It is with great disappointment that I read the article in Sunday Stabroek titled, ‘Move towards national reconciliation to combat race problems -UN expert says.’ The PPP government’s response to the study published by the UN representative Gay McDougall, on minority issues, was though predictable, very disappointing and sad. It is no secret that the government glorifies reports favourable to their positions but treats with the utmost disdain any unfavourable report. This attitude has long ago left derelict the credibility of the PPP administration.
The findings of Gay McDougall are not new, yet the PPP government is reluctant to acknowledge that Guyana has a boiling-pot ethnic problem. It is indeed incredible and intellectually dishonest for the government to suggest that there is no ethnic polarization in Guyana, when many prior studies have reached this same conclusion. Would the government also deny the existence of voting along ethnic lines, as a behaviour endemic to our electoral process?
The fact is, the government can appeal the findings of Gay McDougall and attempt to discredit them, in the process sweeping Guyana’s ethnic problem under the rug, but this does not make it go away. Ms Gay McDougall is a respected expert on minority issues. She has served on various United Nations human rights commissions, including as an independent expert on UN treaties that oversee the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD). In addition she was an international member of South Africa’s 16-member Independent Electoral Commission, which successfully organized and administered that country’s first non-racial elections. She has worked extensively in conflict areas across the globe including Sierra Leone, South Africa and Namibia, on issues such as systemic rape and sexual slavery in armed conflict areas. She is also a Yale trained lawyer. So despite what the government would like us to believe, this is someone who is completely qualified to have independently and without bias reached her conclusion.
What Ms McDougall found on her visit to Guyana is exactly what many of us who observe Guyana’s political sociology have been saying for many years. Guyana is a country with a history of ethnic conflict. There is an ethnic fault line in our social relations that continues to be exacerbated because of perceptions that exist concerning the governments’ lack of willingness to address minority racial grievances. There are still ethnically segregated villages and communities contrary to what the government says. During 2002 to 2008, the nihilism that created the debilitating crime rampage was in part ethnically motivated. This nihilism was created and supported in some quarters because of perceptions of ethnic discrimination and marginalization, and clearly the government and its supporters’ response to the situation had an ethnic dimension.
What is at issue here, and which the PPP government has continued to deny is that the larger minority group in Guyana − African Guyanese − feels that it is marginalized, excluded and discriminated against. The fact that the government may refuse to recognize this reality does not mean that the perception does not exist or the grievance is not legitimate. This perception is in part rooted in the fact that disproportionately African Guyanese youths more than any other ethnic group have been the target for extra-judicial killings. What is at issue also is the fact that a high percentage of government contracts are awarded to government supporters. The PPP government supporters are largely Indian Guyanese and so Indian Guyanese contractors get most of the government contracts. So the perception is racial discrimination in how such contracts are awarded. The government argues that small minority contractors are not adequately organized and capitalized and as such are not in a position to get the government contracts. This argument is ludicrous at worst, and is not a justifiable reason for not awarding contracts to small minority firms. It is only by awarding contracts to these small contractors that minority firms are able to grow. Many countries put legislation in place to ensure that small minority firms receive a fair portion of governmental contracts.
Since 1992, the upper hierarchy of the public service with the exception of the Guyana Police Force and the Guyana Defence Force, has been replaced in most positions by supporters of the PPP administration, who are mostly Indian Guyanese with scant regard for meritocracy. At the same time public service workers, the majority of whom are African Guyanese have been unable to use collective bargaining rights to negotiate a livable salary, because of the government’s contempt for their public service unions.
Perceptions are not created by a fiction of the collective imagination; they are often rooted in some reality. What is important to note is that conflicts, especially ethnic conflicts, arise because of ethnically perceived discrimination, exclusion and marginalization. This perception creates resentments and often supporters of the ruling group become targets for this resentment. However, we are not talking about perception only. The Government of Guyana has a track record of ignoring minority interests, especially those of African Guyanese. Often these concerns are relegated to accusations of “opposition extremism.” Even when evidence of torture of Guyanese citizens of African descent is clear, the PPP administration redefines such torture as “roughing up.” The high rate of extra-judicial killings of black men in the society is excused as merely police response to criminal activities, as if the constitution does not guarantee every Guyanese citizen regardless of race a presumption of innocence until proven guilty by a court of law.
It is only the government − not most Guyanese − who are shocked and dismayed to learn that the society is fractured along racial lines, that this fracture if not fixed can become an irreparable break, with perhaps devastating consequences for long-term socio-economic relations in the society. In fact one can argue that the stagnation in development is directly as a result of the racial polarization.
The fact that Guyanese of all ethnic and religious persuasions are patriotic, and would show a collective national pride by participating in national events such as the hosting of World Cup Cricket and Carifesta, hardly suggests social harmony without inherent racial polarization. In fact ethnic grievances can fracture social relations in such a severe and unpredictable manner that unless fundamental mechanisms are put in place to address such grievances, the government in Guyana cannot certify harmonious relations.
Every Guyanese deserves to live in a secure and prosperous society. Security and social harmony are achieved through good governance, the respect for human rights, and the respect for the rights and interests of all ethnic groups in a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society. In an ethnically fractured society like Guyana with a history of ethnic violence, security and prosperity can only be achieved through efforts at national reconciliation.