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Guyana’s Challenge
research notes

by Kampta Karran

First of all I will like to express my satisfaction at the return of the PNC/R to the National Assembly. Secondly, the consensus on the report of the Disciplined Forces Commission (DFC) by all the parties represented in the National Assembly demonstrates that when our leaders want they could work together. They must be aware that in the day-to-day life of the Guyanese people, the current situation of mutual fear and distrust is helping no one. The country does not benefit when sections of the society feel that at any moment as individuals or as a community they could be attacked in broad daylight and no one would do anything to protect them.

Reflecting on the 2002/2003 period of unprecedented ethnic-based violence in post-independence Guyana let me say that I do not know any of the persons who were involved in the kidnapping, the raping or the raiding of the villages on the East Coast Demerara. I do not know whether the motivation is political, racial or for economic gain or for any reason or combination of reasons. I do not know who were involved in the phantom death squad. I am not sure why it came into being. If it was a response to the crime wave or meant to protect innocent people, I do not know.

What I do know is that both phenomena need not have happened. Members in the Guyanese society are in a contractual agreement to respect the rights and privileges of each citizen regardless of the race, color or creed. Those who don the mantle of leadership have a responsibility to facilitate this process. The use of violence and/or the threat of violence upset the social contract and lead to chaos.

During upheavals in divided societies, leaders, with the best intention in the world, seldom if ever, could represent or claim to speak for the entire citizenry. Could the leadership of the PPP/C Government go into Buxton during the 2002/2003 period when the situation was most volatile? I doubt it. How many members of the PNC/R during that period openly condemned the attack on Indian villages by some of their African neighbors? The recent public call for peace by Mr. Aartie Ricknath of the PNC/R is most commendable. He knows that it is wrong for one group of citizens to drive fear into another group of citizens. He also knows that such behavior helps no cause.

In divided societies citizens and their leaders are often forced to take sides. Let us reflect on the response of the Hon. Minister, Mr. Mansoor Nadir when he and his family were attacked. In the heat of the moment he is reported to have said, among other things, that he was attacked because he was Indian. Up to that point Mr. Nadir never treated race as so salient a factor in political reckoning or in his day-to-day living. If there is corruption in high places as claimed by Mr. Khemraj Ramjattan, why is Rev. Dale Bisnauth, a Minister of Government, silent? Perhaps he silent because there is no corruption in high places?

During my interviews with female and male Guyanese of all races, political affiliations, classes and religions many Indians said that if the phantom is eliminating the criminals who are responsible for the mayhem then it is serving a useful purpose. However, there were many others who disapproved of these extra judicial measures. They reasoned that violence leads to more and worse violence. Further, I was told that there are legitimate ways of maintaining law and order and, however difficult it may appear, this is the way forward.

Many Africans told me that the violence was necessary part of the struggle for their individual and group rights. There are at least two such positions in the public domain. We will remember the medicine rationale of Mr. Vincent Alexander and the African traditional use of violence to move society forward as advanced by Mr. Dalgetty. However, the not-in-my-name declaration by Ms. Andaiye is an eloquent testimony to the many who would prefer to honor the social contract with Guyanese of all races.

Leaders in ethnically fragmented countries could advocate genocide, ethnic cleansing, or domination. Alternatively, they could advocate ethnic healing, human need satisfaction, forgiveness and reconciliation.

Genocide was practiced in Rwanda ten years ago. It solved nothing. Ethnic cleansing was practiced in Bosnia. It solved nothing. Racial/ethnic domination in apartheid had to yield to a fairer system of governance. Whether it is Northern Ireland or Sri Lanka the political leaders have come to realize that alternative ways of dealing with conflicts are essential. In Guyana, while the break down in inter-ethnic amity is under threat, peaceful co-existence is the dominant guiding principle. However, the fate of our country is in the hands of the leadership from all sides.

Recently, I attended an IMA sponsored conference on conflict analysis and conflict resolution at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford. One of the conclusions drawn is that the rule of the majority ethnic group in a multiethnic country is begging for trouble. In Guyana the democratic contradiction argument is well known. Our present government and its party will do well to reconsider its strategy for the 2006 national elections.

The conference also concluded that open violence on a section of the society by another is unsustainable as a political strategy. For one thing violence begets violence. For another, by some evil logic violence tends to turn upon its perpetrators and do damage to innocent people and to people in whose name the violence was launched. Our recent history will validate this conclusion. Importantly also, it was demonstrated that large sections of our planet subscribe to humanitarian norms that look down upon warmongers and will distance themselves from such people.

I came out of the conference with the same feeling I had last year after the conflict resolution conference dealing with Sudan at St. Antony’s College. The distress and political blunders in the Sudan make our experiences look like a walk in the park. But with each passing violent episode Guyana is being drawn deeper and deeper into the sphere of no return.

At this moment our leaders have important choices to make. We could only hope that they will not let slip this opportunity presented by the Bacchus/death squad and Vivekanand/East Coast Demerara kidnapping affairs. These tragedies could provide the springboard for the transformation of the conflict into problems to be solved.

In Guyana, the general election is scheduled for 2006. Political parties are no doubt planning their strategies and tactics. The PNC/R may be saying that 2006 is not about winning or losing at the polls. It is about all sectional interests having an active role in political decision-making and in the distribution of material, cultural and status resources.

Perhaps the WPA and ROAR are sharpening their ideas around the notion of a new political culture while TUF is deciding how it will present itself to the electorate and its members come 2006. GAP, ARC and the other political forces are thinking how to broaden their appeal.

In many ways our Government and the PPP/C feel that they are doing a great job, that they were elected to govern and that the collective opposition is making it impossible for them to satisfy this mandate.

The current situation, though different in fundamental ways, reminds me of 1964. On the eve of the elections Premier Dr Jagan gave an excellent speech in which he highlighted the advances his government made in spite of the frustrations caused by local and foreign oppositions. He lamented, "What saddens me is that the working class should be divided and more so because it is cleft by the terrible sword of racial prejudice." To overcome this hurdle he confided, "I have done everything to bring about unity in 1957, in 1961 and again recently. But every overture on my part for re-uniting the Guyanese liberation movement has been rejected, even a coalition government based on parity which, at one time, the opposition leader [read Mr. Forbes Burnham] advocated."

Perhaps it is time for our government and the PPP/C to rethink their strategy and tactics. Remember three of our Presidents, including Dr. Jagan, advocated some form of power sharing before they passed away. The challenge of government and the ruling party face is a tough one. A majoritarian democracy based on one- person one-vote with the traditional winner and loser outcome is an option. Another is power sharing where all stakeholders win. The latter choice will shift the paradigm of democratic governance and usher in a new era of politics in the Commonwealth Caribbean. Together the executive and the legislature in consultation with the relevant stakeholders could devise a formula to take all Guyana forward. At the moment, while the position of TUF is difficult to determine, the other parliamentary opposition is supportive of this thrust and it would appear that the international and regional communities are also sympathetic.

Two months ago, on 5th March 2004, our young and energetic President in commemorating Dr. Jagan at Babu John said that while things have changed many of the challenges that People’s Progressive Party (PPP) faced during the early days still exist. However, he reassured us that "the founder of the PPP, Dr. Cheddi Jagan, has left the framework to tackle these." He vowed that he would always aspire to keep the vision and legacy of Dr. Jagan alive. "Any goal I manage, would remain true to the ideas of Dr. Cheddi Jagan," he is reported to have said. What about his 1964 idea of coalition government to prevent race-based violence and the collapse of law and order? He proposed this when he was in office. What about his 1970s national patriotic front government idea meant to facilitate greater inclusion and participation? He proposed this when he was in opposition.

The value of a power sharing approach to government is that it places responsibility in the hands of all stakeholders. A success in one section of the society brings pride and joy to all sections because all other sections of the society would have contributed to the success. Similarly, a failure in one section would be seen as a collective failure. When things go wrong everyone share in the blame. When things go right everyone shares the fame.

During my fieldwork in Guyana many Indians told me that they feel that their pain is not recognized even by the Guyana Human Rights Association. That organization I was told seem more concerned with the welfare of those who perpetuate the injury that with the welfare of those injured. Many also feel that agencies like the police force, which is supposed to ensure their safety, appear impotent in the wake of this violence or threat of violence which seem reserved for only their kind. As I read the newspapers recently, I begin to hear the voices of some of my Indian respondents.
In like manner, many of my African respondents told me that they feel marginalized from the benefits of the state; that members of their race seem to meet violent and unexplained deaths. I was told that order would be disrupted if a section of the society feel that they are marginalized and discriminated against in all manner of ways. The issue here is not whether this perception is validated by hard evidence or not. The issue is that people believe that they are unfairly treated and they are willing to take action on that belief. Hence the data produced Dr. Prem Misir while useful will not placate some of my African respondents.

My research shows that both Africans and Indians recognize that aggressive action violates the well being of others who are not responsible for the plight of the aggressors. Some people feel that such violation is the price our country has to pay. I am an advocate of peaceful conflict resolution and so I do not share this view. There are always peaceful mechanisms for the avoidance or management of conflict. As a diverse people we have to be creative in our endeavors to put closure to the madness of violence that seem to take possession of the souls of so many. Our leaders have to be visionaries and seek out the redemptive pathways. The recent successful parliamentary debate on the DFC report tells us that they have what it takes. A more frequent expression of this level of goodwill and maturity could only be beneficial to all Guyana.

Mr. George Bacchus’s murder triggered the recent demonstration in the streets of Georgetown. The call by some of the protesters for business houses to be closed is very instructive. Mr. Ravi Dev, part of the rule of law protest, condemned the act. He reasoned that in trying to uphold the law you cannot break the law. Mr. Tacuma Ogunseye, on the other hand, praised the action and saw it an act of redemption not only for the protesters but also for all Guyana. Obviously, those Guyanese who disagree with his analysis would not feel redeemed. Further, there are others who feel and publicly expressed their disapproval and condemnation.

The opposing views of these two gentlemen, both of whom, I am sure, have the interest of all Guyana at heart, demonstrate one of the main dilemmas our fledgling country faces. People of different races and different political persuasions can examine the same phenomenon and arrive at a different conclusion. There is also an inability among our leadership to feel and articulate the pain of the other. Why does this happen? Perhaps there is a lack of adequate communication.

It is this breakdown in effective communication across ethnic and political lines that is at the core of our troubles. The leadership of the rule of law protest is fully aware of the volatile nature of our politics and race relations. Did the members sit down and work out the possible courses of action that their demonstration could call forth? Did they consider what they would do to curb excesses? Did they even discuss what behavior they would condone and what they would not? Perhaps they did; perhaps they did not.

I remember one particular demonstration, a massive demonstration that started from a village on the East Coast Demerara. The death of a human with a savior’s heart triggered that demonstration. Several people left their homes that day prepared to pay the ultimate price for a cause they were convinced was just. Yet, either by a miracle or sensible guiding leadership, or both, the day ended without massive blood letting. Emotions ran high, many are still scared, but peace prevailed.

Surely there are alternative and effective ways of protesting. When protest action drives fear into innocent citizens that action runs the risk of losing its legitimacy. The challenge that faces those who are confronting the state in Guyana today is to find a peaceful way of conducting their affairs. I am sure there are many lessons to be learned from the 1970s and the 1980s. Any protest action that alienates the sectional interests of the population will further contribute to widening the racial divide. The national platform that Mr. Trotman and his colleagues are trying to mount has suffered a major set back.

While Guyana’s economic performance leaves much to be desired, it is in the political sphere that many see the answer. While the recent successfully held parliamentary session gives cause for hope, our political leaders may still need help to get their dialogue starting again. The international community and donor agencies have to work overtime on this one. In the meantime, Messrs Ravi Dev and Tacuma Ogunsey could take this opportunity to get better acquainted. Sharing opinions in the press is a good start.
After the war Einstein and Freud were selected to begin correspondence on peace. Perhaps our major political parties could make public their ideas for a peaceful Guyana. The objective is not to treat the first statements as set in stone. We should see modification. The debate should produce dynamic results. The Ramjattan/Trotman debate was a good start. Perhaps the Stabroek News should now broaden out the discourse.

As we are preparing for the 2006 national elections, our leaders must begin peace talks in the public domain and implement peace guideline within their parties. Followers should be persuaded to respect and observe these guidelines in practice. One could only hope that the next general election will be organized and conducted in such a manner that no community will feel that it has lost. Similarly, the election must not result in another community feeling victorious. Like, the recent parliamentary debate on the DFC report, let us have a general election in 2006 that would yield consensus.

Kampta Karran
Warwick Postgraduate Research Fellow
Centre for Research in Ethnic Relations
University of Warwick
Coventry CV 4 7AL

Editor: The views expressed by the writer do not necessarily reflect the views of the Guyana Journal or the editor. While the writer has made valuable observations and suggestions that appear positive, there are obviously many overly simplictic notions in his approach to solving the “problems". He has opened the door further for additional debate, dialogue and discussion.
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