We need to have the true story of what happened in Guyana for the next generation

Dear Editor,

We read with a great deal of interest the recent announcement that the Brazilian lower house (the Chamber of Deputies in the Congresso Nacional do Brasil) is putting in place legislation for the appointment of a Truth Commission to investigate abuses of the Brazilian military between 1964 and 1985. The Bill, piloted through the Chamber of Deputies by Secretary of the Human Rights Commission, had little difficulty in getting the approval of the lower house, Wednesday afternoon, 22nd September, 2011.

The Bill, loosely patterned after South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission, is intended to “examine and clarify” rights violations between 1964 and 1985. Importantly, it has received the support of the military. This was a major stumbling block in previous efforts despite a 1979 Amnesty Law that protects suspects from legal indictments. The military eased its opposition last year when the Brazilian Supreme Court ruled that the 1979 Amnesty Law was inviolate.

Critics, however, see the Brazilian effort as “timid” compared to those of its more robust neighbours – Argentina and Chile –  where military leaders were charged, dragged before civilian courts, tried and humiliated  – then imprisoned. Similarly the region’s Human Rights body, the Costa Rican-based Inter-American Court on Human Rights, last year, openly criticized the Lula administration in Brasilia for its foot dragging and reticence in responding to the demands of the relatives and friends of the more than 500 who disappeared under the Brazilian military between 1964 and 1985.

Supporters, while readily acknowledging the “toothlessness” of the Bill are not dissuaded and suggest that they are not looking for revenge. Groups representing torture victims are no less sanguine and though they recognize the anaemic quality of the legislation see it as “an important step forward [that may] eventually open the path to prosecutions”. Rose Nogueira, a member of the Torture Never Again group, herself a prisoner in 1969, was similarly demure and says “We think that the cases found to be criminal should be sent to court — we want a Truth and Justice Commission”. Others were equally modest and limited their demands to getting the story straight.

One activist summarized what many were thinking “First, we need to have the true story of what happened in Brazil for the next generation”. In the end, even the army publicly relented and Jose Genoino, Special Advisor to the Ministry of Defense, suggested “At the moment the most important thing is memory.  This is more radical than condemning anyone. After we have memory and truth, there may be other questions.”

It is a monumental irony that such a major story from our next door neighbour, no less, has not been picked up in Guyana by either the media or our opposition political parties where elections are under way in which our history hangs as a pall over its conduct and debate. Moreover, ours is a considerably more traumatic story than Brazil’s, given the comparative differences in size and population. Indeed, we need to remind ourselves that it all began more than fifty years ago in 1953 under the watchful eye of British gunboats and battle-dressed Tommies.

Our ruling party, on the other hand, is a known quantity and has already shown its hand. Its Presidential candidate is on record as saying that a public enquiry into reported cases of corruption is a non-starter. Matters can and will proceed only on the basis of legal evidence. Meantime, his sitting President has no hesitation in accusing APNU’s Presidential candidate, Retired Brigadier David Granger of having blood on his hands over the death of two PPP activists at No. 64 Village Polling Station during the elections of 1973. Where is the evidence for the charge? Of course, none has been forthcoming because there is none. It is the strategy deployed for the last 20 years chastising the PNC for “28 years” while refusing to do the right thing and initiate a public inquiry into the PNC’s wrong doing. It cannot continue to claim weakness since it has won four successive elections since 1992.

There may very well be good reasons, though, why it cannot and will not initiate such an inquiry. It will not have the opportunity, as it did in 1964, when, as the government of the day, it initiated an enquiry into the disturbances that occurred at the community up the Demerara River – Wismar/Christianburg/Mackenzie – on the 25th May, 1964. No one has reasonably denied the horrific experience of East Indians in the community on the fateful day. What, however, has been questioned is the partisan nature of the process. For the government of the day to undertake one public enquiry in which its supporters, East Indians, were attacked,  evoking sorrow and sympathy – while Africans, cast in the role of perpetrators, incite scorn and derision – was disingenuous at best. It did, however, achieve its desired aim. Government of the day or not, it would not have been able to mount such an exercise anytime after 1992. Any such effort would immediately involve regional and international observers over whom it would not have control, and which was likely to include questions of its own past in the trauma of the nation. Not least, in any such inquiry would be its steadfast attachment to Soviet Socialism in the face of serious British and American reservations about the advisability of such a course in the Caribbean, especially after the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

It is disappointing that our opposition parties appear, unlike our southern neighbour, unwilling to press home the case for an  enquiry into the more than 50 years of trauma that the nation has had to suffer, while allowing Mr. Ramotar’s statement to go unchallenged. It has become clear to most citizens including the most ardent supporters of the ruling party that the issue is not who wins the election and are then called upon to rule but the organization, management and distribution of public goods. The process has become thoroughly corrupted – even foreigners now say we approach the status of a “narco state” – less and less attractive to even those who benefit from it. In my own community over the last three years an industrial site – ice factory, chicken farm, wind generator, water well – has emerged with the help and blessings of at least 11 public agencies that participated in the duplicity of its construction and continued operations – including two ministers of the Government. And while we are prevented from acting by a quaint colonial principle, locus standi, the subject Minister of the Sea Defence Board the President assures us there is no one else to look into the matter because of his refusal to appoint an Ombudsman.

It’s hardly necessary to claim “we are not alone in this”. Next door, when trespassers (please note not squatters) moved en-mass into a piece of unoccupied property they seem to know exactly what to do. As one of them was only pleased to convey: “All we had to do was to phone the party and remind them ‘We gat forty voters. You want to lose them?’ After the usual phone calls, the next week the Minister of Housing and Water announced that GWI was advised to set aside the usual regulations for water connection in the [said] community. And everyone agreed: ‘The whole thing will be regularized shortly’”. In another instance an “Outreach” Minister was only too willing to oblige, while demonstrating commitment and support to the faithful. When asked, he saw no objection for selective construction on the latter’s “reserve”.

There is, of course, considerably more but I think the sample makes my point.

There are four issues here. First, the normal and not unusual practice of Party/Government delivering resources/favours to its constituency – standard practice; b) the manner in which public agencies become imbricated in the process; c) the combination of a & b which then transforms the latter into a conduit for the conversion of public resources into private property; and d) the decidedly partisan (and in our case racial) character of the process – not because Indians are the only beneficiaries of government largesse but because the major beneficiaries just happen to be Indians – “our turn at the trough”. And it is the congelation of these open practices in our communities that has produced an accepted culture of corruption that has now been codified, regularized and institutionalized.

If we fail, once more, to provide the forum and means to bring these practices to light, more and more of us are likely to die under their weight, while returning-Guyanese, seeking solace in retirement, are likely to find once-thought-of family property has been transformed into a squatter settlement waiting to be regularized.

Yours faithfully,
Rishee Thakur

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