NOVEMBER 1996 · VOLUME 17 · NUMBER 11
E D I T O R I A L
So decreed the government of the Philippines in October in refusing entry to at least 100 peace and human rights activists.
The government concluded that the activists, expected to seek entry to attend a non-governmental organization (NGO) meeting to be held parallel to a Manila summit of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), were "potential troublemakers." APEC is an economic grouping of 18 countries, including the United States, Japan, China, the Philippines and Indonesia. Heads of state will be attending the APEC summit in late November.
Philippine President Fidel V. Ramos acknowledged in a teleconference at the U.S. National Press Club that the banned activists did not pose any genuine security threat to the Philippines or the APEC gathering.
Ramos and the Philippine government deem the activists "potential troublemakers" not because of the threat they pose to physical security, but because of the threat they pose with their ideas -- including especially the idea that the people of East Timor should be free from repression by the Indonesian military and afforded the right to self determination.
Indonesia invaded the small nation of East Timor in 1975. In the two subsequent decades, one-third of all East Timorese -- more than 200,000 people -- are estimated to have lost their lives in massacres carried out by the Indonesian military and due to forced starvation.
Jose Ramos-Horta, special representative of the National Council of Maubere Resistance, the underground umbrella organization representing East Timorese groups opposing Indonesian occupation, received this year's Nobel Peace Prize (along with Timorese Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo) for his work on behalf of East Timor. Ramos-Horta has called for a 10-year phase out of the Indonesian occupation, to be followed by a UN-sponsored referendum on self-determination for East Timor. The other activists on the APEC blacklist have also been prominent opponents of Indonesia's brutal and illegal occupation of East Timor.
The Philippines' proximate motivation for imposing the ban was clearly a desire to please Indonesia. Indonesia recently helped broker a peace settlement on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao between the Philippine government and Muslim rebels.
Broader concerns also underlay the Philippine decision, however. The APEC meeting is supposed to focus on trade and economics, says Jose Ebro, a spokesperson with the Philippine Embassy in Washington, D.C. Discussions of political and security issues, even if planned to take place at a citizen forum like the Manila People's Forum on APEC, should be held at a different time, he says. Holding them simultaneously might introduce a "disruptive influence," Ebro claims.
Ebro's vague expressed concern about "disruptive influences" is subject to two interpretations. One is an actual terrorist threat, but since President Ramos himself has clarified that there is no security problem posed by the banned activists, that is hard to take seriously.
The second sense in which Ebro uses the term "disruptive influence" is to suggest that the citizen meeting might divert the official APEC discussions, and the media gathered to cover the summit, from a narrow focus on trade and economic issues divorced from other considerations. One particular fear he expresses is that private sector meetings scheduled during the summit might be "disrupted" by citizen discussions and street protests -- and that these disruptions might interfere with the Philippines' effort to showcase itself to foreign investors during the APEC meeting.
The mass banning is not just some quirky move by an insecure government. The Philippines is the current chair of APEC, and its actions reflect on the entire APEC grouping.
The APEC agenda is still inchoate and contested, but is vectored toward free trade and dismantling of strong governments [see "The Geopolitics of APEC"]. If the APEC is to be anything more than a secretive cabal of bureaucrats gathering to redesign national laws and fashion a free trade area as demanded by big business, it must be open to participation from the public. At minimum, that must mean allowing critics of APEC or APEC government policies to speak freely on issues of concern -- and without regard to an artificial, neat and tidy distinction between economics and trade on the one hand, and politics, human rights and social concerns on the other.
This must be a foundational principle of APEC, respected even by those hoping to turn APEC into the world's largest free trade area. If the Philippines refuses to reconsider and revise its decision to impose the APEC blacklist, the leaders of the other APEC countries -- with U.S. President Bill Clinton leading the way -- should refuse to attend the Manila summit. n