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WTO-SPECIAL: Farmers Get Violent as Trade Talks Fail

Aaron Glantz

HONG KONG , Dec 17 2005 (IPS) - It was a fight over rice. South Korean farmers battled police outside the halls where the week-long ministerial meet of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) was ending Sunday, with little progress on the issue of export subsidies that rich nations pay to keep their agriculture going and undercut farmers in developing countries.

Saturday’s pitched battles, in which police used tear gas, fire hoses, batons and pepper spray to keep at bay thousands of protesters, is expected to be repeated on Sunday- though police have rounded up hundreds of people they consider to be trouble-makers.

At a late night press conference, Hong Kong police chief Dick Lee urged media persons to stay away from the Wan Chai area and warned that his force would be ‘’taking all necessary action to restore order’’.

In the wee hours of the morning, demonstrators, most of them South Koreans, were seen being herded away into waiting police buses- ending what observers said was the most violent demonstrations in Hong Kong since the aftermath of China’s crackdown on Tienanmen Square, Beijing in 1989.

Joining the South Koreans were Chinese and South-east Asian groups, as well as activists from the United States and the European Union countries who are against WTO efforts to further liberalise global markets.

The demonstrations caused some delegates to be stranded in their hotels and forced EU trade commissioner Peter Mandelson to bring the WTO’s draft text to the seafront convention centre by boat. “This text lacks ambition,” he complained as he entered. “It lacks balance and we hope it will be improved.”

But about the only nod to developing country farmers in the draft was a call to rich countries to end export subsidies on cotton by 2006, that could help impoverished growers in West Africa.

Outside the meeting hall, protesters were jubilant. “This is having an effect inside!” cheered French sheep farmer and activist Jose Bove as a small group of demonstrators entered the meeting hall itself. ‘’They know they can’t get away with destroying people anymore.

Unlike most of the demonstrators, Bove held accreditation as a non-government organisation (NGO) representative and could attend the meetings. But that did not stop his face from being sprayed with pepper foam by police.

Bove was among activists detained at Hong Kong airport, before the WTO meeting began on Dec 13, by police fearing violent demonstrations and was released only at the intervention of the French mission here and on an undertaking to police not to cause trouble.

Demonstrators sparred with police for more than 12 hours, sometimes sitting down in peaceful protest but often charging police lines directly. Some South Korean farmers disassembled the barricades and turned them into battering rams. Others used their flagpoles as spears as they charged at riot police.

The clash occurred soon after secretary for security in Hong Kong Ambrose Lee, went on television to warn the public to stay away from the convention area.

“This afternoon, the WTO demonstrators have shown their true colours by resorting to violence, breaking our law and order and disobeying instructions from police officers,’’ said Lee “I condemn such illegal behavior and I think the Hong Kong community will join me in condemning their behavior. The police will take robust action to dispel these illegal and violent actions.’’

Less than an hour later, police fired dozens of tear gas canisters into the air and unleashed their batons but protest leaders were unapologetic.

At a late night sit-down demonstration, after the clash, Korean Peasant’s League general secretary Park Min-ung noted that, earlier in the week, farmers had tried to use more peaceful means to enter the convention center but to no avail.

“We tried to swim to the convention center in desperate attempts to get our voices heard. But this has gotten us no response from the trade federation,” he told the crowd. “We have tried our best to maintain peaceful means. We wanted to walk peacefully to the convention center to make the WTO hear our demands. However, the police stopped us on our way and fired teargas at us.”

The South Korean farmers said subjecting agriculture to free trade has caused the price of rice and other farm products to plummet, miring them in debt. Like other activists in the streets, they reject the idea, being advanced by developing country governments inside the WTO ministerial meetings, that removing farm subsidies in U.S. and EU would create a fair basis for trade and development.

“Rice is more than a product,” Park said. “It is our culture and our life. We will fight for our right to continue as peasants.”

Last month, South Korean parliament legislated to allow more imports of rice, although the staple happens to be the industrialised country’s most important cash crop.

At Hong Kong, ministers from 149 countries were expected to produce a document outlining the shape of global trade by the end of 2006 but EU refusal to open its agricultural markets until it go substantial access to the goods and services sector has put paid to the plans.

At least 70 people were injured in the clashes, including 21 Chinese, 33 Koreans and 10 policemen.

“A policeman came up behind me and hit me on the head with his baton,’’ Hong Kong social worker Fay Fung told IPS. After being hit, he said, his head started bleeding and he fell to the ground. Like other injured demonstrators, Fung was rushed to the hospital, where he received stitches and medical advice to “rest for at least 24 hours.”

Despite the advice, a bandaged Fung was back on the streets late in the night. “There are a lot of farmers in China suffering because of the WTO,” he said. “Their suffering is a lot less than mine spending one night out in the cold.”

Authorities have reopened the subway stations and highway tunnels, they closed during the crackdown, though protesters vowed to be back on the streets on Sunday.

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