Activists See Powerful Message in WTO Protestor's Suicide

By Marc Morano | July 7, 2008 | 8:14 PM EDT

Cancun, Mexico ( - A protestor committed suicide here on Wednesday during an anti-globalization rally targeting the WTO's free-trade policies. Fellow protestors hailed him for the act, but a free market activist accused the protesters of exploiting the suicide to support their political agenda.

Lee Kyung-Hae, a South Korean farmer and lawmaker, was participating in a mock funeral for the World Trade Organization's alleged victims outside the conference hall in Cancun when he climbed a security fence, pulled out a knife, and stabbed himself in the chest.

Lee was holding a banner that read, "WTO Kills Farmers." He was taken to a local hospital where he died later in the afternoon. The 54-year-old Lee was the former president of the Korean National Future Farmer's and Fisherman's Association, an agricultural lobbying group

Anuradha Mittal, one of the protestors who witnessed the suicide, told she believes Lee's self-inflicted death would not be in vain. She said it sends "the strongest message" that the WTO's policies are "killing farmers everywhere."

"This is a huge sacrifice made by [Lee] and his family" to expose the truth about WTO policies, Mittal said. "The world is watching," she added. Mittal is the co-director of Food First, a California-based, non-profit food and agricultural advocacy group.

Other protestors trumpeted the political significance of Lee's suicide as well. A crowd of about 200 protesters chanted late Wednesday, "We are all Lee" outside of the Cancun hospital where Lee died.

And a group of about 50 South Korean farmers issued a statement following Lee's death, saying, "Mr. Lee committed suicide after seeing how the WTO was killing peasants around the world."

This is not the first time Lee attempted suicide over WTO policies. In 1990, he stabbed himself in the stomach at the Geneva headquarters of the WTO. Lee also spent several months protesting in front of the headquarters building earlier this year, accusing the WTO of killing people.

The WTO policymakers in Cancun cannot ignore the political power of Lee's suicide, according to Mittal.

"This is the naked truth - let the truth be told finally now," she said.

'Political agenda'

Chris Horner of the free market environmental group Competitive Enterprise Institute accused the protestors of exploiting Lee's suicide for political gain.

"Suicide always involves personal tragedy, but once again, pressure groups compound human suffering, be it individual or mass, by exploiting it to support their political agenda," Horner told

"In fact, Mr. Lee's death - distilled - has little to do with a trade regime designed to lift literally billions out of poverty by opening markets," Horner said.

Agricultural policy, the apparent motive for Lee's suicide, has proved to be one of the most contentious issues for the WTO. Protestors contend that many farmers, particularly those in the developing world, will be unable to remain competitive if global trade restrictions are eliminated.

The WTO's fifth ministerial meeting, which runs through Sunday, brings together 146 nations and some 4,700 delegates. WTO protestors believe that free-trade policies advocated by the WTO promote environmental destruction and perpetuate poverty.

Thousands of marchers took part in Wednesday's anti-capitalist protests, which sparked some violence. About two dozen people broke through the metal security barricades and threw rocks and bottles at police, who responded with tear gas and batons.

Over a dozen people were reported injured in the skirmishes, prompting some to fear a possible rerun of the violent 1999 WTO protests in Seattle.

The WTO also faced criticism from UN Secretary General Kofi Annan on Wednesday. "We are told that free trade brings opportunity for all people, not just a fortunate few," Annan said in a statement.

"Sadly, the reality of the international trading system today does not match the rhetoric," he added.

See Earlier Story:
Greens, Free Marketers Clash Over Development of Third World (10 Sept. 2003)

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