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Asian Development Bank meeting spurs paranoia against protesters

24 April 2000

By Simrin Singh

CHIANG MAI, Thailand, Apr 24 (IPS) - Security forces have been rounding up activists for questioning, displaying what critics call ''extreme paranoia'' ahead of the annual meeting of the Asian Development Bank (AsDB) next month.

Ever since mass protests paralysed the World Trade Organisation meeting in Seattle in November, governments hosting similar international conferences have become very cautious.

In Thailand's northern province of Chiang Mai, host of this year's AsDB meeting on May 6-9, security officials have created an atmosphere of extreme fear and intimidation among the city's numerous non- government organisations (NGOs) and activist groups.

Intelligence agents prowl the streets, hauling up for questioning people they suspect might create trouble. They have also resorted to tappping telephones, forcing some organisations to suspend work, activists say.

Many have left the city till things cool down after meeting of the Manila-based bank.

At the receiving end of all this "attention" are Burmese dissidents, students, and refugees and organisations working on Burma-related issues and other campaigns deemed sensitive to the AsDB, such as anti-dam groups.

"The government is certainly anxious," says a human rights activist based in Chiang Mai, "especially of Burmese groups such as those opposed to the construction of dams on the Salween river in Burma, as they fear they will stage demonstrations."

But he says such fears are totally unfounded as most of the Burmese and environmental groups in Chiang Mai work on an informal basis and would therefore want to keep a low profile. But even if they did protest, it would be well within their rights to do so in a democratic Thailand, he pointed out.

The controversial proposal by the Thai government to build a series of dams on the Salween river, which flows along the Thai-Burma border, has been backed by the AsDB which has provided funding for feasibility studies.

Anti-dam activists argue that the dams on the Salween will destroy precious rainforest areas besides displacing large numbers of the Shan ethnic minority in Burma, many of whom are waging a war for independence from Rangoon.

The AsDB has always been controversial among environmental activists in the region for its active support to mega-energy projects, which they say are ecologically harmful. Over 25 percent of the Bank's lending is known to be directed toward the energy sector.

Burmese groups based in Chiang Mai, however, are still unclear as to whether the targetting of their members in the last few months is only to make sure they are silenced before the AsDB meeting. They fear this might represents a major shift in government policy.

Last month, the Thai immigration authorities arrested Moe Thee Zun, former chairman of the All Burmese Students Democratic Front (ABSDF), on charges of using a false passport while en route to the United States for a conference.

Prior to that, Max Ediger, a well-known champion of the democratic struggle in Burma based in Bangkok was also arrested, along with a number of Burmese students working in his NGO, called Burma Issues.

"Arresting someone as well respected and well known as Max Ediger who has been working in Thailand for years now is a strong warning to all Burma related groups," says an NGO activist working among Burmese refugees. "This could happen to any of us."

Much of the Thai government's paranoia vis-a-vis Burmese dissident groups based in northern Thailand goes back to the hostage crisis last January when a group of armed ethnic Karen rebels took over a hospital in Ratchaburi, 100 km from Bangkok.

The crisis ended with rebels being shot dead by Thai security forces, but the hostages, including several hundred patients, some of them seriously ill, were not harmed.

Since then, Thai security officials have cracked down on rebel activities along the country's porous border with Burma. Thai authorities have also shown a growing lack of tolerance towards refugees from ethnic minority groups such as the Karen, Karenni and Shan still fighting the Burmese junta.

Though Burmese dissidents and foreign activists may keep away from Chiang Mai, numerous Thai NGOs definitely plan to congregate here to hold a People's Forum from May 3-5, ahead of the bank's annual meeting.

They accuse the AsDB of destroying the area's ecological systems through its projects, especially dam building, in addition to eroding hard won labour rights, and supporting multinationals at the expense of small and medium-sized enterprises.

"The ADB is the enemy whom Thailand must vigorously oppose," said Somkiat Pongpaiboon of the Rajabhat Institute of Nakhon Ratchasima, in north-east Thailand. "The ADB's approach in pushing reform is to privatise or sell off the country's state enterprises and public-health and educational systems," he added.

A major issue likely to be raised by Thai NGOs during the upcoming AsDB annual meet is a plan by the Thai government to charge farmers for water supplied to them. Activists opposed to this plan blame the Bank for imposing the water pricing policy on Thailand in return for a 600 million U.S. dollar loan for the country's agricultural sector.

Though since last year the Asian Development Bank has claimed to have reoriented its policies to focus largely on poverty reduction schemes and now has a new anti-poverty strategy, its critics say that the organisation is still continuing with projects that are socially and ecologically harmful.

In 1999, the Asian Development Bank approved 66 loans totaling nearly 5 billion dollars for 52 projects, of which about 40 percent was focused on poverty reduction.

Since Asian Development Bank started operations in 1966, its cumulative lending as of the end of 1999 has amounted to 82 billion dollars in public and private sector loans involving 1,550 projects in 38 developing member countries.


Forwarded by Bruce Dyer. Reproduced with the permission of IPS. All rights reserved.

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