Guyana: Amerindian Affairs: Aishalton incident – commentary

Amerindian Affairs – Aishalton incident

When those in power suffer from power disease, then the confidantes and employees who surround them will often exhibit arrogance themselves, as if the conceit of their superiors has radiated outwards to touch them too with the scourge of what perhaps should be called power association disease.

Well last week power association disease was on full display, along, it might be added, with a few other unsavoury human traits. On Friday (Dec 5), President Ramotar was in Aishalton in Region Nine, no doubt engaged in an early campaign initiative to ensure that the Amerindian vote would be solid enough to give the ruling party an overall majority when the general elections descend on us. If so, then the PPP’s carefully choreographed encounter did not go quite according to script. 

In our Friday edition we reported Aishalton teacher John Adams as alleging that after publicly criticizing the government, he was assaulted by a member of the President’s security detail who accused him of ‘disrespecting’ the Head of State. Mr Adams told this newspaper that at a rally in the village at which the President gave an address, people were allowed to speak afterwards, and so he got up to talk about the fact that although the village is decorated with two antennae for relaying the Learning Channel, they do not receive it. After a side-swipe at Bobby Ramroop who he said was being paid to provide the service, he told us that he also raised the matter of the $34,000 which each resident pays for lights, although no one has received light as yet.

It was what happened thereafter that is the core of the issue. He alleged that as he was making his way through the crowd he was collared from behind by one of the presidential guards who proceeded to ask where the “other two” who went with him were. After telling the guard that it was he alone speaking his mind, he was accused of lying and was given a slap on the jaw. After that, he said, there were more slaps, but he couldn’t be sure how many because his face was numb. As mentioned above the security officer told him that he was being disrespectful to the President.

Mr Adams’ account, it seems, found support from another villager, Mr Dell Joseph, who said the actions of the presidential guard were uncalled for, and that Mr Adams had told the President what the villagers wanted him to hear.

This newspaper was unable to make contact with the Head of the Presidential Guard Rohan Singh on Thursday, the day after the incident, but it did speak to another guard who said that Mr Adams was not slapped, but rather “schoolboy tapped behind his head,” while making quacking noises as the President was speaking. He furthermore alleged that Mr Adams appeared under the influence of alcohol and was both heckling and calling Mr Ramotar a ‘duck’ during his address, which caused some in the audience to snigger.

When Stabroek News finally did manage to speak to Mr Singh on Friday, he denied what the anonymous guard had said dismissing it as “nonsense.” He could make no comment, he said, because the ranks had not returned from Region Nine and he consequently had been unable to speak to them. One can only remark that it seems extraordinary that the Head of a Presidential Guard Service has no means of communicating with his men in the field, when Mr Adams, living in one of the most southerly villages in the country, can talk to us with ease on his cellphone. What kind of security is this for a President?

That aside, let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that Mr Adams was heckling the President. Don’t the guards know that heckling is not an offence in this country, and that it routinely goes on in Parliament, no less, and at political meetings along the length of the coastland? And as for ‘disrespecting’ the Head of State, depending on the form it takes it may or may not be inappropriate or in bad taste, but since to the best of anyone’s knowledge this is still a republic, there is no crime of lèse majesté on the books either.

Mr Adams has denied the reports in some sections of the media that he was intoxicated when the incident took place, and what can be said from this newspaper’s perspective is that he was perfectly coherent and clear when he related his story to us on the phone on Wednesday. He has also said that after he left the meeting he went to the Aishalton Police Station to report the matter, but that there was no rank on duty. The police have since taken a statement from him, but from no one else at the scene, and he is not optimistic that anything will come of the matter.

Whatever the exact sequence of events at the rally, there seems good reason for supposing that a presidential guard acted improperly at some level, and that this should be investigated as APNU has proposed. As we reported observers remarking in our Friday edition, this could not have happened in Georgetown. It might be added that it could not have happened anywhere in Region Four, and certainly not in Regions Ten or Six either – not forgetting a good many other places.

Apart from the guard and his delusions of associated power, there is the matter of how the government and the ruling party relate to the Amerindians in the hinterland locations. Theirs has been a policy of controlling them through manipulation; ‘bribery,’ sometimes using state resources; discriminating against critics and favouring supporters; and simply cowing those who ask questions into silence or submission. Clearly what happened in Aishalton last week was the classic tactic of trying to intimidate.

All of this is on display in other contexts as well, more particularly at the annual National Toshaos Conferences. Some Toshaos who spoke to this newspaper after this year’s conference accused the government of hijacking it and not dealing with participants’ concerns by the simple expedient of shutting down vocal leaders. There was a lot of party politics in the meetings this newspaper was told, and instead of discussions of the various issues concerning some of the leaders, the sessions in the words of the Toshao of Paruima, sounded more like “days of gratitude.” The point of the exercise, it might be noted, was that the Toshaos should go home and influence their councils and villagers to give their support to and vote for the PPP.

All of this, of course, implies a certain ingrained disrespect for the indigenous population, who, it is smugly assumed, can one way or another be prevented from thinking for themselves. However, the Amerindians are less cut off from coastal politics than they were in the past, and even the heavily controlled Toshaos Conferences bring indigenous leaders from various parts of the country together who can then exchange views and experiences outside the framework of the managed formal sessions.

What the ruling party will find is that increasingly, the interior Amerindians of this nation will become less disposed to uncritically accept what they are told to think by those in power. In the case of the Aishalton incident, for instance, an indigenous teacher has refused to remain silent, and has gone to the police. Up until the time of writing the Office of the President has had nothing to say on the matter, not even to indicate they would investigate. They had better investigate. If Mr Adams’s account is accurate, he was the victim of an assault by a presidential guard, and that cannot be allowed to pass without some kind of inquiry into what happened and where called for the necessary sanctions applied.

An apology from the Office of the President would not come amiss either.

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