Minister of Foreign Affairs Carolyn Rodrigues-Birkett was reported in our Wednesday edition as criticizing the current Surinamese administration in the National Assembly for its silence on a plan by a previous government to invade this country’s New River Triangle. She went on to say that the current government in Paramaribo had not clarified that it opposed the use of force in a context where there was continued agitation for the annexation of this country’s territory. Her remarks had been preceded by a press release from the Office of the President the previous week which had made reference to statements in the Suriname Parliament that Paramaribo had planned the invasion of the New River Triangle.
The period to which this planned annexation relates is the year 2000, when Surinamese gunboats evicted an American oil rig hired by CGX, from this country’s waters, a hostile act perpetrated by the Wijdenbosch government. It should therefore come as no surprise to the Guyana government now, that in addition to aggression on the seas, Suriname at that period was also toying with the notion of aggression on land. In fact, the expulsion of the CGX rig had as a major part of its objective the extraction of concessions on the land boundary – something which became very apparent in the course of the negotiations with our eastern neighbour, but which should have been viewed as a likely hypothesis the minute the gunboats sent the rig packing.
Shortly after the expulsion of the rig, there were determined efforts on the part of Caricom to find a solution, most of which revolved around joint exploration of oil resources pending a determination of the maritime boundary. But after negotiations in Port of Spain, Georgetown, Paramaribo, Canouan, Montego Bay and Kingston, the Surinamese refused to budge. At the final talks in Jamaica, with Prime Minister PJ Patterson as facilitator, it seemed as if a compromise had been achieved, but the Wijdenbosch administration then walked away from it.
In subsequent bilateral encounters involving the Joint Technical Committee, Joint Meetings of the National Border Commissions, the Joint National Border Sub-Commission, the talks first dragged on, and then stalled. By this time the Venetiaan government was in office, but the pattern of negotiations indicated that the Surinamese were still using the CGX rig as a bargaining chip to obtain concessions in the New River Triangle.
While the Venetiaan government was less overtly belligerent, it was probably in no position to change course on the issue of the rig, even if it was of the private view that its predecessors had miscalculated; nationalist fervor would have precluded any backtracking on the issue. As it was in 2002 again there was clamour in Paramaribo for the re-occupation of Camp Jaguar, and an opposition MP laid a question in the Suriname Parliament reflecting that view. In this highly charged atmosphere, rumours circulated that there had been incursions from the Guyana side into Suriname territory, and Paramaribo was forced to send soldiers into the area to investigate. Needless to say they found nothing.
At the bottom of all this it has to be recognized that Suriname has been smarting under what she perceives as humiliations which go back more than forty years. In 1967, the Guyana Police Force expelled Surinamese surveyors from the New River Triangle, and in 1969, the GDF destroyed a Surinamese armed encampment. And now, having overplayed her hand on the matter of the CGX rig and leaving herself no room for manoeuvre; and having rejected an offer from the late President Hoyte for joint exploitation of resources, an offer which was repeated by this government during the negotiations in relation to the rig, Suriname now finds she is left at a greater disadvantage than before the expulsion. Since it was clear she was not negotiating in good faith in the CGX matter, Guyana as is well known took the maritime boundary issue to the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea in Hamburg, whose determination of the line established that the rig had indeed been operating in Guyana waters.
What all of this means quite simply is that no Suriname government is going to publicly reject the use of force as a possible instrument in its quest for the New River Triangle. Given popular feeling on the matter which opposition politicians have never been reticent about exploiting, and given the fact that Suriname governments are always coalitions, it is almost inevitable that there will be intimations of bellicose postures from time to time. According to the Government of Guyana, we are going through one of those phases at the moment.
That Suriname takes border issues seriously is evidenced by the fact that she has been building up her military capacity for almost two decades. It was her new patrol boats, purchased from
Spain which expelled the CGX rig, and nothing could have contrasted more embarrassingly with the GDF, which had no vessel of its own at the time. It might be recalled that in August 2000, four Surinamese soldiers landed at Scotsburg in pursuit of a passenger boat, and fired six shots in the air to disperse the courageous and irate residents who had assembled on the beach; some of them had armed themselves with bottles and sticks. The Surinamers only retreated when a Land Rover with members of the Berbice Anti-Smuggling Squad arrived on the scene.
The history of Guyana-Suriname relations unfortunately is, that if Paramaribo thinks it can get away with bullying, it attempts to do so. There has been no agreement of any significance negotiated with Suriname, which has been finally endorsed by that country, and even the Canawaima ferry project was delayed for years because Paramaribo was adamant about including clauses which potentially had implications for sovereignty over the Corentyne River. As things stand, Suriname for some years has refused to include the river in border discussions, insisting that Guyana recognize that it belongs to Suriname. This has been reinforced by President Venetiaan, who told his nation after the Hamburg decision, that the tribunal had awarded the river to Suriname. It was less than the truth. The judgement does say in the introductory preamble that the river is Surinamese, but this does not form part of the award. The boundary in the Corentyne, therefore, has yet to be determined.
Without going into the details here, Guyana’s case for the New River Triangle is extraordinarily good, and successive Suriname governments have been misleading their people on the issue for decades. They have been employing two major weapons: one is persuading the international community that the territory is theirs using tactics pioneered by Venezuela; and the other, as said above, is simply by bullying coupled with intransigence. There is a pattern to the latter: their timing is opportunistic, as in the case of the oil rig, or it is associated with periods of stress in this country – 2002 being a case in point. They perceive this government as weak; as being suspicious of the GDF and afraid to equip the military; of being unable to unite Guyana on the issue; and of being naïve, after it allowed them into Caricom without securing a settlement of the border dispute first. After all, that considerably extended their diplomatic range on the matter, and seriously undermined ours. Since we are moving into election season with all the internal divisiveness that brings in its train, the government in Georgetown should expect more growling from Paramaribo.
The experience of more than forty years has shown that governments here need to be very direct and unbending when dealing with Suriname on frontier issues; compromise following low-key diplomacy simply does not exist in their lexicon. Secondly, the government needs a consistent policy to deal with Surinamese tactics, such as the spurious map of that country distributed to all and sundry, etc. Government officials, for example, must be instructed to walk out of any session where they encounter it, and not stay put as one government minister did during a documentary a few years ago. In every instance where the ‘map’ rears its head, Takuba Lodge must protest – not every now and then, but every time.
Most important, after President Jagdeo’s somewhat ambiguous address to the GDF Officers’ Conference, he really should make clear that whatever else he has in mind for the army, protecting our borders remains their number one task; if he does not do this, then Paramaribo will draw its own conclusions. For our own security, weakness is the worst image we could project if we want to prevent Suriname from over-reaching herself again. Furthermore, the government really should ensure that the GDF is suitably equipped to protect the New River Triangle. Contrary to what the administration here appears to believe, there are circumstances under which a Suriname government might again contemplate an attempt at direct appropriation.
In addition, as had been said many times before, the Guyana government really has to work to make protection of our territorial integrity a national issue. This cannot be done spasmodically whenever there are grumblings from Paramaribo; it has to be an ongoing policy to sensitize the public and involve all the parliamentary parties in the construction of a viable long-term policy.
Finally, it means upgrading our diplomatic capacity and emphasizing professionalism, not political loyalty. The fiasco of the CGX rig was an indictment of the quality of our political representation in Paramaribo and our analytical capabilities in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as is the fact it is only now that the Government of Guyana seemingly has become aware there was an invasion plan for the New River Triangle ten years ago.