Despite the Office of the President’s advice to boycott, many persons yesterday turned up at the International Conven-tion Centre to participate in what has been dubbed a civil society summit, even though its organizer admitted that the statement issued late on Tuesday had an effect on the event.
“I would tell you that yes, it did have an effect…” Dr Phillip Mozart Thomas said of the statement when approached by Stabroek News after the official opening of the event.
“I have never had any association as it represented in [that] statement…” he said while maintaining that the only association he had with politics was when he was nominated in 2000 to be the successor to the late Desmond Hoyte “but since 2001, I have eschewed myself from the entire political process.” The event is set to continue today.
The Office of the President in its statement urged the public not to attend the Guyana National Civil Society Summit, while accusing Thomas of being a “shady character” with questionable international connections. It stated too that OP was unaware of the existence of the umbrella body, Guyana National Civil Society Council.
The summit was organised by the council which Thomas heads and he deemed the statement by OP “reckless”.
One of the main objectives of the summit, it seems, was for civil society to come together and demand the changing of the constitution.
While there was a sizable crowd at the event, the conference centre was by no means filled and two prominent persons who were listed to address the forum were no shows. A number of organisations along with youths were present but when approached, persons said they were just there to observe and as one woman said “to see what this is all about.” Others said they were invited and saw no reason why they should not attend.
President of the Guyana Women Miners Organisation (GWMO) Simona Broomes in an invited comment said civil society coming together with one voice to be that third force that the constitution talks about is a “dream come through.” She said should the organisation achieve civil society coming together as one this would be a positive sign and a “move in the right direction.” She added, “It is really interesting. I want to learn more and support in any way I can make this successful, that is the reason I am here.”
Asked about the Office of President’s call for a boycott of the event, Broomes said what the president thinks or feels has nothing to do with her as a representative of an NGO as she is not a politician.
Approached, trade unionist Lincoln Lewis, noted that it is civil society which holds the balance of power between the people, the state and the political opposition. He noted that it is important that civil society meet and work and identify where interests converge. He said regardless of whose initiative it was to convene such a forum it is important to understand its objectives and if it is to rally around a common instrument or cause for the benefit of society then it is important to participate.
Lewis said the government is afraid of civil society coming together as a united group hence the statement on Tuesday night. He pointed out that the group specifically pointed to Article 13 of the constitution which speaks about civil society’s duties and obligations and he believes that it would give life to the article. He noted that many politicians believe that once they are elected they have the right to do what they want and no one must question them.
APNU Member of Parliament Christopher Jones, the only parliamentarian present at the morning session, in comments to this newspaper said the forum was crucial as the role of civil society is important in any democracy. In reference to the Office of the President boycott call, the parliamentarian said it was not unexpected. He contended that President Donald Ramotar has moved the country into a dictatorship with the proroguing of the National Assembly which he said was just a continuation of the dictatorial tendency of the PPP.
“Now that the Office of the President and the President are calling on civil society to boycott this event it confirms in anyone’s mind now that… Guyana is in a dictator state…,” Jones said.
Meantime, former High Court Judge and now President of the United Nations Association of Guyana (UNAG) Donald Trotman in opening remarks noted that Guyana belongs to the people and civil society while stressing that those present were there because it is the right time for the right purpose – to establish and promote inclusive democracy. Touching on the prorogation of parliament Justice Trotman said while this is allowed under the constitution the prorogation of the people and civil society cannot be done as there is no place in the constitution for this.
Thomas said he would not respond to the “political statements” coming from OP, since he is not a politician. He advised the government to continue making “scurrilous remarks,” which would be to its own detriment since what people say had consequences.
Thomas said he and his team had met all of the diplomatic missions in Guyana and prominent persons in civil society. He said he received calls from the diplomatic community informing that because of the statement they were instructed not to be present at the event.
Responding to the statement’s claim that many of the persons’ names published as part of the organisation did not know their names were being used, Thomas, said they met over 400 persons and groups proposed names of persons they wanted to see as part of the civil society council.
“As a coordinating process you have to be respectful of the democratic process…,” he said adding that they have to publicly state the names proposed and the named persons have to attend the forum and reject or accept their nomination.
The names of those who accept would then be published. He stated that the group has not received any adverse statements from anyone objecting to their names being published.
“I am wondering who writes like that, that is a press release from the President’s office?” an incredulous sounding Thomas said.
A lawyer with a Phd in Government Diplomacy and International Relations (these qualifications and others have been questioned by OP), Thomas, when asked where money for the three-day function was sourced said that it was done through the means of those involved dipping their hands in their pockets with support from many businesses.
At the end of the event Thomas said it is hoped that they would set in place an agenda putting in place a “civil society charter” outlining how they are going to be responsive and responsible civil society participants in the decision making process.
“We are not going to be the ones out there protesting, this not what we do…we are actually going to be instructive in our aspirations and our request,” he said revealing that they would be demanding a new constitutional mandate before any general elections as if any political party won under the present constitution “cat eat our dinner.”
He said the government cannot be faulted for the actions it is taking because the constitution allows it but it is for civil society to stand up and demand change.
He also took issue with political parties having a say at Gecom through their commissioners, which came out of the Herdmanston Accord and the St Lucia statement signed by the late presidents Desmond Hoyte and Janet Jagan following the 2002 elections.