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Opinion Stuck in the meddle: The long, hypocritical history of foreign-interference fear-mongering

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, seen on July 10, 2019, has tapped into a global trend of scare tactics concerning NGOs and foreign funding.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

Arno Kopecky is the author of The Devil’s Curve: A Journey into Power and Profit at the Amazon’s Edge and The Oil Man and the Sea: Navigating the Northern Gateway.

Until he e-mailed me a couple of weeks ago, asking if I knew of any NGOs that could help him out, I hadn’t heard from Joel Shimpukat in almost a decade.

A lot had changed since the last time I saw him, deep in Peru’s northern Amazon, where he was hiding from a federal arrest warrant. He’d helped organize a protest against a Vancouver-based mining company that was looking for gold in the sacred headwaters upstream from his Awajun nation; that protest, in turn, was part of an Amazon-wide Indigenous uprising against the free-trade agreements that Peru’s then-president had just negotiated with Canada and the United States – negotiations to which no Indigenous representatives were invited.

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The Awajun mobilization was one of the largest and most sustained in Peru’s history. For two months, around 3,000 men and women blockaded a critical highway linking the rain forest to the outside world. On June 5, 2009, Peru’s president, Alan Garcia, lost patience and sent the army to clear them out. But the predawn raid went horribly wrong. The soldiers panicked and opened fire, killing three protesters and shooting almost 100 more, most of them in the back as they tried to run away. Others fought and killed 25 soldiers, which led Mr. Garcia to call the botched operation a “genocide against the police.” Mr. Shimpukat wasn’t accused of killing anyone, but his role in organizing the blockade was enough to get him charged with sedition. And so he fled back to his home in the jungle, where he knew the army wouldn’t follow.

Protesting the country's participation in free-trade agreements to which they had not been privy, Indigenous Peruvians blocked a highway leading into the Amazon region in the summer of 2009, prompting then president Alan Garcia to suggest the involvement of 'International Communists.'

ENRIQUE CASTRO-MENDIVIL/Reuters

The debacle scandalized the country, but Mr. Garcia refused to back down. “We watched this disaster come on little by little,” he said in a public address. “It was brought on by the desperate appetites of those hungry for power, inspired by foreign interests that want to slow the velocity of our development.” Peruvians, he declared, ought to ask themselves: “Who does it suit for Peru not to use its gas, not to find more oil, to be unable to better exploit its minerals?” In a thinly veiled jab at Peru’s regional rivals, Bolivia and Venezuela, he concluded: “International communists.”

In saying so, Mr. Garcia joined a rich international tradition of leaders beseeching their people to beware of foreign money and ideas.

“We must act as Zimbabweans, think as Zimbabweans, be masters of our own destiny,” Robert Mugabe said back in 2008, after he’d expropriated the country’s white-owned farms to give to his generals. The policy bankrupted his country, led to the world’s highest level of hyperinflation since Germany’s Weimar Republic and caused the exodus of three million Zimbabweans. When NGOs and church groups did what they could to stanch the humanitarian disaster, Mr. Mugabe shut them down, too. “What are we expected to do,” he said when they complained, “and how are we expected to judge you when you act behind our backs and go and report outside?” The international community was indeed pressing him for reforms, but Mr. Mugabe – a master of invoking the country’s colonial history – wouldn’t have it. “We know their tactics,” he said of meddlers such as Britain’s leaders. “They will find people in our midst, those who can be easily bought, those who offer themselves for sale.”

While he was still leader of Zimbabwe, president Robert Mugabe evoked the country's colonial history in 2008 to justify the decision to cast out NGOs and church groups working to mitigate the effects of the country's economic downturn.

TSVANGIRAYI MUKWAZHI

In Myanmar, back when Aung San Suu Kyi was still under house arrest in her dilapidated lakefront mansion, an American tourist swam uninvited to her house. She let him in so as to kick him out the front door, which doubled her trouble. “It is no doubt that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has committed a cover-up of the truth by her failure to report an illegal immigrant to the authorities,” the country’s deputy defence minister said. “Thus there was no option but to open legal proceedings in accordance with the law.” Miraculously, she beat the charges and was soon running for Myanmar’s equivalent of prime minister. Believe it or not, her greatest liability in the campaign was the suspicion she was too fond of Myanmar’s Muslim minority, who are perceived as outsiders. The military’s commander-in-chief, running against her, played this up, along with the fact that she’d married a British academic and hired several foreign advisers. “The leader of the country,” he warned voters, “should be one who … is able to righteously and systematically take care of your own race and religion; and is not associated with, or under the influence of, foreigners, foreign countries or foreign agencies.”

More recently, Chinese leaders and the newspapers they control have responded to the historic protests in Hong Kong by asking who’s really behind them. “It’s a pity that some Hong Kong people and organizations have been used as pawns,” one of the city’s officials said. “It is very noteworthy that some international forces have significantly strengthened their interaction with the Hong Kong opposition in recent months,” agreed another editorial.

It isn’t just autocrats who speak this way. None other than George Washington himself once said: “Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence … the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government.” Washington did speak from experience, having relied on French military assistance to win the revolution. And who can deny the success, or at least the influence, of the United States’ interventions in other countries ever since? Against that kind of record, the hijinks described in the Mueller Report come off as bush-league, at best.

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Speaking of which, let’s not forget the law that Russian President Vladimir Putin passed in 2012 forcing any NGO with a penny of foreign funding to label itself a “foreign agent,” which is just as synonymous with “traitorous spy” in Russian as it is in English. “Any form of pressure on Russia, our allies and partners, is unacceptable,” Mr. Putin said. Speaking a bit more directly, the deputy head of Russia’s Security Council lambasted “the destructive activities of various non-governmental organizations, especially the foreign ones, that never stop their attempts to destabilize the situation in our country.”

Protesters holding a Hong Kong colonial flag stand off with police officers in the city on July 7, 2019. In response to recent demonstrations, the Chinese government and the newspapers it controls have questioned the origins of the protests, suggesting the presence of outside influence.

Andy Wong/The Associated Press

The same year that Mr. Putin signed his law on foreign agents, Canada’s own natural resources minister, Joe Oliver, wrote his famous open letter warning of “environmental and other radical groups” who “use funding from foreign special interest groups to undermine Canada’s national economic interest.” The radicals weren’t afraid to “take a quintessential American approach: sue everyone and anyone to delay the project even further.”

I used to think this kind of talk was a sign of nationalism. But Jason Kenney has enlightened me otherwise: it turns out it can be a sign of provincialism, too. Last week, he launched his inquiry into the "foreign-funded special interests” that he claims have perpetuated, through environmental groups, a "political propaganda campaign to defame our energy industry and to landlock our industry.”

It’s also true that we radical foreign-funded environmentalists are just as quick to denounce foreign funds and influence as Mr. Kenney. We have noticed, for example, that the oil and gas industry is 42.9-per-cent foreign-owned, according to 2016 Statistics Canada data, and that foreign investment in the sector comes to more than $100-billion. That’s a touch more than climate activists are pulling in. Against those odds, it’s no wonder the movement’s success in blocking pipelines is driving Mr. Kenney to distraction.

Political opponents of Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, centre, seen in 2012, held up her marriage, alleged sympathies for the country's Muslim minority population and use of foreign advisers as evidence of her unfitness for office.

Khin Maung Win

Distraction, after all, is the name of the game. For some rulers, it’s corruption that they want to prevent the public from noticing. For others, it’s human-rights abuses. For the “Un-Albertan Activities Committee," as energy journalist Markham Hislop called it, it’s the fact that an economic boom is winding sharply down, while a much darker age of ecological collapse has just begun – and no one has a plan for this new reality. Rather than come up with one, Mr. Kenney has discovered “a premeditated, internationally planned and financed operation to put Alberta out of business.”

Albertans should at least be aware of the global trend they’re joining. A recent Amnesty International report found that crackdowns on civil-society groups are rising all over the world. More than 50 countries have put such laws in place in recent years. They aren’t backwaters, either. In India, the world’s largest democracy and among the most exposed countries on Earth to climate risk, 20,000 NGOs have been stripped of the right to receive foreign funding since 2014, a great many of them environmental; a leaked Intelligence Bureau report accused Greenpeace and others of “serving as tools for the interests of Western governments,” and being part of a “growth-retarding campaign.” In Brazil, where 57 environmental activists were killed in 2017 alone, President Jair Bolsonaro has promised to “supervise, co-ordinate, monitor and accompany” the country’s NGOs, and “put a final stop to all forms of activism.” And in the United States, at least 17 states have recently proposed bills to limit environmental protests.

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This long history does, as the saying goes, veer from tragedy to farce, but it’s never far from slipping back to the former. In Peru, allegations eventually came out that the former president, Alan Garcia, had been taking bribes from the infamous Brazilian construction company Odebrecht all along. When police finally showed up at his house to arrest him three months ago, he shot himself in the head.

But my old friend Joel Shimpukat had the charges against him lifted long before that. He’s now the mayor of a small town in the jungle. The region is resource-rich but cash-poor; Joel has some ideas about how to generate employment without destroying the rain forest, but the kind of investment he needs is hard to come by in Peru. If only there were a foreign-funded NGO that could help.

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