By Kevin Sullivan / Washington Post Foreign Service / Wednesday, June 11, 2008
LONDON, June 10 — Protests over soaring fuel prices erupted in Asia on Tuesday as truckers in Hong Kong and tire-burning demonstrators in India and Nepal added their angry voices to protests that began last month in Europe.
As oil hit a record $139 a barrel, large and small businesses that depend on gasoline and diesel said they can no longer cope with pump prices that have doubled or tripled, with the steepest increases coming in recent months. Truckers in South Korea voted to strike, and Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi pledged about $306 million in supplemental funding to maintain support among provincial lawmakers angry over the fuel costs. Several hundred trucks and buses were used in a go-slow protest in Hong Kong, snarling traffic in that major Asian economic center. Drivers were demanding reductions in fuel taxes. The protests in India and Nepal were smaller and more isolated, but reflected spreading anger over prices.
Fuel taxes are also the central issue for truckers in Europe, because they account for a large portion of the retail price of fuel. Unleaded gasoline sold for $8.65 a gallon and diesel for $9.62 a gallon Tuesday in Britain, which charges a flat $3.77 a gallon in fuel duty and imposes a 17.5 percent consumption tax on the total price.
“We’re doing this for our industry and our customers,” said David McCutcheon, an organizer of a go-slow protest by scores of truckers in Scotland on Tuesday, according to Britain’s Press Association. “Our industry cannot sustain paying a 25 percent tax while the government enjoy the windfall and put it in their back pocket.”
Protests began to hit home for consumers as Spanish news media reported that gas stations in some areas had run out of fuel and that some markets were reporting shortages of fresh produce.
Tens of thousands of Spanish drivers continued go-slow protests on major roads, knotting traffic near cities such as Madrid and Barcelona. Traffic jams several miles long formed Monday at Junquera, a crossing on the French border, where Spanish drivers refused to let foreign trucks enter and smashed the windshields of those that tried to pass.
The Spanish Interior Ministry announced that the first fatality of the demonstrations was a protester struck by a van at a picket line outside a wholesale market in the city of Granada. A ministry statement said the man was hit when the van’s driver, who has been detained, accelerated when protesters started throwing rocks at him as he tried to drive past.
The second death was that of a 52-year-old protester in Portugal who was run over as he tried to signal for a truck to stop on a road north of Lisbon, according to news reports.
The government of Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero continued talks Tuesday with a key transport union, which is demanding relief against soaring prices.
In Britain, Prime Minister Gordon Brown cautioned the public against panic buying of gas and diesel ahead of a threatened strike by 500 oil tanker drivers. “We believe that this strike is unnecessary, and we would want to ensure that nothing was done that inconvenienced the public,” Brown told reporters. “But the most responsible thing the public can do is to continue to buy as normal.”
Pay, not rising prices, is the central issue in the action threatened by the oil tanker drivers.
But officials worry that the strike, scheduled to begin Friday unless a solution is found, could create fuel shortages at the pump.