Kissoon is dead wrong about Burnham’s rule
I was tempted after a more recent event has come to pass, to admit that the Kaieteur News columnist, Freddie Kissoon, was almost right - even strangely prophetic: he had interpreted my reconciliation with the PPP’s government and party leadership as an act of political suicide.
Before I could do so, my attention was drawn to an article (April 6, 2008) in which Kissoon named several PPP leaders whom, he claimed, “enjoyed democracy under Burnham’s presidency”.
Kissoon wrote: “No central committee and executive committee member of the present or part PPP were (sic) ever put in jail by Burnham”. Then he named me among others who were “never charged by the police under Mr. Burnham’s watch with even the minor offence of resisting arrest. They were never touched by Burnham’s police.”
That article presented a complex “Kissoon factor” that made him appear so right at one time and so wrong at the next. In relation to me, Kissoon is wrong, dead wrong in his categorical assertion that I have never been charged under Burnham’s watch or touched by Burnham’s police.
For the most part, Burnham’s rule was an abomination. Under his rule, in my callings as political activist and journalist, I was on several occasions arrested, detained, jailed and put on trial. I was beaten, threatened with execution and survived attempts on my life. In the presence of my wife, I narrowly escaped being kidnapped by Burnham’s police and thugs.
In a nutshell: I was detained and/or jailed at Springlands, No. 51, Whim, Sister’s Village, Blairmont, Fort Wellington, Cove and John, Kitty, La Penitence and Brickdam Police Stations and at Eve Leary CID and Police Headquarters.
I was slapped with politically trumped-up charges ranging from resisting arrests, assaulting police officers, threatening behaviour to unlawful possession of firearm. Not once was I convicted on any of those spurious charges.
Each of those carried its own harrowing details, which I am not going to recount here. A few glimpses of my brush with the Burnham Era would, for now, suffice.
Once, whilst sharing the platform with the revolutionary hero/martyr Dr. Walter Rodney at the Kitty Market Square, a thug threw a bottle of formalin at me. I was knocked into unconsciousness.
I was an active member of the PPP Central/Executive, but in the eyes of the goons and thugs of the regime that status did not attract any enviable privilege.
Walter helped to revive me with cold water, and put me back on stage. When I returned, this time naked to my waist, I told the thugs: “next time you want me off this stage, you have to remove my dead body!”
On another occasion, as I got into the car of Ms. Janet Jagan outside her Bel Air house, a policeman suddenly put a gun to my head. With the gun cocked, he screamed: “don’t move!” I was dragged from Ms. Jagan’s car, pushed into another vehicle, and forced to by knees in the back seat. As the vehicle drove off, one of the men in the vehicle tried to wrest my camera away from me. When I resisted, the policeman with the gun, extinguished his lighted cigarette on my chest.
I was a journalist. My crime? I photographed some suspicious-looking men sitting on a culvert in the vicinity of the home of Dr. Cheddi Jagan, then Leader of the Opposition. I was first held at La Penitence and later taken before Crime Chief, Skip Roberts. He relieved me of the roll of film in my camera, and let me go.
Before that, I was beaten mercilessly by known PNC thugs, dragged between two police horses to the Kitty Station, and then hauled away in handcuffs. Under cover of darkness I was bundled into a car, blindfolded, and driven off to what I believe was the Le Repentir Cemetery. I was placed between two policemen one of whom was repeatedly enquiring loudly, “is de hole finished yet?” After a while, a voice cackled on the intercom: “bring the prisoner in”. The vehicle turned around and I was taken to the Brickdam lock-ups. I was charged with illegal possession of firearm and some other offences.
Being hooded and blindfolded, reminded me of the time when, years before, I was arrested in West Berbice. I was detained at Fort Wellington, then handcuffed and blindfolded, and placed into a land rover with armed policemen. I was transferred to Georgetown, and held ex-communicado with other comrades for 10 days. At that time I was held under the dreaded National Security Act, and threatened repeatedly with being put away at Sibley Hall.
I recall on another occasion when I was assaulted by a former Chief of Staff of the Guyana Defence Force and threatened with death for writing a Mirror article under the caption, “Army Takeover of Parliament”. A day later, I was attacked by men in soldier’s boots, slashed twice at the base of my head and stabbed with what appeared to be a rusty bayonet. Even as I am writing, I caress the scars, and I remember my life in struggle and what could have been.
This narrative is not going to be complete without reference to the anguish of my wife, my infant kids and my late parents as policemen occasionally raided my home, searching for elusive “arms and ammunition”. When I was traveling abroad, I would routinely be detained and strip-searched by plainclothes policemen at the Timehri airport and relieved of booklets and pamphlets.
I would never be able to know the full effect on my family of what was a prolonged period of state-sponsored terrorism, though I would be forever grateful to them for their courage in withstanding the fear and uncertainty of that period.
Lastly, I recall what was the height of madness during the Burnham era when I was arrested outside Parliament Building on a protest demonstration against the banning of Wheaten flour. I had taken my 4-year-old daughter, Adela (now my legal partner) to the protest. The police arrested her as well, and threw us both in the putrid Brickdam lock-ups, which was already crowded with over a dozen protesters. I remember holding my child in the air, close to the grilled window, so she could get fresh air! Ms. Janet Jagan, accompanied by Attorney and party colleague Ralph Ramkarran, persuaded the police to let my child go.
It wasn’t easy under Burnham, Mr. Kissoon, though I am ready to admit that there was a positive side to what could be termed the “Burnham Era”, the full assessment of which is yet to be made or appreciated.
Freddie Kissoon has attempted to use a subjective test to say that the level of fear, insecurity and reprisal is higher now than it was under Burnham. He is entitled to his views.
But the truth about Burnham’s rule, however unpalatable, must not be scrubbed or erased. Nor must we, in looking at what is today, present a revisionist view of that painful and complex period of Guyana’s history.
For me, I endured those years with dignity with the knowledge that the hurt inflicted on me as well as others with whom I have struggled, was necessary for the eventual freedom of our people. My experiences throughout the Burnham years gave me political character based on respect for fairness, dissent and freedom. Those had formed the major planks of the democratic culture for which we fought, and which we must defend at all times.
I do not consider any of it “personal” to the extent that I would remain forever bitter.
Hopefully, we can put this “era” behind us as an unfortunate political blemish and move our nation forward together, without recrimination for what had been.
Moses V. Nagamootoo