Legislative Assembly for the Australian Capitol Territory
Wayne Berry MLA
Shadow Minister for Education, Employment
Industrial Relations and Tourism
Member for Ginninderra
Mr Mick Keelty
Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police
GPO Box 401
Canberra ACT 2601
On Friday 4th May I had the misfortune to witness an exhibition of police incompetence that I wish never to see repeated in the Australian Capitol Territory.
In my experience I have seen many examples of well-managed demonstrations involving the Australian Federal Police (AFP). As a result I had developed a healthy respect for the professionalism I have seen excercised on many occasions. Friday's performance outside the Burmese Embassy seriously undermines the confidence of the community can have in the AFP to sensibly manage political protests.
I went to this demonstration along with a range of other Canberrans to join a contigent of interstate and local Burmese protesting the Burmese regime. I estimate about 50 people in all attended. I was a little surprised at the size police contigent, which included 2 horses, dogs a dozen fully-knitted riot police and other police probably numbering around 100.
I spoke to the spokesperson for the Burmese contingent and he assured me that there was to be no organised violence and I saw no sing of any. He also told me that a flag would be burned and I understand police knew about this . I was then happy to address the protesters and did so briefly , along with others , none of whom could be said to have incited any violence .
The protesters had by then moved out onto the road, which had been blocked by the police. After the speeches the flag was ignited then carried on the end of a long stick while it burned quite slowly. A symbolic and routine occurrence at these sorts of demonstrations.
Suddenly there was a quite violent lunge into the crowd by two police with a foam and CO2 extinguisher attacking the very small fire with a force that was far more of a danger than anything that had occurred thus far. This intervention was a gross over reaction, which completely misjudged the possible consequences.
As you would expect this provocative intervention by police caused a round of yelling, gesticulating and some push and shove in front of the baton and shield carrying police who then entered the crowd belting people with their shields provoking more reaction from the crowd. This violent response by police presented the strongest likelyhood of injury after the overdone fire-fighting incident.
At this point if it were not for the clearheaded people among the protesters who settled the crowd down, this incident would have become quite ugly and dangerous to both police and demonstrators.
AS the protest outside the embassy died down, I overheard a discussion between a police officer who looked like he was in charge and protesters complaining about the police move to put the fire out. The police officer put the argument for his action along the lines that the demonstration had moved from behind the barriers and that because an ' accelerant ' had been used then someone was in danger.
In my view both points put by the officer lack credibility. The fact that the demonstration had moved on to the street possibly challenged police authority to a minor degree but presented no danger to anyone, by the time police moved there was not much remaining of a flag-burning exercise which posed little or no danger unlike the ill-judged violent intervention by the police.
I have been a long time supporter of the AFP and I am sympathetic to the complex and difficult decisions they have to make from time to time. However, the performance on Friday warrants a close investigation and action to avoid a repeat where the outcome could be far more dangerous for everyone concerned and would bring the AFP into disrepute. In addition I believe that it would be a good idea if an apology were extended to the Burmese community and those who participated in this event.
Wayne Berry MLA
7 May 2001
ACT Legislative Assembly, Civic Square, Canberra City ACT 2601
GPO Box 1020, Canberra ACT 2601, phone 62050021, fax 62050498 Email firstname.lastname@example.org