PRESIDENT Clinton can't come to Japan to discuss free trade this week. Indonesian labor leader Mukhtar Pakpahan almost didn't make it, either. ''Before I came here, an unidentified telephone caller threatened to shoot me to death if I visited Japan,'' he says.
Mr. Pakpahan, the president of Indonesia's leading independent trade union, became the subject of international concern after he was imprisoned in 1994 on what many outside observers believed were unwarranted charges of inciting civil unrest. In October he was exonerated by Indonesia's supreme court.
Pakpahan says he received other death threats and was menaced by unidentified men as he prepared to visit Japan to register his concerns about the momentum building for free trade in the Asia-Pacific region. This year's gathering of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum builds on a declaration issued a year ago to achieve free and open trade and investment in the region by 2020.
Yesterday officials from 18 governments on both sides of the Pacific reached broad agreement on measures to ease the flow of commerce and investment among their countries.
President Clinton canceled his plan to attend the summit meeting of the region's leaders this Sunday, but that has not slowed APEC in moving toward the creation of a ''common business environment in a giant market of over 2 billion people,'' one senior US administration official said.
Pakpahan came to Japan to attend a meeting of activists concerned with labor and other issues that took place in advance of the APEC forum. These advocates assert that APEC focuses solely on the interests of businesses and governments and offers no opportunity for officials to hear dissenting views from people worried about the impact of economic liberalization on workers, farmers, and the environment.
No red carpet for NGOs
Businessmen have a voice in APEC through a group called the Pacific Business Forum, but activists and representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have not found the warmest of welcomes.
At last year's APEC, held in Jakarta, Indonesia, a smaller group of labor, human-rights, and environmental advocates were kept by government officials from holding a press conference in a hotel. This year the activists had no trouble meeting, but a Chinese trade unionist, Han Dong-fang, was denied a visa to enter Japan.
Mr. Han is barred from entering China, but has traveled on a Chinese passport to at least 10 countries, including the United States, according to Edward Broadbent, a former member of Canada's Parliament who now heads a government-funded human rights center in Montreal.
Japan denied the visa on technical grounds and has not responded to accusations that Mr. Han was excluded in order not to offend China.
Mr. Broadbent quotes Han in summing up the concerns of the advocates: ''Democracy and human rights are not the natural consequences of investment and trade.''
''If left on their own,'' Broadbent says, ''markets inherently widen the spread in incomes, are destructive of community existence, and see no limit to the consumption ... of all the resources on the planet.''
Partly these advocates are worried about liberalization itself - citing Mexico's economic collapse and peasant rebellion in the wake of the North American Free Trade Agreement - and partly about the way APEC functions. ''What has to be done is to democratize the process of market development,'' Broadbent adds.
The activists say they will try to attend a meeting of APEC labor ministers set for early next year in the Philippines, the host of next year's APEC forum. Pakpahan is worried that several APEC member countries are not signatories to International Labor Organization conventions that guarantee workers' rights to form unions and engage in collective bargaining.
Jeff Atkinson, a researcher with the Australian arm of the British hunger charity Oxfam, notes that liberalized trade make it easier for companies to shift production in search of lower wages. When companies face unions, he says, ''the threat to move to another country is enough to undermine any claim for higher wages.''
Small farmers threatened
''The removal of barriers to agricultural imports,'' Mr. Atkinson asserts, ''will put small-scale peasant farmers in Asia and Latin America into unfair competition with highly mechanized and heavily subsidized American producers.''
APEC is a nebulous entity, since many of its administrative functions are passed on from country to country as the chairmanship of the forum rotates. A group of NGO representatives met with a Japanese Foreign Ministry official to relay their concerns and issued a statement to the other member countries.
The foreign-ministry official refused an interview request from the Monitor, and a member of APEC's permanent secretariat said he could not comment on the matter.
APEC attempts to avoid any discussion of political matters and focus entirely on economic issues. Most labor movements are a result of workers' attempts to combine politics with economics, a sensitive combination for the organization.