sometimes violent protests at similar meetings in the past, criticizing rich countries for being callous about the poor and the environment.
Some would-be participants have already been deported or refused entry.
ActionAid said that Maria Clara Soares, its head of policy for the Americas Region and a former economic advisor to the Brazilian Ministry of Finance, was held for 30 hours and subsequently deported on Friday.
Three other senior ActionAid activists, all officially accredited by the World Bank and IMF, were detained at the airport for several hours, and repeatedly interrogated and fingerprinted before being released, the group said.
Singapore police say the tight controls are necessary because the tiny island state with the most advanced economy in Southeast Asia was a terrorist target.
More than 160 civil society organizations, who have been meeting on the Indonesian island of Batam on Friday — a 40-minute boat ride from Singapore — declared a boycott of the meetings, in response to Singapore’s restrictions.
($1=1.577 Singapore Dollar)