Asia Pacific People’s Assembly

By Rick Mercier

As the leaders of APEC nations prepared to converge on Kuala Lumpur for their annual summit last fall, representatives of non-governmental organizations met in Malaysia’s capital for the fourth annual Asia Pacific People’s Assembly.

Assembly delegates had harsh criticisms of the neoliberal development model, which they say promotes a form of globalization that favors transnational corporations and national elites.

“Far from its promise of development, globalization has wrecked societies, destroyed economies and financial systems, destroyed production systems, resources and the environment, brought small entrepreneurs and producers to ruin and has led to famine conditions in many countries in Asia and the Pacific,” said a unity statement ratified by the assembly’s 636 delegates, who represented 30 countries and more than 300 Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s).

The delegates cited “historic levels of joblessness,” referring to the 26 million workers without jobs in Asia (excluding China and South Asia). The crisis of neoliberalism has set back the standard of living in some Asian nations by 20 years, according to delegates who participated in an assembly forum on migrant labor.

The assembly condemned the U.S. government for its support of “anti-people regimes sympathetic to American neoliberal policies.”

One such regime is the Indonesian government. Participants in a human rights forum denounced Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor, where more than 200,000 people have died as a result of the Indonesian invasion and subsequent counterinsurgency operations. East Timor activists say that this holocaust could not have occurred without Western (and Japanese) complicity—most notably that of the United States, which provides the Indonesian military with the bulk of its arms and equipment. U.S. Marine and Army units—including ones based in Okinawa—also train regularly with their Indonesian counterparts.

The new U.S.-Japan defense guidelines drew criticism from the Japanese delegation to the assembly. These guidelines would expand the role of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces in the event of a “crisis” (as defined by the United States) in the area around Japan (which is also to be defined by the United States). One Japanese delegate said that the United States and Japan are seeking to increase their political and military control over the Asia-Pacific region.

Neoliberalism has always been viewed with suspicion, if not hostility, by some groups living on the margins of booming economies. Indigenous peoples from Thailand to Malaysia to Mexico, for example, resisted neoliberal policies even before the collapse of their nation’s economies.

Participants in an indigenous women’s workshop argued that neoliberal globalization “is the continuation of the colonization which we have suffered since the search for raw materials and markets for the industrialized world’s economies started.”

Filipino indigenous activist Geraldine Fiagoy said that today there is “a mad scramble by business to claim indigenous knowledge and resources.” Indigenous peoples are being pushed off their traditional homelands, and these areas are opened up “for research and extraction by big business,” Fiagoy said.

Assembly delegates condemned the violation of the human rights of Mexico’s indigenous peoples, particularly those residing in Chiapas, where the government has been waging a low-intensity war against indigenous communities not aligned with the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). The assembly observed that neoliberal policies have led to the increasing militarization of rural areas and indigenous homelands throughout the Pacific Rim.

Neoliberalism has led to an unprecedented migration of peasants from the countryside to the cities in the developing nations of the Pacific Rim. Advocates for the urban poor say that more than 200,000 families in Asia are evicted from squatter communities every year to make room for development projects. Participants in the urban poor forum visited one community in Kuala Lumpur whose houses were demolished by a developer in October and who now live in tents, without access to water or electricity.

The extreme instability that neoliberalism has introduced into the lives of so many has forced more and more people to go abroad in search of work. Driven from their home countries, migrant workers find themselves doing what activists call “3-D” jobs—work that is dirty, dangerous, and demeaning. Women and children, whom activists say suffer the most under neoliberalism, often are trafficked across borders and end up having to sell their bodies. For years, all of this has gone on while proponents of neoliberalism pointed triumphantly to the spectacular growth rates experienced by many nations in the Asia-Pacific region. Assembly delegates explored the underside of this growth. They noted that growth can be jobless growth, or an economic boom that mostly benefits the rich.

Delegates also pointed to destructive aspects of neoliberal growth. They said that economic growth is frequently accompanied by cultural and environmental devastation. Malaysia provides an example of this type of rapacious growth. Intensive logging in Sarawak has led to the destruction of most of the state’s rainforest and has imperiled the survival of numerous indigenous communities.

Delegates agreed that the type of growth pushed by APEC and other neoliberal forces suppress growth in democratic space and in civil and human rights. “APEC proposes only liberalizing economic structures, without any liberalization of ideas or expansion of democratic space,” said Ken Bhattacharjee of the Union for Civil Liberty, a Thai NGO. “As we have seen, this kind of approach only leads to a race to the bottom, in which governments compete to provide conditions in which people will work for the lowest wages, without representation of unions.

John Kellock of Amnesty International urged the creation of a more inclusive form of globalization, “a rights-based process which benefits us all, that brings us together and not further apart.”

The assembly, which has run parallel to the APEC summit since 1995, convened as people once again were taking to the streets in Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta in neighboring Indonesia to demand democratic reform.

Malaysian pro-democracy activist Tian Chua said that the concerns of assembly delegates and those of the protestors in Malaysia and Indonesia were linked. “The struggle against imperialism and the struggle for democracy are one and the same,” he said.

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