Singapore police, opposition in park standoff


  • World
  • Saturday, 16 Sep 2006

By Fayen Wong

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Singapore police and opposition activists were locked in a stand-off in a downtown park as authorities blocked a planned protest march past the venue for the annual IMF-World Bank meetings on Saturday. 

About 30 police formed a human barricade for more than nine hours around Chee Soon Juan, secretary-general of the tiny Singapore Democratic Party, and six other activists after Chee tried to lead a march from Singapore's Speakers' Corner 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)

The standoff comes at an awkward time for the Singapore government, with dozens of central bankers and finance ministers in town for the International Monetary Fund and World Bank event. 

"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. 

He said he was waiting for the police to disperse, adding that if they did not, he would stay in the park all night. 

The rare display of civil disobedience highlighted the restrictions on freedom of speech in the city-state and came after an unprecedented row between the IMF-World Bank and their host, Singapore, over the city-state's refusal to let blacklisted activists into the country. 

"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. 

Chee said he had wanted to highlight the Singapore government's curbs on free speech and a widening income gap. 

Police blocked off the park where about 200 supporters and journalists gathered. Under Singapore law, public gatherings of more than four people require a police permit. 

BLACKLIST 

"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. 

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 Singapore authorities 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 and a former economic adviser to the Brazilian Ministry of Finance, was held for 30 hours and deported on Friday. 

Three other ActionAid activists 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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