By Sir Ronald Sanders
(The writer is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the U.S. and the OAS. He is also a senior fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and at Massey College in the University of Toronto. The view expressed are entirely his own)
Once again, Guyana is causing regional and international worry following two sets of killings of young men (two of African origin and two of Indian origin) that have sparked the flames of communal violence and threaten to engulf the country.
The facts of these killings are yet unknown and unestablished. As this commentary is being written, the Police are still in the process of investigating the crimes. What should be a period of national support to find the perpetrators and deliver justice, has been misused to promote violence and civil disturbance.
Justice for the four persons who have been killed is necessary, but justice is not about assuming facts, acting lawlessly and exploiting emotional sentiment to further the ambitions of a few politicians.
Following the first killings of the African-Guyanese teenagers, Isaiah and Joel Henry, supporters of the opposition, APNU-AFC, blocked main highways and confronted Police. Hooligans took advantage of the protests to commit atrocities which included beatings. The following day, two Indo-Guyanese were killed – one of them a 17-year old, Hareshi Singh, and the other Prettipaul Hargobon who was beaten to death by a crowd.
Commendably, Volda Lawrence, the Chairman of the People’s National Congress Reform (PNCR), the main party in the opposition APNU, made a public statement, saying: “I am calling on every single member of the People’s National Congress Reform, irrespective of your status, I am saying that we cannot continue. This carnage must stop.” Similar strong statements from the Opposition leader in Parliament, Mr Joseph Harmon, and former President David Granger, would be the responsible thing for them to do.
Guyanese, who lived through Guyana’s destructive and haunting racial violence between 1962 and 1964, worry that a similar disaster is being promoted, which could not be controlled or stopped without foreign military intervention. In the 1962-64 period, Guyana was a British Colony and British troops intervened. Nonetheless, the considerable loss of life and property wounded the country and scarred the society.
Addressing the present situation, Guyana’s President, Irfaan Ali, assured the Guyanese people that his government “will work to bring justice to every single person who has been affected in these circumstances”. He announced that he would be approaching the British Government and the Caribbean Regional Security System for help in investigating the killings. He should include a forensic investigator in his request. An external qualified investigator would help to give confidence to the thoroughness of investigations.
President Ali also said that he is “exploring the commissioning of an International Commission of Inquiry to look at every aspect of this situation”. However, he should also consider how, as a nation, Guyana will, internally, address the racial issue that has been exploited for so long. International Commissions might be helpful, but as in South Africa and Northern Ireland, it is in Guyana that solutions to communal strife must be found.
In this, he should follow the lead of a remarkable Guyanese – Mr. Gladstone Henry, the father of one of the murdered boys. Mr. Henry has publicly declared, “I am not supporting immoral protesting. As a family we want justice (but) we as a nation cannot be fighting each other”.
Therefore, consideration might be given to the creation of a “One Guyana Commission”, to explore practical steps that can be taken to cement Guyana’s one society. The work of the Commission should be countrywide, listening to the free contention of all voices, concerning ways in which every Guyanese can honour the strands of their ancestral heritage while celebrating their uniquely blended Guyanese civilization, with equal opportunities for all.
An observation made by Joshua Hyles in his book, ‘Guiana and the Shadows of Empire’ is compelling: “Country studies of Guyana point out that the country’s disparate ethnic groups have come to resemble one another culturally and physically more than those of their (racial) countries of origin”. In other words, what Hyles is saying is that a person of Indian or African origin living in Guyana often exhibits more cultural and physical similarities to a person of Indian or African origin in Guyana than another Indian or African abroad.
This is a truism for any Guyanese of Indian or African origin who has travelled to India or Africa. Those, who have visited the lands of their ancestors, recognize that their visceral homeland is Guyana. The challenges of language of tribe, of cast, of culture set aside Guyanese, except Amerindians, from the distant lands of their ancestors.
Guyanese – of all races – have resided together for almost two centuries. In doing so, a Guyanese civilization has been woven from strands that originated in other lands – in India, Africa, Europe, China and in Guyana itself. What has been created is a unique blend that is Guyanese.
Together, the two main groups in Guyana – people whose ancestors came from Africa and India – are a formidable force. The British colonizers and plantation owners knew that very well, which is why they employed the strategy of divide and rule; a strategy continued by self-serving local politicians. In the words of Lord Varys in the television series, Game of Thrones: “He would see this country burn if he could be King of the ashes.”
Guyanese should free themselves from the ‘race’ trap if they are to avoid despoiling their country and robbing themselves of the very high quality of life that their recent oil and gas production offers.
In the past, violence in Guyana has led to refugees, migration, and instability in the region. Neither the countries of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) nor the nations of the Americas would sit-by and watch Guyana descend into civil strife and violence now. Such a development would have consequences for them, and they will undoubtedly act if circumstances demand it.
For the time being neighbouring states will keep a watchful eye, hoping that good sense will prevail among all the politicians in Guyana to calm emotions and maintain stability.
Guyana must become part of the solution to the region’s challenges, not continually be part of its problems.
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10 September 2020