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Remembering the attempted coup 29 years later

Former government minister Winston Dookeran (left) answers questions posed to him from television personality Hema Ramkissoon, and Shane Mohammed of the University's Department of Political Science. Photo: Raymond Syms

Lara Pickford-Gordon

Former minister in the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) government Winston Dookeran engaged in “dialogue” with members of the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen in the July 27, 1990 attempted coup as a strategy and stalling tactic to move the “pendulum from blood and violence” to “open the door” of the Parliament.

He had been told by a member of the group that they had sent their wives and children to different parts of the country and they were “prepared to die”.  Twenty-four persons died in the attempted coup among them police, civilians, members of the Jamaat.

Dookeran shared his experience at a forum ‘Duty in the Midst of Crisis’ hosted by The University of the West Indies (UWI) Department of Political Science in collaboration with One Young World on Monday, July 22 at UWI’s Learning Resource Centre, St Augustine. He was interviewed by Hema Ramkissoon, deputy Head of News CNC3 and Shane Mohammed of the department of Political Science.

Dookeran, along with Prime Minster ANR Robinson and other members of Parliament were taken by surprise during a sitting of the House of Representatives; it was private members’ day and debate was taking place on the Tesoro Scandal.  Robinson had arrived late, before the adjournment at 3.30 p.m., and asked if a lawyer had spoken and when told no, suggested a lawyer be next to speak.   Minister of National Security Joseph Toney was giving his contribution and had just asked the Opposition “Who is your leader?” when gunshots rang out.

“Within a few moments we came to terms with the fact that this Parliament was being held at gunpoint for what purpose we had no answer. A few moments later the insurgents, many of whom appeared to be very young, came to each one of us and said better to go on the floor…and tie your hands to the front. They had come prepared. That’s when we were aware of the crisis of democracy and personal crisis,” he recounted.

There was complete silence and visitors in the public gallery were seen trying to leave. Robinson was dragged to the centre of the parliament along with the Attorney General Selwyn Richardson. He said many “words of disdain” were directed to Finance Minister Selby Wilson.  Dookeran said he and the hostages were beaten on their backs. The person who appeared to be the leader, Bilal Abdullah had a discussion with Robinson.

Dookeran said Robinson was asked to speak on the walkie talkie and it was then he made his “attack with full force” call.  He was shot in his legs. Ramkissoon asked why the army did not follow this directive. Dookeran said he was not privy to what was taking place outside the parliament but would be surprised if they acted on this alone. “While it was a statement ‘attack with full force’ in my opinion was that he was asked to surrender. He was asked to declare the government would surrender,” he said.

The hostages were in shock and sat in silence while guns were pointed at them. Minister Dr Emmanuel Hosein called out to Dookeran and told him he had to do something as the Prime Minister had been shot. “I was not sure I wanted to do anything,” Dookeran admitted to chuckles from the audience.  He however realised his colleague was right. He got the attention of one of the gunmen and began asking what they wanted.  He was told a new government and for the Prime Minister to resign. The gunman had a discussion with the “leader”, via walkie talkies with Jamaat members outside. Dookeran was approached and asked his name and position. When he informed that he was the Minister of Planning, the Muslimeen member’s response was, “I am sure you did not plan for this”.  Dookeran said in that light-hearted moment he felt relief that the persons he was dealing with had a sense of humour. He added, “Prior to that I was of the view this is a group of thugs ready to kill for whatever purpose.” He recalled a “chilling message” when the hostages were told if the Jamaat did not achieve their aim they would shoot each prisoner and throw them over the bannister.

Dookeran said the dialogue with the captors went on intermittently from about 8 p.m. to about 4 a.m. July 28.  They asked for a change of government but did not specify details. The issue of the land at Mucurapo did not come up.

“As time went on, it became clear to me that the only way to resolve this impasse, get us out of this situation, is to find a way to open the door of the Parliament,” he said. Gunshots were heard outside. The talks went back and forth. He told them if they wanted a change in government there was a constitutional process. Dookeran said he was stalling because he did not want a “breakdown” of talks. Toney was brought in because he was a lawyer but Toney said nothing.   “A lot of it was not substantial discussion; it was not learned discussion. It was a discussion of moving the pendulum from shooting us to how to change government.”

Dookeran shared about the involvement of Anglican priest Knolly Clarke as mediator and the US Special Forces who assisted with gaining the release of the hostages.

He said he did not regret the amnesty which led to the surrender of the insurrectionists because he did not expect it to be legal. Dookeran said he regretted the legal system has not taken action. “I never dreamed someone would commit a violent act against the government and that the legal system finds ways to protect them,” he said to applause. The Privy Council ruled the amnesty was invalid.

Dookeran disagrees that social and economic conditions were grounds for 1990. “No one can justify the violent overthrow of a democratically elected government on any grounds”. The question of today’s violence and crime being linked to the events of 1990 was raised. Dookeran said the coup “permitted a sense of permissiveness that you can break the law and get away with it; in that sense it affected the psyche of the people”.  He said there were complex issues behind what is happening today and called for a crusade against violence because people were resorting to violence as the only way to resolve conflicts and express grievances.

Dookeran said people look for quick fixes for the problems in society out of a sense of frustration, rage and hopelessness but these are never permanent solutions. “I would just hope the leadership of this country does not do anything to encourage people to find quick-fix solutions to challenges. I think we need a to have a new sense of freedom a higher freedom in the conduct of politics… I do not expect our country to support any attempts by groups against any government organisation,” he said.