Indigenous democracy

That people don’t learn any lessons from the experience of others is perhaps understandable, but why they shouldn’t learn from their own experience – good as well as bad ‒ is more difficult to explain. But so it is with politicians in particular, who are so obsessed with the past, no matter what its outcome, that they cannot seem to reorient themselves on a different trajectory so that a genuinely new future is limned out.

This is not to say that a few basic facts cannot be grasped. But our politicians are experts at grasping the facts, and then operating on the basis of some unreasonable conclusions. Since politics in this country is all about winning power, and neither of the two ethno-political parties is in a position numerically speaking to accomplish that on its own account, the Indigenous people have recently emerged as a kind of third political force in this land; no one can win an election without the help of their ballots. Since the nine nations concerned do not vote as a unified political bloc, the two big parties are constrained to seek ways to persuade them to join their traditional constituents in the voting booth, in quest of a majority.

Of course neither of the large parties is concerned about Indigenous democratic rights, etc, although there is always enough vague talk about these weighty subjects prior to an election; in the end, however, it is always only about winning. And it is this obsession which has now brought the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs into direct conflict with the National Toshaos Council’s (NTC) executive committee, as well as with its Vice Chairman Lenox Shuman in relation to an interview undertaken with Stabroek News.

At the back of this dispute is the desire on the part of the government to control the Indigenous element in the population, so they can be relied upon to cast their votes when the time comes, in a way which would give the ruling coalition relief from anxiety. The same, it must be said, is also true of the PPPC government before them, and the methods employed are essentially identical. As we reported in our Thursday edition, Mr Shuman had told this newspaper that the government had not made progress on land titling, and accused the Ministry of interfering in the business of the National Toshaos Council.  Crucially, he said that the behaviour of the current government was similar to that of the previous one.

Like its predecessor, he told our reporter, this government expected the Indigenous People would “be happy and eternally grateful” with the little handouts they get. In addition, when “we speak out on behalf of the people on their [government] inaction, they look on it as being tainted with opposition.”  Well that at least, the Indigenous People have in common with all other critics; no one challenges the party nabobs on either side, however reasonably, however rationally, however well-intentioned, without being seen as an opposition supporter or even an enemy.

Up until now, the government had done something right, namely not interfered with the National Toshaos’ Conference. This was in contrast with the previous administration, which exercised tight control over it, and for which it earned itself a great deal of criticism. But now it looks as if this administration too is following suit, adopting an approach which did not work for the PPPC and similarly will not work for them, in contrast to their earlier hands-off attitude. When, for example, the NTC issued press releases on what they were doing, the Ministry in its overbearing way, intervened, and they also have done so in relation to the Conference.

And now the Ministry has decided to substitute bully tactics for negotiation, with some unnecessarily intemperate communications. Among other things, it noted that the NTC had written President David Granger. “Much of these writings are confrontations, demanding and disrespectful to the Office of President of Guyana,” the statement read, while it went on to accuse Mr Shuman of issuing a call for mass public protest against the government. This was denied by Chairman of the NTC Joel Fredericks, who gave the background to how the misinterpretation arose. There were other allegations from both sides about accounting and money, matters which one would normally expect could be easily established.

Land-titling issues go back a long way, and after three years in office, the government should really have a grip on them, although the lands commission of inquiry in its original format did nothing to expedite let alone clarify matters. The point is, however, that the NTC should be free to express their views on any matter which affects them; after all, their constitutional rights are the same as those of everyone else. As for the government, while it might be impervious to arguments about Indigenous democratic rights, at a practical level, attempting to exert control over every aspect of Amerindian life and decision-making in the way that its predecessor did can only end in failure, and certainly will not earn them the electoral support they were hoping for.

Similarly, the NTC has every right to talk to the media, and so does Mr Shuman; it is called freedom of expression.

The dominant party in the coalition has great experience of the denial of freedoms, and paid the price for that. It should give the Indigenous people political space in which to function, so they all become familiar with their constitutional rights, and engage in the exchanges and discussions which are necessary in any democratic polity. As said above, the government has nothing to gain by suppressing free speech. That is simply a route backwards.

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