How does it feel to be told to step out of the line in full view of hundreds of people, then be escorted like a criminal by at least 5 uniformed men with long arms and two-way radios (were they police or military, who knows), detained for 6 hours without being told why, interrogated twice and then just let go, also without any clear and categorical explanation. At the least, it wasn’t pleasant, let me make that plain.
Still groggy from having to write my Business World column till the wee hours of the morning of December 8 then catch an early morning flight from Manila to Hong Kong, I was totally unprepared mentally for what happened while going through immigration at the HK airport.
My guard was down for, after all, this was just Hong Kong, a shoppers’ paradise, not the paranoid United States of A, not the snobbish countries of the European Union nor the ones ruled by outright fascist regimes in Asia or Africa. In fact, Filipinos could go for a short visit without needing a visa and I had done just that earlier in the year and breezed through without incident.
The minute the immigration officer scanned my passport and instead of forthwith stamping it called another officer, said a lot of things in Chinese, started writing on a piece of paper while glancing every so often at the computer screen, without once addressing me or even looking at me, I knew something was terribly wrong. After standing and waiting for what seemed like an eternity, I finally asked what the matter was. The man gave me a deadpan expression and said he didn’t know.
Some more minutes and he handed my passport to a woman who brought the documents into a small office, came out after another interminable wait then brought in the armed escorts.
I expected their x-raying my hand-carried luggage and turning my handbag inside out but I didn’t expect to be brought to a waiting area crawling with guards that looked to me more like soldiers rather than immigration police. I was told to sit at a specific spot and no other. (Later I was to learn that I was likely being videoed the whole time.) I was prevented from speaking with or even sitting close to the two other Filipino activists who, like me, were being detained.
Frankly, it crossed my mind that maybe the men and women guarding me thought that I may be some “extremist” who could do the unthinkable like charge into them and set off bombs strapped around my torso or simply do something awful somehow. But when I asked my chief escort again why I was being detained, he mumbled something about a problem with the computers.
The first questioning by a mild-mannered, courteous immigration officer was somewhat reassuring. He asked questions I expected to be asked like why had I traveled to HK, who invited me, where was I staying, for how long, who was paying for my expenses while in HK. He later even asked personal things like how many children did I have and what were they doing; had I been to Hong Kong previously and why.
I answered straightforwardly. I did not hide the fact that I was to speak at forums and workshops sponsored by my hosts, a regional organization serving migrant workers, and that these activities were part of the parallel activities planned to coincide with the 6th Ministerial meeting of the WTO.
“Do you plan to join any of the protest rallies against the WTO?” was the next question.
And so it was that the reason I was being held finally emerged. Without the authorities admitting it, I came to the conclusion that they indeed had a blacklist of foreigners who were involved in the “People’s Action Week” (as the organizers, the Hong Kong People’s Alliance, had dubbed it) and my name had landed in it somehow!
I am pretty sure I am not on any Interpol list so I thought to myself that the Philippine government must have provided the HK authorities with some derogatory “intelligence” information about me. (The thought crossed my mind that the word “intelligence” when used by governments was really an oxymoron.)
Was this part of “sharing intelligence information” in the post-9/11 era and if so, how could someone correct patently erroneous information filed secretly against her and how does she confront her accuser? How does one go about seeking redress of grievances foremost of which is being labeled some kind of “undesirable alien,” or worse, a “terrorist”?
How did one get to deserve the label anyway? By being a prominent critic of the US backed-Arroyo government, by leading protest actions calling for her removal from office, by being the head of a progressive alliance of people’s organizations demanding nationalist and democratic changes in government and in society? Or is it by being vocally against the state terrorism practiced by the Philippine government in the name of countering “terrorism” ala the Big White Brother?
The second interrogation, this time involving two policemen, two interpreters (one from Chinese to English and a second one from English to Filipino) and a man who later introduced himself as a “liaison officer” for the HK government was much more formal. The interrogator had a prepared list of questions, printed in a form with blank spaces for the answers, all pertaining to protests set in HK against the WTO and my previous history of joining such protests in the Philippines and abroad. They even taped the Q and A, slipped the tape cassette in a plastic envelope which they sealed and asked me to sign.
After another hour or two waiting (I had lost track of time because I was already exhausted and could hardly keep awake) I was awakened by my first interrogator who said that I should get ready because they were letting me go. But after getting my stuff together and being escorted outside the immigration holding area by three gruff policewomen, I was stopped in my tracks and made to go back. It seems that the customs people wanted to recall me and so I needed to wait some more.
This time I was really pissed and decided not to hide it. So what if I was refused entry; at that point I was past caring. I told them that would they just please make up their minds and call me when they had done so because I was tired and pissed.
Another half hour and I was brought to the customs area where they took another eternity to find my luggage and inspect them. Finding some bundles of printed material underneath my clothes, the customs officer queried me about them and I simply said, “Paper.” He opened up one package but decided not to make a fuss. (Did he know that I had already been detained over 6 hours and that I was told I would be allowed to enter HK? So what was the point of rifling through my things?)
Finally I was released. It occurred to me that I had just been treated to the HK government’s hospitality as a suspect anti-globalization “terrorist”.
I had come to HK to be part of a growing global movement to denounce the WTO for being a scourge to the world’s peoples after more than ten years in existence. Thousands of local HK people, migrant workers mostly from Southeast Asia and anti-globalization and anti-war activists from across the world were converging to bear witness to the adverse, in fact, the disastrous effects of the neo-liberal policies of deregulation, liberalization and privatization on working people and the environment most especially in poor, backward countries. Meanwhile multinational corporations and imperialist countries were lording it over the WTO the same way that they, much earlier, dictated the policies and programs of the IMF-World Bank.
I had been given a taste of what it’s like to be labeled as being against “them” because I was not “for” them and therefore that they would make life hard for social activists like me from giving voice to the underprivileged, the exploited and oppressed on occasions such as the WTO 6th Ministerial.
But like the growing legions the world over who have woken up to the truth about imperialist “globalization,” about who stands to gain by the plunder of the world’s riches and resources and who have indeed waged wars to expand and consolidate those gains, the answer was as clear as day, “Junk WTO! Resist imperialist plunder and war!” There is no stopping the people’s resistance now.
15-16 December 2005