Our Executive Director, Shalmali Guttal, was in Australia earlier this month and gave a talk at the Addison Road Community Centre in Sydney about neoliberalism, how it manifests in Asia, and how people are mobilising to challenge it. You can read her talk below, or listen to parts of it on 3CR Community Radio. Shalmali also gave a TV interview to ABC News on the impacts of rapid economic growth in Asia, which you can view here.

Public talk at the Addison Road Community Centre, Shalmali Guttal, 2 November 2016 

To begin, I want to thank the Addison Road Community Centre team for organizing this event. A very special thank you to my dear friends Rosanna and Peter for looking after me so well, and a big thank you to all of you for coming this evening.

As most of you know, neoliberalism refers to the global revival of economic liberalism policies in the 1980s, that aggressively promoted the rule of free markets and free enterprise; downsizing of the public sector; reduction of government spending on public goods and controls over the economy (including deregulation of the financial sector); expansion of the private sector, and privatization of public goods, services (including banks), infrastructure and state enterprises; and of course, free trade.

Over the past 3 decades, neoliberalism has spread across our economies so effectively that despite recurring financial and economic crises, widespread environmental destruction and a deepening climate crisis, most policy makers advocate more neoliberalism to address the problems created by neoliberalism.   Possibly the most visible manifestations of neoliberalism are the increased power of private corporations (national and transnational), and the dominance of finance and financialization in our economies. Governments are re-writing regulations to boost the interests of corporations and elites, but there is little ability and political will to discipline or even regulate financial crimes—for example; tax havens, speculation by hedge fund managers, climate offset boondoggles, bank frauds, etc.

But rather than speak about neoliberalism in general, I would like to talk to you about how neoliberalism is manifested in parts of Asia, where I live and work, and how people are mobilising to resist it.

Economic trends in Asia

Most Asian countries are still “developing countries” and the development model that our governments have adopted is based on achieving rapid, high economic growth (well, except for Bhutan). This is operationalized through privatization, trade and investment liberalization, and market and corporate friendly regulation – which are neoliberal policies and strategies. 

Human rights, the rights of women, indigenous peoples, workers, fisher folk, peasants, the environment, and justice are easily sacrificed to keep private investments and capital flowing, and markets functioning. Asia is expected to be the engine that pulls the world out of global recession, and the strategy for this is to integrate local and national economies with regional and global economies through global value chains by corporations.

Public interest is being redefined and expressed in market terms. Public-Private-Partnerships serve as covers for privatization of critical sectors such as water, healthcare, education, energy, transportation and even security.  

Privatisation is not new in Asia: it has been promoted in various ways over the last 30 years. Today it has become so widespread that we take it for granted, almost as normal. Policy makers in most governments support private companies and contractors taking over governmental responsibilities.

Reflecting global trends, wealth and assets continue to concentrate in the hands of wealthy elites and corporations, workers’ wages remain low, precarious employment and unemployment persist, and the climate crisis and environmental pollution and destruction are deepening. Thousands of peoples are being dislocated and displaced from traditional lands, environments and territories because of destructive investment, land and water grabbing, natural disasters, and conflicts related to access and control over natural wealth, land, territories and associated identities.

There are certainly huge increases in wealth, wealthy people and upper middle classes, but these are accompanied by an equivalent increase in inequality, poverty and distress migration.  Asian corporations from developing countries are on the rise (for example, India, Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia, Philippines and China) and proudly supported by the upper classes. But when they invest domestically or abroad, they follow the same extractivist and exploitative operational models as corporations from wealthy countries.

I especially want to draw your attention to three issues, which I think are important to understand in order to build resistance to neoliberalism.

I. New Generation Trade and Economic Agreements

 An important weapon in the neoliberal policy arsenal is trade liberalization, also called free trade, which is pushed through bilateral regional and global trade, and economic partnership agreements. ASEAN countries have a free trade agreement called AFTA; Countries in South Asia have a similar agreement called SAFTA; Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia had the ACMECs economic agreement; India has trade/economic agreements with Finland and China; the Philippines with Japan; China has a trade agreement with ASEAN, and so on.  The best-known global trade framework is, of course, the World Trade Organization (WTO).

More recently though, we are seeing the rise of a new genre of economic arrangements called “new-generation Free Trade Agreements (FTAs),” which can be bilateral or plurilateral.   These include the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) among Pacific rim countries; Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) between India, the ASEAN countries, China, Japan, S Korea, New Zealand and Australia; Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the US and Europe; ASEAN-European Union (EU), EU-India and EU-South Korea agreements; there is also movement towards an even larger agreement on Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP).

Australia is part of RCEP and TPP, and has negotiated/is negotiating agreements with China, South Korea and Japan.

New generation FTAs are much more ambitious from the outset: they go well beyond WTO provisions and well beyond removing tariffs and non-tariff barriers (NTBs) to the liberalization of goods and services.

1. They include investment: our economies are opened up for corporations to set up shop, with rules that enable them to operate and maximize their profits at the cost of the rights of workers, small-scale food providers (peasants, fisher folk, pastoralists, local entrepreneurs), indigenous peoples, and ordinary citizens; and at the cost of local food systems and economies, and the environment and climate.

2. They severely restrict the abilities and responsibilities of governments to protect public interest through appropriate laws and regulations:

By public interest I mean all those things; services and activities that we value beyond money that make our communities and societies respectful, harmonious, and strong. For example: health; education; public services and infrastructure; wages and entitlements; local/domestic food production, food safety-quality standards and access to food; environmental quality; access to and governance of land; access to water for agriculture, drinking and household use, water quality, and water as a crucial aspect of nature; public finance through taxation, distribution of revenues, etc.

3. Governments are expected to enact regulations and laws that enable/facilitate corporate profits:  These would allow corporations to not be subjected to financial, social, environmental, health, human rights regulations, it seems to not matter if corporations seize the lands of indigenous peoples or long settled communities; or that women workers have no workplace protection, and are fired for being pregnant; or that energy extraction destroys land for agricultural production and water sources; or that education and housing prices rise so much that young people face futures of indebtedness.

4. These agreements deepen the privatisation of key services and infrastructure: In investment liberalization, governments are supposed to provide “level playing fields” to all private sector companies – domestic or transnational; key sectors such as government procurement of national food stocks, energy or housing projects and healthcare have to be open to bidding by all private companies, which in today’s language does not mean local businesses that are accountable to communities and consumers, but corporations whose priorities are profits.

5. They include much stronger provisions for Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) protection:  These have particular relevance in the case of medicines, public health, seeds and technology: 

  • One of the provisions in the case of medicines is data exclusivity, which would allow pharmaceutical companies to own/control data on the safety and efficacy of medicines and de-facto extend their patent periods, creating drug monopolies; data exclusivity serves patent holders and will not contribute to drug safety and effectiveness, which should rightfully be controlled and governed by domestic public health and drug administration systems, not by pharmaceutical corporations;
  • New IPR provisions also seek to either completely stop or delay significantly the production and entry of generic, cheaper drugs into the market—this is especially significant in cases of essential and life saving drugs; for example for diabetes, HIV-AIDS treatment, cancer, etc.
  • With regard to seeds, member countries would be expected to join and follow UPOV (International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants) rules, which favor corporate agribusiness and biotechnology companies; the TPP demands patent protection for inventions derived from plants, which of course include seeds; TPP also encourages governments to codify traditional knowledge about plants and animals into databases, so that they can be used to review patent applications and determine whether an invention is “novel” or not, which makes traditional knowledge vulnerable to capture by corporations
  • Genetically modified (GM) crops will gain prevalence through measures that enhance trade and R&D in biotechnology, etc.
  • There is increasing pressure from biotech and agribusiness corporations to change national legislation to facilitate the approval of GM crops. 

6. They demand “regulatory coherence”: domestic rules, laws and regulatory regimes regarding procurement, retail, environment, workers’ wages and compensation, taxation, financial transparency, contracting, health-safety, IPRs, etc., are mutually supportive and complementary, and enhance the abilities of corporations to operate freely and create future opportunities for expansion and profits (create “market potential”).

7.   They protect investors and undermine the rights of ordinary people, especially poor and vulnerable populations. 

One of the most distinctive and dangerous characteristics of the new generation FTAs is investor rights protection through Investment-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) mechanisms, which would take place through arbitration mechanisms in the International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) or the UN Commission on International Trade Law. Under ISDS:

  • Investors can sue governments over public policies, laws and regulations that inhibit their revenues and operations—which could include, for example; laws over taxation, user fees for toll roads, environmental protection, workers wages and entitlements, governance of land and water, procurement and distribution of food from local producers, etc.
  • Such arbitrations have huge costs to the taxpayers in legal fees, court appearances, payments for damage; just the fear of these costs can create a chilling effect on the appetites of governments to regulate.
  • But workers who are exploited by investors, people who are displaced by investment projects, or negatively affected in other ways do not have a provision similar to ISDS.

An important question here is: WHY do our governments believe that it is okay to protect the interests of corporate investors as “investor rights” through hard law, over the interests of citizens and people, who build and nurture communities, societies and the environment in different ways?  What about respecting the rights of peoples?  Respecting human rights?

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization, and the Committee for World Food Security – an inter-governmental body committed to the progressive realization of the right to food – have repeatedly acknowledged that: a) the majority of the world’s food is produced by small scale food producers —especially women, b) the food needs of the majority of the world’s population are met through small scale food provision, which includes production, processing and distribution, where again, women play larger, more key roles than men; and c) that the most important investments in food and agriculture come from these small scale providers. Now, why are the investments of these people and communities not respected and protected as “investor rights?” Why can a corporation steal land, water or seeds, set up mega-supermarkets and destroy local markets, and be protected by law, when those who have actually made the investments in that area and local economy are not protected? 

8. They circumvent and undermine democracy: It bad enough that governments enter into such partnerships and project them as public interest; what is more shocking is the secrecy with which negotiations about these agreements are carried out: 

  • Why are negotiations kept secret from the public? Why is it that corporate lobbies can advise government officials and policy makers, draft text for them, but we—the public—have to rely on Wikileaks and other whistleblowers for information?  
  • Why do our elected representatives in parliament permit investors’ interests over peoples’ rights through ISDS? 

These FTAs are indeed partnerships: between wealthy people and elites across the world; between corporations that may compete with each other but have few qualms about joining forces to ensure market control, such as the Bayer-Monsanto merger. We see this complex web of agreements and laws are creating architecture for corporate impunity.


II. Captures of Land, Forests, Water and Nature

 Across Asia, large-scale (mostly private) investment is increasing, at the heart of which are the control and exploitation of land, water, nature, minerals, agricultural potential and labor. Private investment is sought in just about every sector of our economies, from energy, mining, agriculture and retail to education, health, tourism, manufacturing, transportation and urban development. Developing countries in the Asia-Pacific region continue to be the leading investment destinations for TNCs.

Land, forests, water and nature are being captured for various purposes: industrial agriculture, hydropower, extractive industries, tourism, physical infrastructure projects, real estate/property development, Special Economic Zones (SEZs), Special Investment Regions (SIRs) and, quite simply, for financial profit through the construction of new markets.

Within months, bio-diverse landscapes and eco-systems are transformed into rubber, palm oil or cassava plantations, gated townships, dam reservoirs, economic corridors or mining wastelands amidst which, stretches of forest or wetlands may be earmarked as “protected areas” and used to generate “green” revenue streams.  Local populations rarely benefit from these changing landscapes and new markets. Instead, they lose their livelihoods, homes, cultures, identities and access to natural food cupboards; are forcibly evicted or relocated, and/or pushed into precarious, low paid waged labor.

Such investments can be national, from within the region, or global; state or privately led, boosted through development aid and trade-investment agreements, and often backed by investment capital that is global in nature and more difficult to trace.

Governments enable the capture of land, water, forests and natural wealth by claiming eminent domain and public purpose, enacting policies, laws and regulations that allow private investors to capture land and water sources for long periods of time, and by using legal and security apparatuses to suppress and punish those who oppose them.

International Financial Institutions (IFIs) such as the World Bank and Asian Development Bank (ADB), bilateral donors, and multilateral institutions support policies, incentives and laws that privilege foreign investments, market transactions, and conversions of land, water, and nature into things/commodities that can be traded on regional and international markets.

States, corporations, IFIs and UN agencies are also colluding in the financialization of land, water, carbon and food, allowing financial markets to penetrate deeper into the real economy. REDD, REDD+ and Blue Carbon are examples of this. UNEP’s Green Economy proposes ways to achieve economic growth by allowing finance capital to create revenue streams from nature, especially water, forests, biodiversity and eco-system functions.

The increasing power of markets and finance capital is shaping the governance of land and natural resources in dangerous ways. Following the food price, climate and financial crises over the past decade, “land has become the object of speculative investment and a hedge against food and fuel supply shortfalls.”[i]

In the logic of continuing crises, control over the productive attributes of nature acquires even greater importance than in past eras.  The governance structures advocated by IFIs, large-scale investors, financiers and states facilitate what eminent scholar David Harvey has called Accumulation by Dispossession, whereby those with economic and/or political power concentrate land and nature-based wealth through the systematic dispossession of others through:

  • The commodification and privatization of land, water and commons
  • Evictions of local populations
  • Conversion of diverse forms of governance of nature to exclusive, private property rights; and suppression of the commons
  • Suppression and destruction of alternative forms of production and consumption

For thousands of people, land, water and/or forests are the only sources of livelihood. Equally, land and territory are emblems of rootedness, identity, belonging and stability, and the very basis of social organization. They are the foundations of life, culture, knowledge and collective memory in agrarian societies, especially for indigenous peoples. Their commodification and privatization result in catastrophic dispossession and displacement.

Negotiations for compensation between investors and affected peoples are characterized by huge asymmetries of power that compel affected peoples to accept whatever the investors deem fit to offer. Investors do not pay reparations for injury, loss of life, and destroyed homes and environments. When communities are able to win back their lands or secure adequate compensation, it is because of political support from the public and rarely, public officials.

Multi-stakeholder approaches that seek to make land deals and investment projects “transparent” and yield “win-win” outcomes for investors, governments and affected communities are becoming popular.  But without proactive measures to address the power asymmetries between politically well connected investors, affected communities and government officials, existing unequal power structures and relations continue to be reproduced, whether the issue is compensation for dam-induced displacement, the division of land for industrial agriculture, or wage negotiations for workers.  Here, women are especially vulnerable because of the multiple layers of power that they have to negotiate. 

III.  Violence, Criminalization, Impunity

Over the past 2 decades or so, we have seen an alarming rise in violence, intimidation and threats against workers, peasants, indigenous peoples, and urban poor by state forces (police, military), private security companies and militias hired by private investors and other claimants to land, water, forests, and minerals. People are disappeared, violently attacked, and threatened with legal and extra-legal violence.  Women especially are vulnerable to sexual violence by armed security personnel. 

Laws are being passed that make it illegal to resist or even protest against destructive investment projects that are promoted in the name of economic development, such as dams, mines, oil-gas pipelines, housing estates, mega-infrastructure, etc. These laws criminalize those who resist or speak out against land grabbing, deforestation, mining, dams, human rights violations and social-economic injustice, but offer protection to corporations and wealthy investors through legal agreements and anti-defamation laws.  

Threats, intimidation, violence, and abuses of power and impunity are not new to the majority of people in Asia. But in recent years we are seeing an escalation in these trends with powerful nexuses of political and business interests, and a shocking disregard for ordinary people, their rights and their lives. 

Narratives of economic growth, progress, nation-building, national security, social stability, peace and even happiness are used as justifications by governments to silence dissent and opposition. Those who challenge them are labeled anti-development, anti-social, anti-state, agitators, etc. No one is safe: rural or urban poor leaders, students, lawyers, writers, or journalists. 

Where judicial and administrative mechanisms are ineffective, direct threats and violence through the military, paramilitary, police, mobs and private contractors, do the job. Most times, perpetrators go free by virtue of their association with those with power. Even when those who shoot the gun or hold the knife are caught, those that masterminded and ordered the attacks remain virtually untouchable, and free to plan and perpetuate more threats and violence. 

In Cambodia, rural and urban people face arbitrary arrests and detention, brutal forced evictions and threats of violence when they stand up against land grabbing, forest destruction, dams, mining or abuse in factories. High-ranking military officials have partnered with politically connected business people (domestic and foreign) to run lucrative, largely illegal, logging operations.  

In India, the government assures land acquisition for large investors without consultation with local populations, and investment projects are frequently provided armed protection by the state. Those who mobilize resistance to such projects can be arrested and jailed as political dissidents and threats to national security; they can be tortured, beaten, raped and killed. 

The Philippines is considered to be the most dangerous country for environmental activists, labour organisers, indigenous peoples and peoples defending their lands, territories, livelihoods and rights. Extra-judicial killings and other violence often remain un-investigated, and receive veiled or even overt support from state powers. 

In Thailand, the state has privileged large companies and corporations in a rush to promote economic growth, despite social and ecological costs, and costs to the lives of those whom the state should be protecting. Rural communities in a southern province have been sued by the government for causing global warming for refusing to give up forestland to investors. Regardless of the government in power, persecution, murder and enforced disappearance have been rampant for decades, and perpetrators enjoy near total impunity. The military regime has banned public gatherings and those who criticize the extraction of natural wealth by state and private capital are deemed “persons of influence,” taken in for questioning and “attitude adjustment,” or arrested and incarcerated without due process. 

In the Lao PDR, national development is anchored to rapid economic growth, and driven overwhelmingly by the extraction of natural resources. The state grants land concessions to investment companies for plantations, mining and property development without proper independent environmental and social impact assessments, or adequate compensation for affected peoples. Those who dare question or protest, risk facing arrest, incarceration, “re-education,” or worse.

Resistance and Alternatives

The dysfunction and dangers of failed development formulas—which are failures of neoliberalism–are evident to the so-called “subjects” of development.  They realize that they cannot trust their governments, corporations, markets or other actors to adequately address their problems and crises, nor can they wait for global institutions to change. They themselves must become directly involved in identifying and implementing solutions, and in the political work to ensure that solutions are systemic, multi-level, democratic, sustainable and just.

Peasants, fisher folk, workers, indigenous peoples, rural and urban poor, and women and youth, are organizing and joining forces to protect their food systems, jobs, environments, communities, rights and political processes. They are educating themselves and others, and building strategic multi-level, cross-sectoral and intergenerational resistance to capitalism, neoliberalism, corporate hegemony and abuse of state power.

In India, Bangladesh, Philippines, Bangladesh and even Cambodia, people are still using the legal/judicial system to seek justice to the maximum extent possible, including taking corporations and governments to court. Wherever possible, workers, peasants, indigenous peoples hold strikes, demonstrations and marches, with clear demands to governments and elected officials. They also use these as opportunities to educate the general public about issues in order to win their support and build broader resistance to neoliberalism.

We – like many others – use mainstream and alternative press and media channels to get our stories and evidence out to the public.  We also use social media to connect anonymously and safely with audiences in different locations and build solidarity. In many Asian countries, internet freedom is becoming legally restricted, and social media is monitored by the state.  But activists try to find ways around such censorship.

In the case of trade-investment agreements, we build alliances with social movements, civil society organisations, unions, doctors, legislators and activists like you to pressure governments in our respective countries to bring negotiations under public scrutiny, undertake assessments of past agreements and investments, and stop negotiations on current/future liberalization agreements. We cultivate potential whistleblowers, analyse critical provisions in these agreements, and get information and analyses out to people as quickly as we can.  We are trying to reverse laws that allow corporations to get away with power abuses and put in place laws that protect the public interest.

In India, we have made alliances with technical officials in water utilities to slow down and block the privatisation of water utilities. We also link local activists and anti-privatisation movements with international movements such as Reclaiming Public Water, Water Warriors, etc.

People also use human rights mechanisms as much as possible, including working with the UN special rapporteurs, filing complaints with relevant UN human rights bodies, and participating in particular spaces and processes aimed at upholding peoples’ rights over corporate rights.  For example, many social movements, unions and civil society activists see the CFS as a space to push back against neoliberalism using the progressive realization of the right to food. 

In 2014, a resolution was voted in at the UN Human Rights Council “to establish an open-ended intergovernmental working group with the mandate to elaborate an international legally binding instrument on Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises with respect to human rights.” Many CSOs and social movements have engaged in this process.

Accompanying this, the Global Campaign to Dismantle Corporate Power and Stop Impunity campaign, are developing an international treaty to affirm an alternative vision from the people on law and justice. The International Peoples Treaty is envisaged as a political document to fight against the regime of extraordinary privileges and impunity of transnational corporations; it is international law “from below.”

An important sphere of resistance to neoliberalism is the climate crisis. Instead of stepping back from the kinds of extractivism that have led us to this crisis, governments and IFIs have proposed a whole slew of false solutions that basically allow corporations to continue to make profits and economic growth to continue as before. In the coalitions we participate in, we analyse and expose the false solutions for what they are, and actively facilitate, organize, push discussions among the public about accurate, just and lasting strategies to address climate change. 

Nurturing and building alternatives to neoliberal financial and economic systems are crucial elements of popular resistance to neoliberalism. From such organizing have emerged meta-narratives of well-being, rights, peace and justice such as food sovereignty, agro-ecology, the commons and commoning, defense of lands and territories, deglobalisation, workers’ cooperatives, indigenous peoples’ approaches to living in harmony with nature, climate justice, and local governance systems that challenge both neoliberalism and outdated bureaucratic state socialism.

These meta-narratives inspire a re-imagining of well-being rooted in non-negotiable rights to self-determination of affected peoples. They also openly confront dominant power structures – political, social, gender, and money power.


[i] Philip McMichael, “Interpreting the Land Grab,” 2011, TNI and LDPI, page 1,