How Authorities Stifled Protest and Peaceful Assembly during the World Bank/IMF Annual Meetings in Bali, Indonesia
By Thien Hoang
On October 11th, after a busy morning of panels and discussions, civil society representatives attending the World Bank/IMF Annual Meetings in Bali, Indonesia congregated for a short break in the lobby of the Bali International Convention Centre. The representatives were participating in sessions organized as part of the Civil Society Policy Forum, one of the main events at the World Bank/IMF Group Meetings.
Most people were busy engaged in conversations, and nobody paid any attention when a man in a police uniform walked into the room, accompanied by three men dressed in identical batik shirts. The group of men surveyed the room, took pictures with their phones and walked out. Everything happened in less than a minute and I quickly looked around to see if anyone else had noticed them entering and leaving the room. I had seen the men in batik shirts before, they had been attending different events at the civil society forum as a group. Seeing them now, I began to consider the possibility that they might be plainclothes police officers.
This realization alarmed me. The environment at the meetings felt increasingly restricted and tense. Local authorities had repeatedly attempted to prevent peaceful gatherings from taking place and civil society groups were facing many challenges when attempting to organize events at the sidelines of the Annual Meetings. Described here are just some of the many ways freedom of expression and peaceful assembly were curtailed in Bali:
Indonesian police initially banned all public gatherings happening at the sidelines of the World Bank — IMF Annual Meetings: On the 5th of October, prior to the official start of the Annual Meetings, the organizations participating in the People’s Global Conference were informed that all public gatherings would be prohibited in Nusa Dua, Bali. The People’s Global Conference organized a protest of the ban and demanded a meeting with the chief of police. Not long after, the organizers were told that the ban had been revoked, but no written confirmation was provided.
Hotels and venues cancelled reservations made by civil society organizations, citing pressure from the police: On the 10th of October, reservations made months in advance by civil society groups were abruptly cancelled. Hotel staff and venue managers cited police pressure as the reason for cancelling reservations at the last minute. Civil society organizers had to switch locations until they were able to secure a venue that agreed to host the conference.
Civil society participants from ASEAN countries faced additional scrutiny when registering for the Annual Meetings: Citizens of ASEAN countries are usually allowed to travel to Indonesia without a visa, in accordance with the visa-free policies in the region. However, for the 2018 Annual Meetings, civil society participants were expected to apply for a visa on arrival, without any exceptions for visa-free travel.
Events organized by civil society were subjected to surveillance, police officers demanded to see passports and visas: On the 11th of October, a workshop organized by the NGO Forum on the Asian Development Bank was disrupted by police officers, some dressed in plain clothes, who arrived at the venue and subjected participants to hours of questioning. They presented a letter asserting their authority to check the visa status of participants. Each participant was called up and questioned individually outside the meeting venue. Civil society members were asked to show their passports, visas and share additional personal information and explain their purpose for visiting the country. The authorities took passports away for scanning and returned them only hours later. The investigation was completed only by 7 pm that evening. The People’s Global Conference issued a statement the same day, noting that
“While the local police have already issued a recommendation in favor of holding the conference, the national police is now using the local village leadership and paramilitary saying that no event can be held without its permission”.
Surveillance and questioning of civil society members continued even after the World Bank and IMF were informed: Representatives of the World Bank and IMF were informed immediately and repeatedly about the repression faced by civil society. However, their responses did not curb further intimidation by the police nor did it address the initial repressive tactics that were employed.
Despite the stifling environment and constant surveillance, civil society groups were successful in hosting most of the planned events in the following days, with the grim acceptance that the police would be watching. What I witnessed in Bali illustrates something very worrying about the present and future of human rights, especially in the ASEAN region. In the context of increased repression and retaliation against peaceful organizing, how can transparency and accountability in development be achieved if governments treat civil society groups as the enemy? What is the role of institutions like the World Bank and IMF in prioritizing human rights in their promise to deliver “development”? The right to peaceful assembly and right to freedom of expression are fundamental human rights. They are the cornerstone of any functioning democracy. The various tactics and methods to curtail these rights must be condemned and addressed, not just by civil society but by institutions like the World Bank and IMF.