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Cancun Files: Remembering Lee Kyung Hae

The death of the Korean farmer and activist cast a long shadow over the WTO summit, with activists publicly mourning his death through protest.
Tom Hayden reports from the WTO ministerial conference in Cancun each day. Read yesterday's report.

CANCUN, Sept. 11 -- One hundred anti-WTO protesters marched through the Cancun convention center today carrying candles and flowers to mourn the death of Korean farmer Lee Kyung Hae. The marchers carried placards repeating Lee's message "WTO Kills Farmers". The WTO allowed the vigil by farmer, labor and environmental groups whose public protests were previously turned away from the hotel area. The goal was to interrupt business-as-usual at the WTO meeting and "bring the concerns of campesinos inside the negotiations," said Walden Bello, director of Focus on the Global South.

Over 100 members of South Korea's "people's delegation" to the anti-WTO protests built a tent city at the police barricade where he sacrificed his life Wednesday, and they vowed to take further actions through the weekend.

Details are still emerging about the death of Lee, 56, a former president of a South Korean farmers federation. Many protestors and observers, including this reporter, remain shaken by Lee's act of ritual suicide. Perhaps a microcosm of poverty-related deaths in the world, we could have seen it but did not.

Before our eyes, Korean activists pushed a wagon covered by an enormous yellow dragon to the police barricade. A man, who turned out to be Lee, climbed from the wagon to the top of the security fence and shouted towards the sky. He appeared to wave his arms, then fell, as if slipping. Medics quickly intervened and Lee was taken to the hospital, apparently injured at the fence. In truth, the wagon was his coffin, and he died shortly after.

It appeared that none, or perhaps only one or two, of his Korean associates knew the plan in advance. It was not until several hours later that the ritual death became known. In the meantime, the battles at the fence and campesino marches were carried on.

In April, Lee had issued a strong statement denouncing drastic drops in the price of rice, which was forcing many farmers into urban slums or bankruptcy. One, he said, took his life by drinking a toxic chemical when faced with insurmountable debts. "I could do nothing but hear the howling of his wife," said Lee, "If you were me, how would you feel?" Lee took his concerns to the WTO's headquarters in Geneva in March, when the agency was first drafting its agricultural proposals.

With the U.S. and EU subsidizing agribusiness at $1 billion per day, imported rice has been wiping out formerly self-sufficient Korean farmers, according to experts at the International Forum on Globalization. Asked by AlterNet if the U.S. government would consider hearing the grievances of the South Korean small farmers, Deputy US Trade Representative Peter Allgeier said he had no such plans. The WTO continued to maintain that Lee's death was a "self-inflicted" tragedy, delinking the fatality from the larger issues Lee tried to raise at the barrricades.

Earlier in the morning, Greenpeace-Mexico and Global Exchange activists briefly and peacefully disrupted Allgeier's press briefing, and were loudly condemned by several reporters. One attendee who belligerently and repeatedly shouted "Out! Out! Out!" was not a reporter either, but a Texas lawyer representing rice importers. He later was heard telling U.S. agricultural under-secretary J.D. Penn, "I'll handle the hecklers, otherwise you'd have to do it."

The disruption resulted in the WTO press office announcing a total prohibition on attendance by NGO representatives at any official press conferences. An NGO delegation will seek to reverse the ban today.

Late last night, it was not clear what options remained before the protestors. "Inside actions," which take advantage of convention access to stage media events, are a favored tactic by many, will continue in spite of the new prohibitions, perhaps in the form of mockery. On the outside, today's actions, if any, could depend largely on plans improvised by the Koreans in their tent city.

The temporary confusion about the protest's direction reflects the larger chaos in the WTO ministerial, where sharp lines remain drawn between the rich nations and the poor, organized in a Group of 21, which includes Brazil, India, China, Venezuela, southern African and Caribbean states. Rumors fly here about high-stakes phone calls from the White House to nations holding out against the U.S. and EU countries. At stake, in addition to agricultural subsidies and markets, are the so-called "new issues" which would allow multinational corporations great market access to poorer countries by cutting government regulations or protection for local industry.

In the painfully obscure language of the WTO, the question is whether negotiations on these "new issues" will be launched here with binding negotiations through January 2005, or whether the "new issues" will continue to be clarified. There must be "explicit consensus" achieved in the next four days if the expansion of the WTO is to proceed. So far, the Group of 21 and scores of other countries are balking, or holding out to see what the Americans and Europeans offer. Thus the pressures will mount to feverish levels by the weekend, much as inscrutable, exhausting budget deals are settled by harried legislators at the last moment in Sacramento.
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