Singapore police block opposition march, upset NGOs


  • World
  • Saturday, 16 Sep 2006

By Fayen Wong

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Singapore's police surrounded an opposition politician for more than six hours to stop him from leading a protest march past the venue for the annual IMF-World Bank meetings on Saturday. 

About 30 police surrounded Chee Soon Juan, secretary-general of the tiny Singapore Democratic Party, and six other activists, after Chee tried to lead the march from a downtown park to the Suntec convention centre where the meetings are being held. 

Chee Soon Juan (L), secretary-general of the tiny opposition Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) speaks to a police officer in Singapore September 16, 2006. Chee led a rally in a city park in defiance of a government ban on Saturday to protest against curbs on free speech and highlight the country's widening income gap. (REUTERS/Vivek Prakash)

Chee had wanted to highlight Singapore's curbs on free speech and widening income gap. Police blocked off the park where about 200 supporters and journalists gathered. 

"They know the world is watching. This is one side of Singapore that they don't want people to know about. They don't want people to know we have no rights in Singapore," said Chee, who urged supporters to reconvene on Sunday outside Parliament. 

A police spokeswoman said: "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." 

The rare display of civil disobedience highlighted the restrictions on freedom of speech in the city-state. 

Singapore, which had hoped to flaunt its economic success and tourism by hosting the meetings, instead attracted strong criticism from the World Bank, IMF and non-governmental organisations when it blacklisted accredited activists. 

With thousands of delegates in town, including central bankers, finance ministers, financiers and journalists from around the world, Singapore's curbs on its critics have come under intense international scrutiny. 

CRITICISM 

"While such actions may have prevented a spectacle outside Suntec, they highlight rather than conceal the deep contempt the Singapore government has for voices of protest," said Garry Rodan at Australia's Murdoch University. 

The People's Action Party has ruled Singapore uninterrupted since independence in 1965 thanks to the combination of sound economic policies and restrictions on opposition. 

Despite talk of liberalisation, it remains very sensitive to any criticism, whether from opposition politicians or the media. 

Under Singapore law, public gatherings of more than four people require a police permit. 

The moves to stop the march came a day after Singapore said it would allow entry for 22 out of 27 blacklisted activists, following criticism from World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz. 

The others would be "subject to interview and may not be allowed in", the meetings' Singapore organising committee said. 

On Friday, Wolfowitz said Singapore had damaged its own reputation by imposing such "authoritarian" restrictions. 

Lidy Nacpil, international coordinator of Jubilee South, an NGO network, said several groups were considering taking legal action against Singapore, accusing it of violating human rights after police held members incommunicado before deporting them. 

ActionAid said Maria Clara Soares, its head of policy for the Americas region and a former economic adviser to the Brazilian Ministry of Finance, was held for 30 hours and deported on Friday. 

Three other ActionAid activists, all accredited by the World Bank and IMF, were held before being released, the group said. 

Anti-globalisation activists have staged sometimes violent protests at similar meetings in the past. Singapore police say the controls are necessary due to the threat of terrorism. 

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