On April 27th, 2018 off the coast of Suriname, there was an attack by pirates on four fishing boats manned by Guyanese most of whom were living in Suriname. From all of the accounts so far this was a barbarous attack in which fishermen were chopped and beaten and tossed overboard with weights attached to them. The situation remains murky. Around five fishers are said to have survived the attack and made their way to the Surinamese shore. Around 11 may be missing and presumed dead.
What is immediately required at this point is for the governments of the CARICOM neighbours, Guyana and Suriname to undertake urgent operations in their waters to determine whether there are any other survivors and to mount recovery operations where necessary. Both of the governments have been criticised by the affected families for their sloth and irresolute action thus far. Further, the two governments must extend a wide range of services to the families of the survivors, the dead and missing. The survivors would be deeply traumatised and would need assistance in either relocating here or being restored to their Surinamese communities. Foremost among the immediate needs of the affected families is accurate and comprehensive information on what transpired on April 27th and a clear picture as to who exactly is missing and wherefrom.
The next stage of responsibility for the two governments would be the pressing need for justice. Who were these people who so savagely attacked the fishermen on the high seas? How was it that the coastal patrol vessels of both Guyana and Suriname failed to be in a position to respond within their own jurisdictions? What intelligence has since been gathered on the attacks and what are the two governments doing conjointly to find them and bring them to justice? Is it the case that the piracy at sea was connected to a killing or killings on terra firma in Suriname? These are the questions that both Georgetown and Paramaribo must urgently answer if CARICOM membership and functional, neighbourly co-operation mean anything.
The piracy will be particularly galling for the Government of Guyana which has asserted on several occasions that such acts during its tenure have dropped significantly. Recognising the severity of the attack on April 27th, President Granger has described it as a massacre. While there may have been fewer reports of piracy during the life of this administration, it is clear that the scourge in the waters off the coastal area of both Guyana and Suriname was alive and the eruption of April 27th is firm evidence of it.
Though the origins of the calamity appear to be within the Surinamese jurisdiction there are clearly connections on the Guyana side of the border as the fishing communities assert their riparian rights. While both Paramaribo and Georgetown will take their own action, the concern for the families affected and the wider public would be that neither of the two administrations seems to have any real grasp of the lawlessness that has developed on the high seas in the fishing communities and this will hurt the industry.
For all of the numerous pledges that have arisen from Guyana-Suriname meetings on cross-border crime it doesn’t appear that any useful template exists for the coordination that would have prevented the scale and audacity of the attack on April 27th. Just during the life of this administration there have been several engagements at Presidential level between Presidents Granger and Bouterse, at the ministerial level involving Minister of Public Security Ramjattan and between the various security services. One would have expected that these engagements would have yielded a matrix for action.
In August of 2016, Mr Ramjattan was reported as stating that he and his counterpart in Suriname were working together closely to fight piracy in both countries. He had been speaking about the pirate attack which occurred in Corentyne waters on May 28 when the Rosana 664 was hijacked by five men. The men launched an attack similar to that on April 27th on Captain Seepersaud Persaud and his crewmembers, eventually throwing them overboard.
Minister Ramjattan had said at that point that piracy had to be dealt with on a national security level and added that at the preceding Caricom Heads of Government meeting, both governments had a very important meeting on the issue.
Minister Ramjattan added then that there should be better coordination with the Surinamese police force. He had also said that both ministries were working on blocking safe havens through better diplomatic coordination. Both President Granger and Minister Ramjattan should now account to the affected families and the people of the country as to why their engagements with Suriname failed so comprehensively in this instance.
There is also the matter of the long gestating Combe Report on security sector reform. When will President Granger release this report to the public and what does it say about piracy along the Guyana coast?
It is unclear whether the GDF flagship and its patrol boats are patrolling Corentyne waters on a routine basis. What is clear is that Georgetown needs more resources to protect the fishing industry and the fishermen who struggle under arduous circumstances to make a living. More patrol boats are needed, all licensed fishing vessels should have Global Positioning System infrastructure patched into local law enforcement and radios to improve their security. This has been spoken of for decades but it seems that protections on fishing vessels remain rudimentary.
Murderous piracy is a constant in the hazards faced by fishermen on the Corentyne going all the way back to desperadoes like `Long Hair’ and others. There had been an expectation that President Granger’s government – given its wide incorporation of former security services personnel – would have been better able to handle cross-border issues like piracy. The evidence doesn’t bear this out.