Sunday, October 28, 2007

Courting the Constitution: Dictating Freedom

"The price of freedom is eternal vigilance."
Thomas Jefferson (1743 -1826)

A major item in international news last week was that Aung San Suu Kyi (pronounced Awng-Sahn-Soo-Chee) was freed - albeit only for a short period - to hold talks with the ruling Myanmar (Burma) junta. For the uninitiated, Aung San Suu Kyi is one of the world’s most renowned political prisoners, an advocate for nonviolent resistance and a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate (1991). Her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide victory in Myanmar elections in 1990 which the ruling military junta refused to acknowledge and she has lived mostly under house arrest for 12 of the last 18 years (in the full 18 year period she has also been imprisoned and has been in and out of house arrest). San Suu Kyi’s temporary release, was the latest development in reconciliation and reform efforts by the United Nations in Myanmar, following a bloody pro-democracy crackdown that took place in the streets of Yangon, the nation’s capital, in September.

By now, (given that you are still reading this post), you are probably wondering “What does all this, happening half a world away, have anything to do with Trinidad and Tobago?” The connection is one of how much do we value our freedom and are vigilant enough about preserving it. What do we and how many of us, know of our own civil rights? How many of us know and are willing to stand our ground and assert our rights when we perceive or know they are being infringed?

This is not to imply that Trinidad and Tobago is anywhere near to what exists in Myanmar, but with the ongoing election campaigns, these are some of the concerns that should arise in the minds of voters. Some may argue that these concepts are too philosophical and far removed from ‘bread and butter’ issues like crime, jobs, healthcare, housing etc. but as basic as these issues are, they all still are borne upon the underlying issues of individual rights and freedoms: the fundamental tenets of a liberal democracy. In a liberal democracy, where the primacy of the individual is recognized, we each possess authority upon which we can make petitions upon the state with regard to some of the very ‘bread and butter issues’ mentioned earlier.

One topic that has arisen during this election and which goes at the heart of the freedoms for everyone is the anxiety about dictatorship. Admittedly, the way this concern arose, coming from Trade and Industry Minister, Kenneth Valley, when the Prime Minister rejected his bid to return as the Diego Martin Central MP for this election, seemed disingenuous. Nevertheless, I would tend to agree with Trinidad Guardian columnist Tony Fraser ("Is Valley Right About Manning?", Oct. 17, 2007) who has stated that the motive for Mr. Valley’s utterings are “in a way” irrelevant given that:

“Outside of whatever is driving Valley, the incontrovertible evidence indicates that for six years while he has been Prime Minister and while there has been robust debate on constitutional reform, Mr Manning has stayed far away from having either his government and or party put forward a coherent set of proposals for discussion on the constitutional reform that is needed.”

and …“So beyond the few isolated comments he has made, mainly about an executive president, the body politic is not aware of PM Manning’s thinking and that of his party on this central element of our democracy.”

One aspect about communication, is that omission is also a means by which a message is communicated. Given this, such an omission of comments as regards the constitution has not only been committed by the Prime Minister and the PNM (People’s National Movement) but by the other political parties as well, for as Mr. Fraser again writes:

“None of the major political parties contesting for the vote has advanced a cogent set of views on reform. The conclusion must therefore be that they are all harbouring the notion of achieving the special majority to make unilateral changes [about the constitution] or that they do not consider constitutional reform to be a significant enough issue to be addressed.”

Notably communication by omission is linked also to the concept of lies by omission, or, expressed another way, typically 'those who hide nothing, have nothing to hide.' And this essentially is the source of the warning against political ulterior motives in Mr. Fraser’s statement.

With respect to omission, political (and corporate) speak have come some ways over the years. No longer or seldom now do we hear the replies of “no comment” in response to pointed questions. Now, the general strategy developed, is that replies are in fact given but none that answers the questions. We should not however, rely solely on the media to ask pointed questions. We, the people, need to ask as well: to think and challenge our politicians on their positions, principles and strategies. And of course, when unclear or equivocating answers are given, we can draw logical conclusions from such.

Typically when we think of dictatorships, we think of some regime coming to power and taking our rights and freedoms by force. What some do forget however, is that rights and freedoms can also be given away. As I referenced in an earlier post (Ideas: Do Our Politicians Have Any?) about Plainclothes' calypso We Laughin,’ we are a society that eschews weighty matters. We never seem to ever get serious enough about matters that require our utmost focused sobriety. A case in point is the 1990 attempted coup. It is true that during those tension-filled days people needed relaxation more than usual but that period became noted for its coup parties as well.

As such, it seems understandable why weighty topics such as the constitution have never enjoyed considerable response for public fora discussions and so more must be done, as I have made the point earlier, to show that the constitution underlies the bread and butter issues that we tend only to focus on. And whether it be sheer ignorance or deliberate, our politicians constantly fail to make this connection to the populace.

An absence of a clear understanding of how the constitution affects us individually, as well as our basic needs, is thus a sure recipe for the giving or taking away of our rights and freedoms. Consequently, our focus of any anxiety about a creeping dictatorship, should not only be upon our politicians but should also include ourselves.

Commendably, with reference to the opening paragraph of this post, there is the song In Burma sung by David Rudder. I found this song on the De Cooler: Soca News blog.

1 comment:

  1. Hey , say you listed at, blogs to watch! Congrats, keep it up!
    Trinbago Forever - A fairly new blog authored by Geddes Davis: an independent-minded Trinbago national who simply wants to see his country live up to its true potential. Based on the quality of recent postings this is surely one to take a look at."


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