Cynics try to dismiss the movement against corporate globalisation as an indulgence, a game enjoyed by activists in Europe and Latin America. The fourth World Social Forum (WSF), held for the first time in the Indian city of Mumbai (Bombay) in January, proved them wrong. Asia embraced the movement and the movement embraced Asia.
The WSF is further evidence that the phenomenon which exploded onto the streets of Seattle at the World Economic Forum in 1999—where tens of thousands demanded the end of Third World debt and the abolition of sweatshops—is continuing to develop and grow. In 2003, 80,000 attended the WSF in Porto Alegre, Brazil. This year, 120,000 descended on Goregaon, in the poor northern suburbs of Mumbai.
The site was a huge, empty industrial complex—machines removed and jobs lost because of corporate globalisation. For ten hours each day for four days, roads through the site were choked with a river of protesters. Union members, Dalits (untouchables), Bhutanese refugees, South Korean revolutionary socialists, HIV/AIDS activists, anti-privatisation groups, women’s organisations, Indian farmers campaigning against debt and many more paraded, danced and sang their way through the dust.
Filled with the spirit of tens of thousands of South Asian activists, the WSF became a festival of the oppressed.
Choo Chon Kai from Malaysia was impressed by the marches and the chanting on the street. ‘We hardly ever see that in Malaysia’, he said. Jagan Devara from Bangalore in India said the WSF was a ‘great formation of what we have all been doing. It is great to see so many people working in the same direction’. Many Indian activists said that this had been the first time they had gained a sense of the size and diversity of the movement in their own country—an enormous boost to their confidence.
Each day there were more than 220 seminars and workshops, the largest drawing up to 5000 people. The seminar on water and food security, for example, attracted 4000 to hear speakers from India, Latin America, and south-east Asia describe a global water crisis. Corporations like Coca Cola were stealing communities’ water by drilling the bedrock and mining it, while every eight seconds a child died from drinking dirty water. The World Trade Organisation had recently targeted water as a commodity to be bought and sold on the market.
Only the rich would be able to drink clean water. Speakers demanded that access to water be recognised as a basic human right.
There were many other forums dealing with important social problems, but in the wake of the US–led invasion of Iraq, war dominated the debate. The tone was set by Indian author Arundhati Roy at the opening ceremony when she declared, ‘We must not only support the resistance in Iraq. We must be the resistance in Iraq ... we must focus our collective wisdom on one project—the new American century.’ The movement had to fight imperialism, she said, whether it came in the form of cruise missiles or World Bank chequebooks. To cheers, she concluded: ‘We must consider ourselves at war.’
At one seminar, a Kia car worker from South Korea explained how he had built anti-war action at work. He and a handful of others had campaigned around the factory with a petition. Not only did nearly everyone sign, but 300 workers bought t-shirts proclaiming their opposition to the war and others gave money for an anti–war advert to be published in a local paper.
Ruth Russell from Australia, who was a human shield in Iraq last year, told delegates: ‘Syria, Iran—wherever they attack next—come with me, as I’ll be there if the Australian government
Indian Marxist Achin Vanaik reminded people that over the long run, no anti-colonial war had ever been lost. British Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn declared, ‘You can build weapons that kill or you can build a better world—but you can’t do both.’
Alongside solidarity with the Iraqi people, many raised the call for solidarity with Palestine. Israeli activist Michael Warshawsky said, ‘Palestine is today the symbol in the anti–war and anti–globalisation movement because it is a symbol of resistance as well as of oppression. People are raising the Palestinian flag as the older generation raised the Vietnamese flag.’
The call to global resistance was reinforced by speakers from poor countries who argued that no government could be trusted. Ji Ungpakorn, from the Thai group Workers’ Democracy, said that Vietnam had criticised the war, but continued to impose harsh neo-liberal policies on its people. China had banned anti-war rallies.
An activist from the new union movement in the Indian state of West Bengal attacked the Communist Party (Marxist) state government which mouthed anti-imperialist slogans but which had pushed massive user-pays programs and used the police to attack striking workers. ‘We call the chief minister the Blair of Bengal.’
Throughout the Forum, momentum gathered for a global day of action. An open meeting of hundreds of activists agreed on a date, 20 March, and about 45 radical left parties—with representatives from every continent—issued a statement calling for the biggest possible turnout. As the WSF’s own daily paper put it: ‘After three days of high octane political debate and demonstrations, it appears that the WSF has evolved into a dress rehearsal of the anti-Bush and anti-war energy that is set to burst on the streets of the world’s towns.’ At a final rally of 30,000 people in central Mumbai, Chris Nineham, from the British anti-capitalist group Globalise Resistance, reinforced the point with a call to action on 20 March.
Last year, the WSF was the catalyst for the global anti-war protests that brought more than ten million on to the streets. This year, tens of thousands of activists headed home from Mumbai determined to show that the world still says no to war.
David Glanz is a Melbourne writer.