The US Ambassador’s thoughts on our Protest March

Thanks Danger for the heads up, so this was from the Post Courier:

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When historians write about social and political progress in the United States, they devote special attention to the important role played by peaceful protests and demonstrations.

America has always been a diverse country of many different religions, races and political points of view; peaceful protest has been one of the most effective ways available for us to publicly express our hopes, our aspirations and, when necessary, our disagreements with our government and its representatives.

For many Americans today, the phrase “protest march” brings back memories of eloquent and forceful mass demonstrations advancing civil rights and opposing the Vietnam War during the Sixties and Seventies. It evokes Dr Martin Luther King’s famous 1963 March on Washington, when he delivered the “I Have A Dream” speech which captured the imagination of the American people; it led to political, legal and social reforms that changed the whole nature of our society. But the history of American protest movements is long and rich and goes back to before Independence in 1776; in fact, it was public protests against unjust taxes levied by our British colonial overlords that set the stage for the American Revolution. Americans view a society’s capacity for holding such peaceful protests as a mark of its political maturity. In fact, they are as important to the democratic process as other freedoms such as freedom of the press.

Elections play a central role in democracy, but what if elected officials don’t listen to their constituents? What if citizens feel a government is violating the Constitution, or acting unjustly, or abusing its powers? Waiting for an election may not be sufficient. A free people must be able to dramatize its deepest desires and discontents, to register them with unresponsive leaders, officials and legislators, to sing and chant and shout about perceived injustice and unresponsiveness.

Society can also do this through the written word, through the media, at meetings and in telephone calls and in friendly conversations at the supermarket, but none of these carry the same impact as a peaceful mass protest.

On Tuesday, May 4, Papua New Guinea took an important step forward towards greater political maturity when   4000-7000          citizens took to the streets to peacefully petition the Government to withdraw the bill proposing amendments that, they believe, would restrict the powers, functions and responsibilities of the Ombudsman Commission, the so-called Maladina amendment, the first time a mass political protest of this sort has taken place in Papua New Guinea. I do not judge here the legal or political issues which inspired the protest, or whether the Government was right or wrong, matters for PNG’s voters and elected officials to decide. But as an American, I was impressed with how naturally, rapidly and vigorously the people of Papua New Guinea moved to organise a peaceful protest against actions proposed by their Government. It was a dignified protest and should make its participants, and all of Papua New Guinea, immensely proud. Political protests of this sort are not signs of an alienated or cynical public; instead, they signify a public that has confidence in the institutions and freedoms of their country, a public willing to take steps to preserve their integrity in the face of challenge. It also illustrates again that freedom of speech and freedom of expression are alive and well in PNG, unlike in some neighbouring countries such as Fiji. The May 4 protest reminded me of some of the most inspiring moments in American history. In particular, it reminded me of the civil rights marches I observed and participated in as a young man. And it brought back vivid memories of the long and noble history of marches in Washington DC, my hometown, demonstrations and protests over the issues that have concerned the American people such as war, abortion, gay rights, gender equality, taxes. American protests reflect all shades of the political and social spectrum; they have dramatised how strongly the public feels about controversial issues that political leaders, left to themselves, may prefer to avoid. Public protests forced them to pay attention. On May 4, the people of Papua New Guinea made clear they have an important message for their government. It is the responsibility of the Government of Papua New Guinea to listen. A government that pays attention to peaceful mass protest is another sign of a politically mature democracy.One more aspect of the anti-Maladina amendment demonstration reminds me of the United States: it took place over a constitutional issue. Like the people of Papua New Guinea, we Americans have the deepest respect for our nation’s Constitution. Our Constitution, like Papua New Guinea’s, was “home-grown,” springing from the spirit and political will of the people and the leaders they chose rather than an imposition from outside or a pale imitation of some other country’s founding document. Look at any of our most important protest marches and you will almost always find they articulate strong feelings over constitutional issues.

A constitution is the physical embodiment of the compact that must always exist between free peoples and their leaders, a compact which entails mutual agreement rather than acquiescence in the power of a sovereign. The peoples of mature democracies recognise the significance and meaning of that compact when they base their political dialogue and protests on matters of constitutional interpretation. Thus the May 4 protestors illustrated PNG’s growing political maturity in yet another way when they chose to highlight the importance of their issues in the context of respect for their Constitution.

How the Government responds will be another test of Papua New Guinea’s political maturity. I hope that the success of the May 4 march will turn such peaceful mass demonstrations into normal and respected events in PNG. Without our public protests and demonstrations, America might not have moved as far towards true justice and equality as we have. I predict the people of Papua New Guinea will see results as profound and long lasting as Americans have if they, too, develop a practice of peaceful protest over the issues that matter most.