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In October, George W Bush began a round of state visits to Asian and European countries. Peter Burt reports on the impact of the US president's visit to Thailand during the APEC talks.

State of terror

The problem is, the Thai government always obeys the US administration. They should realisethat a free trade agreement with the US would hurt Thai farmers. And Thailand might become a terrorist target if we support the US war on terrorism.
Suriyasai Katasila, secretary general of Thailand's Campaign for Popular Democracy

Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation is not an organisation we hear a great deal about in Europe, but it is a trade block which dwarfs the European Union. APEC accounts for 47% of world trade and a Gross Domestic Product totalling more than US$ 18 trillion - 60% of global production. 2.5 billion people live in the APEC region and the alliance includes the biggest players in the global economy. Last month Thailand hosted APEC's annual summit, which was attended by the leaders of 21 countries, including Russia, China, Japan, Canada, Australia - and the USA.

George W Bush flew into Bangkok to attend the APEC summit as part of a tour of Asia with a predictable agenda: drumming up support for his “War on Terrorism” and pushing the USA's trade interests within the region. Concerns about terrorism dominated not only the conference agenda, but also dominated preparations for the conference. The Americans, apparently, were worried that someone might try to kill Bush, and so a massive security operation swung into place.

Insecurity

For weeks before Bush's visit, the press in Thailand had been reporting a string of spine-chilling stories relating to terrorist threats. Riduan Isamuddin, usually known by his nickname as Hambali - the leader of the Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist group accused of masterminding the Bali nightclub bombing - was recently arrested in Thailand and, according to the newspapers, had told his US interrogators about plans to attack a long and alarming list of terrorist targets in Thailand, including - surprise surprise - the APEC summit.

The police announced that armed separatist groups in Thailand's southern border provinces were stepping up attacks to coincide with the summit, and ministers and state officials gave sinister warnings that criminals, drug dealers, and refugees would use the occasion of the summit to cause trouble. Mercifully, no-one had the nerve to claim that the conference was just 45 minutes away from an attack. However, to add to the state of paranoia, oil trucks were barred from the central Bangkok area, power stations, oil depots and oil and gas production facilities were placed on maximum security alert, and a “no fly zone” was established over central Bangkok, with F-16 fighters scrambling to see off any airliners which inadvertently strayed into the area.

Bush brought 3000 US security staff along to the summit with him, but this was just the tip of the iceberg. 1300 Thai air force officers were deployed at Bangkok's Don Muang airport to ensure the safety of delegates flying in to the capital. Sixty commandos were on duty on Thai Airways flights into Bangkok to guard against hijacking. 12,000 police from Bangkok and the surrounding provinces provided security for delegates during the conference, patrolling the city's hotels with M-16 assault rifles.

Heavy pressure

Bush's unique popular appeal led a number of campaign groups and activists to organise protests focused around the summit. The government responded by trying hard to stop people from joining the demonstrations, and Thaksin Shinawatra (Prime Minister of Thailand and Bush clone) did his best to ban the protests and gag the press.

Hundreds of farmers from the north-east of the country were unable to join a rally in Bangkok when local bus operators were warned by provincial governors not to provide transport for the demonstrators. Despite heavy pressure from the government to cancel the protest, over a thousand demonstrators marched through the streets of the capital and a mock arrest warrant was issued for Bush for the crime of destroying world peace. In Chaing Mai, in Northern Thailand, an image of Bush was sealed in a pot and thrown into the River Ping in order to drive away his evil spirit. If only...

Protests don't fit in with the image of a beautiful Bangkok, which Thaksin wants to project to the world, and for several weeks before the summit the city was treated to an unprecedented amount of painting, cleaning, and tree planting in an attempt to give it a facelift. “The government attaches too much importance to form - being a good host and providing hospitality to delegates - at the expense of vulnerable groups including the homeless, beggars, and garland sellers,” observed Dr Niran Pitakwatchara, a member of Thailand's Senate. Beggars were ordered off the streets, street vendors were forbidden from working near APEC venues, and pubs and bars closed down during the conference as part of the clean-up campaign.

It wasn't all bad news. The entire conference period from 17 to 22 October was declared a holiday for all public employees in Bangkok and the surrounding provinces to help avoid traffic congestion in the city. The entire Bangkok-based civil service closed down. Every cloud has a silver lining.

The hijacking of the summit by the Bush terrorism agenda annoyed some participants, particularly Malaysia's trade minister Rafidah Aziz, who pointedly commented that the agenda focused too much on the “domestic concerns” of “certain nations”. North Korea was one of these concerns. The North Koreans were not invited to the party, but they used the occasion to let off one of their missiles, just to remind everyone they were still there. Bush refused to agree to a non-aggression pact with North Korea at the summit, but along with South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia, the US has at least agreed to reopen talks with Pyongyang.

Co-operating or co-opting?

During his stay in Bangkok, Bush was the first ever US president to honour the Thai army with a visit. He met armed forces leaders before giving a fifteen-minute speech to 800 lucky Thai soldiers on lawn of the army headquarters. The Bangkok Post reported - I kid you not - that “American security inspectors had specified that Mr Bush address the soldiers from the right wing of the lawn with his back to the nearby United Nations building, for security reasons”.

At the army headquarters Bush thanked Thailand for its support in sending troops to Afghanistan and Iraq and for co-operating with US security forces to arrest Hambali. Thailand has sent 447 troops to support US forces in Iraq, at a cost of 800 million baht (13 million pounds). It's a token force, but nevertheless a useful fig leaf for Bush, who uses the assistance of countries like Thailand to claim that the global community supports the invasion, despite his defiance of the United Nations. Bush met Thai soldiers who have recently returned from Afghanistan and also specifically asked to meet retired veterans from the Vietnam war (through his father's influence, Bush managed to avoid being drafted to fight in the war himself).

Military status

Bush did not come to the summit empty handed. He brought with him an armoury - literally - of thank you presents for his Thai hosts. Washington used the summit to approve delivery of medium range air to air missiles to the Thai air force, and during his speech at the army headquarters Bush announced that the US was granting Thailand the coveted military status of Major Non-NATO ally. This entitles Thailand to receive hi-tech US-made weapons, co-operate with Washington on military affairs and training, and receive loans towards weapons purchases.

Since Thailand is on peaceful terms with its neighbours it's not clear how these weapons will contribute to the nation's defence, but no doubt they will be useful in contributing to future US-led international coalitions. There has, of course, been no debate on the non-NATO ally status in the Thai parliament, even though opposition politicians have expressed concerns that it will allow the US to interfere further in Thailand's military affairs.

The army has been milking Bush's visit and their role in providing security at the APEC summit for all it is worth. The summit allowed them to give a high profile show of their strength and status to the nation. During the conference the country was placed virtually on a war footing, and every night TV news reports showed a formidable display of the tanks, armoured cars, and weapons used in the security operation. It was the military's big chance to say to the public: “We are still a force to be reckoned with in Thai society - and don't you forget it.” The military in Thailand have a long history of plotting coups against progressive governments - most recently in 1991, when they seized power for a short time until they were kicked out following massive public demonstrations against them. Some factions in the army have been resentful ever since.

“We believe in peace.” (?)

Bush's visit came at a sensitive time in Thailand, during the week of the 30th anniversary of the overthrow of the military dictatorship in October 1973. 14 October is traditionally a day of remembrance for those killed when the military gunned down protesters calling for democracy.

By flirting with the army in a country where democracy is still establishing roots Bush is not making a smart move - well, not if he's serious in his claims to be an envoy for freedom and democracy. “We believe in freedom for all people,” Bush told journalists in a preconference interview. “We believe in peace.”

Events like the APEC conference bring into stark contrast the priorities of the state under hard line right wingers like Bush and Thaksin. The security of leaders is to be maintained at all costs. The economic agenda is set for the benefit of big business. Dissent is not tolerated. The military and security forces of independent nations become an extension of the US military. Bush promotes factions which he feels are able to provide state security regardless of their democratic credentials.

When campaigners critical of the conference ask what benefits it has brought to ordinary Thais, there is a deafening silence.

For further reports on grassroots activism during Bush's state visits, see http://manila.indymedia.org/index.php?action=default&featureview=13

Topics: Empire | Global South