Hundreds of South Korean protesters who have been scuffling with police at a WTO meeting in Hong Kong switched to peaceful Buddhist tactics today, repeatedly kneeling and kowtowing as they marched to the convention centre where the trade talks are being held.
Wearing black headbands, the protesters – mostly farmers – strolled down the street in rows of five.
After taking three steps, they knelt down and touched their foreheads to the ground before getting up and doing it again. Many chanted: “Down, down WTO,” to a loud drum beat.
“This is to express our firm wish in the most desperate and humble way,” said protester Park Min-yung, secretary-general of the Korean Peasants League.
Some of the men stuck sanitary napkins to their knees to protect themselves from the repeated kneeling. They took several breaks from the gruelling exercise, sitting cross-legged on the street and smoking cigarettes.
The Koreans – who totalled about 300 today – oppose the World Trade Organisation’s goal of opening markets to food imports. They fear that liberalising the trade would wipe out Korean rice farmers.
The Koreans have been the most organised and rowdy of the 10,000 protesters who have converged on Hong Kong for the six-day WTO meeting that began on Tuesday.
They fought with riot police on Tuesday and today outside the meeting venue, and security forces fended them off with shields and pepper spray.
No-one has been seriously injured or arrested in the violence, and the protesters’ intentions appear to be to attract attention to their cause – not to cause injury or damage.
But Hong Kong officials have said they expected the fighting to escalate later in the week before the WTO meeting ends on Sunday.
Addressing the crowd before today’s march, Korean activist Oh Jong-ryul, warned: “If anyone blocks our way, there will be consequences. We’ll continue to escalate our struggle.”
Earlier today, anti-WTO protesters launched a consulate-hopping street march, stopping at several foreign offices to tell officials that free trade is hurting workers in developing countries.
The peaceful demonstration included mostly garment workers and maids from the Philippines, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand. They beat drums and chanted: “Long live international solidarity.”
The protest route included the consulates of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and the US.
Norman Uy Carnay, a Filipino labour activist, said that the WTO’s free-trade policies allow the dumping of agricultural products in developing nations’ markets.
This bankrupts farmers and forces them to move to cities, where there’s not enough work, he said. Eventually they have to leave their families and find work overseas, he said.
“Our governments’ involvement in the WTO has brought a lot of displacement to our people, and it’s forcing us to migrate abroad,” said Carnay, a programme co-ordinator for the Mission for the Filipino Migrant Workers Society.
WTO chief Pascal Lamy has acknowledged that free trade hurts some, but he has argued that the majority benefit. He has also said that no poor nation has become wealthy without trading.
In another protest, about 60 fishermen from the Philippines, Cambodia and Indonesia marched through Hong Kong’s streets.
Some opposed the reduction of subsidies. One of the Indonesian protesters had “Stop WTO” painted on his chest in big, white letters and he jumped into Victoria Harbour, near the WTO venue.
Protesters also disturbed a news conference by EU trade chief Peter Mandelson inside the conference centre, singing to the Jingle Bells tune: "Mandelson, Mandelson, this gift we give to you, trade for aid is the game you play, it’s empty through and through.
Mandelson commented: “Christmas is obviously coming early in Hong Kong.”