Chile: Protests against military service following the death of conscripts

Following the death of up to 45 conscripts in a snowstorm in the Chilean Andes on 18 May, opposition to military service in Chile is growing. The soldiers - most of them 18- or 19-year-old-conscripts - were ordered into a training march during a blizzard described as the worst snowstorm in 30 years in the mountains 350 miles south of the capital. While the Chilean military tries to limit the damage done to its public image - the commanders of the regiment of the soldiers and the chief of the company that was caught in what has been described as a "snow tsunami" face charges of manslaughter, mistreatment of subordinates and failure to fulfill military duties - antimilitarist groups and NGOs demanded an end to compulsory military service.

The reformist NGO coalition Red Chilena de Objeción de Conciencia (ROC) called for an end to obligatory military service, and organised a demonstration in Santiago on 24 May 2005 (see picture on the right). The antimilitarist groups also joined forces, and called for a demonstration in Santiago on 28 May 2005, but the police prevented the demonstration from taking place. Oscar Huenchunao, member of the WRI Executive and of the Chilean section Ni Casco Ni Uniforme reports on the developments: "Both Ni Casco Ni Uniforme and Rompiendo Filas were asked by the media and the public about our opinions. We started a campaign of activities asking for the end of conscription, a civil investigation of the tragedy of Antuco, and the full recognition of the right of conscientius objection. With other organisations, we formed a coalition, called Plataforma Amplia por el Fin del Servicio Militar.

We started meetings in order to establish and define the character of this coalition, our goals (end of conscription and CO recognition) and our means (civil desobedience, NVDA, etc). We have prepared a demo for this saturday, May 28, at a very central spot in Santiago (Plaza Italia).

Unfortunately, the political environment is very tense in these days. Because of several students demonstrations and rallies, that sometimes have ended in confrontations with the police, it's very hard to get authorisation for public actions, especially in the center of Santiago. This morning, Plaza Italia and it's surrounding area was flooded by police officers, some of them in full riot gear. Riot police buses were there, as well as regular patrol and water cannon trucks.

Since several minutes before the beginning of the demo, police started harassing young people on the area, asking for their ID cards and checking their bags. If no ID was shown, they take the person into custody. Other were detained for having propaganda or banners in their bags. Some other were detained outside the police bus while we were discussing with the cops and asking them what was the reason for the detentions. A woman who yelled at some officers because of their behaviour was also arrested.

Inside the police bus, several Ni Casco Ni Uniforme members said they were beaten up and threatened -they were already mistreated when forcefully boarded on the bus. All detainees were released after an hour. Some of them were charged with "Public disturbance".

The Plataforma is planning legal actions because of this outrageous attitude from the police. We consider our freedom of expresion rights violated. There's going to be a Press Conference tomorrow, and further public actions to denounce this.

We ask for solidarity to chilean COs and for actions of protest outside Chilean embassies worldwide, demanding the end of conscription, a civilian investigation of the tragedy of Antuco (currently done by Military justice) and the full recognition of Conscientious Objection."

In a separate development, the joint commission of the two chambers of the Chilean parliament approved a proposal for some form of conscientious objection - COs can get exemption on the grounds that conscientious objection will be considered as a mental condition. From War Resisters' International's point of view, to define conscientious objection as a mental condition cannot be seen as an acceptable solution, and would certainly not be in line with any international standards. The new proposal will still need to be approved in the Chilean Senate, which rejected an earlier proposal to introduce a very limited form of conscientious objection (see CO-Update No 8, April 2005).

Sources: Chilean troops perish in snowstorm. Mail&Guardian online, 22 May 2005; Chile Soldiers' Commanders Risk Prison, The Guardian, 26 May 2005, Email Oscar Huenchunao, 28 May 2005; Elarea.com, 23 May 2005