Restriction on the Right to Assembly1849 09 Aug, 2012
Mr. Trotman: Thank you Mr. Speaker. Before commencing my presentation on this motion, I just want to say that the experience we have had in this Parliament over the last few months, in which a motion has taken at least four months to be heard, is a lesson for us. I think that it is important that we understand that the business of the people should not be delayed unduly. I will hope that at the resumption of the Parliamentary sessions that we will take a more business-like approach to the business of Parliament.
Parliament is a House of the people. It is elected by the popular vote of the people. It therefore follows that the people must at all times have access to the deliberations of the House, preferably in a direct manner. The present practice of making it very difficult for the ordinary citizen to access Parliament while it is in session is in itself a restriction of citizenship. It is a problem that needs correction. Democracy should not be confined to elected officials, but should be duly accorded to the rightful custodians of power, the people. It is in this spirit that I rise to move this, what I believe is a non-contentious, long overdue and absolutely necessary motion that is before this Hon. House in my name.
The motion is necessary because it sets out to reverse what is construed by a large segment of the population as an unacceptable situation, i.e. the restriction imposed on the rights of citizens to assemble freely, to demonstrate peacefully and to associate with other persons.
In addition, by virtue of the Resolve clause the motion entreats this National Assembly to declare that the rights of citizens to assembly and to demonstrate peacefully should not be hindered by the Guyana Police Force or any other agency or institution of state. Secondly, the Guyana Police Force should relocate its barricades so as to allow freedom of assembly within a closer proximity of the National Assembly’s Public Buildings. Thirdly, the Parliament Office should make arrangements for the broadcast of the National Assembly sittings in the environs of the National Assembly.
I believe that the right of citizens to assemble freely and demonstrate peacefully has been compromised by the erection of steel barricades around the perimeter of the National Assembly. I also believe that the imposition of the barricades calls into the question the Government’s commitment and support for those regional and international treaties and conventions on individual freedoms it has agreed to.
The barricades have the additional effect of insulating the National Assembly and its Members from the people by whom we were elected to represent. You only have to walk the streets as I do and canvas people’s opinions on their perceptions of Parliament and Parliamentarians and you will be surprised by what they say. I did not have to wait for our parliamentary guests from abroad who visited a few months ago to develop an understanding of the negative perceptions people have for us. Walking has its advantages; it exposes you in a profound way to the vital opinions of the people. I wish to say that the people believe it suits our purpose to exclude them from our discussions, thereby keeping them in a state of ignorance. I hold strongly to the view that we need to act quickly to eliminate that impression from their minds, hence the Motion we are now discussing.
Just over a week ago there was a real demonstration about how people feel about being excluded from the business of Parliament. As you are aware, people gathered outside of the gates and stayed around for the longest while in order to impress on Parliamentarians that they are concerned about what is taking place in here. They want to know. I believe that in relation to what took place we have to take on board the serious message that the people in this country have been sending to us and have sent to us on the day that I referred to.
Parliament in its various formations, commencing from 1718 with the Dutch lawmaking body, the Court of Policy, and up to the present day has over the years of its existence engendered interest in its operations and functioning. When the late Dr. Cheddi Jagan was first elected to the Legislative Counsel in 1947 that interest became more pronounced and even greater interest occurred both at the level of the people and at the level of the colonial masters after general elections in British Guyana was held for the first time under a first past the post electoral system and adult suffrage on April 27th 1953. In that election 24 seats were at stake. The results saw the united mass movements of the People’s Progressive Party with 51% of the votes and winning resoundingly with 18 seats. Less we forget. I wish to remind this Hon. House that the united mass movement was led by Cheddi Jagan and Forbes Burnham and counted among its leadership core as significant number of other distinguished Guyanese.
The results of those elections in 1953 advanced the hopes and aspirations of the broad Guyanese mass of people. It is therefore understandable why the increase interest in the business of Parliament ensued. Although the colonial powers removed the elected people’s government after just 133 days in office, one of things that cannot be denied is that those 133 exiting days ushered in an unprecedented wave of interest by the people in developments within and without the Parliamentary Chambers. If nothing else, I do believe that it is in that short period of time, when Parliament became firmly fixed in the minds of people as an institution where the political, economic and social future will be determined.
Mr. Speaker, permit me to digress for a moment to speak to my impressions of that momentous occasion in 1953 when the people’s government was removed. I was not quite eight years old and was attending Broad Street Government School. I vividly recall the horrors that accompanied the removal of the people’s government. I recall particularly the very audible tramp of the soldiers boots as they marched through the street to assert their dominance over the people. As young as I was, that period helped to form my subsequent attitude to acts of oppression and to oppressors and strengthen my resolve to struggle against their existence wherever they are located. I am sure that I was not single in that respect. I ask this Government to take note of that lesson.
The rising interest I have alluded to has continued to over the years. In period between 1962 and 1992 the streets outside of Parliament was where people wanted most to be. It was exhilarating and exiting just to be in the same place where citizens, political parties and other organisations on the days when business of the country were being discussed. They took the opportunity to voice their agreements and disagreements, frustration, anger and however they felt about what was taking place. I therefore look back at the period of the 1960s, 1970, 1980s and early 1990s as an important learning call for me. It allowed not only me, but thousands of others to develop and express not only to the Government but to whoever found the time to listen, our feelings about the issues that were there to us.
That period was not only about marches and protests; it was also about an opportunity to be involved in the process as the debates took place within the Parliamentary Chambers. I recall the PNC Government facilitating our participation in the debates by causing speaker boxes to be hung outside of the building so that we could follow the discussion as it took place. Many of days I stood out there listening to some of the great debaters of my time as they expounded on their views and matters of the state; that was also another tremendous learning call which has been denied to today’s younger generation. Let us today resolve to remedy this situation by insisting that the Parliament Office make arrangements for the broadcast of National Assembly Sittings in the environs of the National Assembly. I believe once this step can be implemented it will help to restore some measure of confidence in Parliament as an institution of people.
I would like to say two things here. Firstly, I believe that the point which you made and continue to make from time to time, i.e. people really want to know what is taking place here is very important. I believe that the suggestion that you made that we should find the resources to mouth some large screens somewhere outside there, so that the people should not only hear what is taking place but will see and hear who have been representing their interest; it is most important. I believe it is a direction that we ought to be thinking of going also. I believe that when it is that we hark back at the discussions in the Committee of Supply when the last budget presentation was made that we have to note – here I would want to thank the Hon. Gail Teixeira when she made the very important point that people outside there also want to know, she said that they are listening and they want to know exactly what is happening in there – I believe that comment bolsters the point that we ought to be making the kind of efforts that will make people outside understand and be able to follow the debates that take place in Parliament. The request and urge that Parliament Office move to establish those speakers outside as quickly as possible becomes even more important, bearing in mind that you have a lot of people outside who want to know and who want to be part of this process, but who are prevented from doing so simply because the facilities are not in place and of course the barricades prevent them from getting close to the National Assembly.
I would like to say that successive governments throughout that period felt the wrath of the people. In the 1960s the target was the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) and in the 1970s and 1980s it was the People’s National Congress (PNC) and we took every opportunity available to us to let them know exactly how we felt about their actions. One thing is clear to me, in those difficult times in which we, who were in Opposition to the PNC Government, referred to as an anti-doctoral period we were there on the streets of Brickdam and around Georgetown successfully marching and protesting what we believed were the excesses of that Government.
In post 5th October, 1997 an amazing thing happened with the advent of democracy, and here I say democracy in uplifted comas, restraints were imposed. The streets around Parliament on days when it was in session were off-limits to Guyanese. Barricades and confusion became the order of the day. They have been several issues of tremendous importance in this country; not least of which has been the Ronald Gajraj affair. As far as I can recall, we have not been able to assemble and/or protest outside of Parliament on one of its business days to signal to the Government how we felt on these matters.
I led the people’s movement for justice during the crisis that led to serious criminal activity from 2002. I can tell you that people were very concerned about developments then, and we wanted to address the Government and Parliament about our concerns. Not a single day during that period were we allowed to assemble there so that Government and parliamentarians could get a sense of exactly how we felt. There are times when it is that marches did take place, but they had to take place outside of the environs of Parliament. I would like to say that if that is not an act against democracy, then what is?
I would like to assure members of this Hon. House that in recognising and upholding the fundamental rights of citizens to assemble and to demonstrate peacefully we have nothing to fear. I say this because I am harkened by the discipline of our young people and elderly persons also whom in post 28th November, 2011 Elections even as they voiced their disagreement with the Elections results demonstrated their maturity by mobilising large numbers and engaging in a number of peaceful protest demonstration. Please note, I said peaceful picket demonstration, because no allegations can be levelled at those persons of having disrupted anybody’s peace or right to life at that particular period. As I said, there is not a single incident of violation of the law by those persons, notwithstanding the senseless unprovoked and I believe sanctioned shooting of those demonstrated by members of the Police Force would by recently promoted Assistant Superintendant Watts on 6th December, 2011. I believe that those marches would stand as examples to be emulated in future demonstrations.
On every occasion that I am forced to confront the monstrous presence of those barricades I think back to the anti-colonial struggles and I wonder what those great people who led the struggles against the brutalities of the rulers of the colonial empire would do if they were around today. On those occasions when I reflect on what was, I console myself with the thought that for them as it is for me the presence of the barricades would have represented an affront to the dignity of the people and they would have struggled to bring them down. For as long as they remain in place I will continue to declare their presence to the human suffering inflicted by oppressors on oppressed people. The barricades must go, and I believe it is only fitting that those of us who occupy seats in this Parliament today, both on the Government side and on the Opposition benches must be the instruments of their removal.
We must use the positive results of the November 28th Election to signal that enough is enough. If the people are to renew their faith and confidence in us and if we are to regain our dignity the barricades must go and they must go now.
Finally, I would like to say that my sense of pride in presenting this Motion today, tonight, this morning, is rooted in my belief that as we debate the merits of it and I am confident of our eventual passing of it in its entirety, we who are assembled here will unambiguously declare to the world that in spite of our political differences, in spite of what at times appeared to be unbridgeable divides there is a common thread, a commonality of interest which binds us inextricably together. I believe, Mr. Speaker and Hon. Members of this National Assembly that we will demonstrate this morning that this common thread and this commonality of interest is founded in our collective belief and I hope, our collective determination, to observe and uphold the fundamental rights of citizens of this country, of whom we are, but their servants and I dare say, subject to their will.
It is in this context that I ask the Members of this Hon. House to join me in support of this motion. And in doing so let us together send strong signals that one of the legacies of this Tenth Parliament is its recognition that freedom is a cornerstone of democracy.
Thank you Mr. Speaker. [Applause]
Mr. Trotman (replying): I wish, for the record, to state, for Mr. Rohee’s benefit, that I have been in almost every civil protest demonstration that had taken place in this country since 1961 and I have done so because I believe in freedoms. Those protest demonstrations that I have been involved in have all got to do with seeking to enshrine people’s freedoms in this country. I have done so unapologetically and will continue to do so whenever it becomes necessary.
I want to say thank you to the Hon. Members on this side of this House who stood up and supported this motion. I want to say thank you to them because I feel honoured that I am standing with a select group of persons who believe in freedoms, who believe in the fundamental freedoms of people and who have prepared to struggle for them. I want to congratulate those persons who spoke so eloquently in support of this motion and to express my heartful thanks to them.
I would like to say that those who have never struggled for anything will never appreciate the value of the things that other persons struggled for and have won. When I listened to the Hon. Member Manzoor Nadir, I understood why it is he has been expressing the thought that he has expressed and it really has to do with the fact that, over the years that I have known him, Mr. Nadir has not been known to be a person who has ever struggled for anything and that is why it is that he can take these ridiculous positions that he has taken in relation to this motion.
Ms. Teixeira: Mr. Speaker, could I ask you about imputing improper motive to a Member and making these comments? The Member cannot say that a Member has not done this and done that. The Members is not even here.
Mr. Speaker: Mr. Trotman, the comment about ridiculous statements, I will ask you to withdraw.
Mr. Trotman: On your advice, Mr. Speaker, I will withdraw the word “ridiculous”. I will say that the statements that Hon. Member Mr. Nadir has made were statements which are unworthy of a person who sits in this National Assembly and who believes and who wants to give the impression that he is a freedom loving person. He is not, based on my knowledge and my own experience of his behaviour in the past.
This motion, which we are engaged in discussing here, is not a motion which seeks to strike fear in anybody mind. I believe that when the Hon. Member Moses Nagamootoo spoke on this motion that he expressed in low terms what this motion is intended to do. I believe that he has answered all of the questions which Hon. Members on the other side would have raised and continued to raise even though I believe that they do not believe in the value of the statements that they have been making.
I believe that this motion seeks to bring people close to this Parliament of Guyana in a way in which they have not been for a number of years and as persons who have been elected by the people, we have to be concerned that we have so far been removed from those people who elected us. I think that this motion seeks to remedy that fault. I believe that as much as some persons on the other side who have expressed some misgivings about the motion that in actual fact they really believe that the motion is something which should be supported but they would perhaps withhold their support simply because of their party’s position which they believe they ought to uphold.
I believe that the Members of the House on this side will give their full support to the motion and I am deeply grateful for the fact that this motion will send a signal to the people out there, that at least there are people in this House who believe in certain freedoms - in freedom of expression, in freedom to assemble, freedom to protest - and that in support of the motion they have given real expression to that feeling.
Thank you Mr. Speaker. [Applause]
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