Guyana’s memories of its violent past of racial violence are recent enough to underscore the need for an early and urgent intervention following the recent horrific killings of three teenagers and a man in Berbice.
Within days of the killings, the government requested the assistance of Caricom’s Regional Security System and the British government, and invited the United Nations to establish an International Commission of Enquiry. The moves communicated the new government’s interest in a transparent, impartial investigation of the facts in the context of Guyana’s racially-charged political environment.
If politics and race were indeed the factors behind the killings—a fact yet to be established—then it would be counted as the high cost innocents pay for the deadly political games of others.
The flare-up of racial antagonisms during Guyana’s post-election deadlock demonstrates that Guyana has not yet exorcised the ghost of the political racism of the 1960s. Back then, hundreds were killed and thousands fled the country in a season of upheaval during which the British and US governments engineered the political coup that removed Cheddi Jagan from office and installed Forbes Burnham as president.
Burnham’s death released Guyana to find its footing among the world of parliamentary democracies. However, with the past nipping at its heels, Guyana is yet to find peace. Ethnic division and rivalry have been significantly exacerbated by the explosion of oil finds that promise to catapult Guyana into an era of stratospheric income. Economic and ethnic contestation bubbled up during this year’s election campaign and its aftermath, further souring ethnic relations, which is now being blamed for the killings.
The government, led by President Irfaan Ali, must surely be aware that the onus is on it to lead Guyana away from the threat of racial conflagration that could tear apart the society and undermine the stability of the economy.
It will not be easy. The fact that President Ali’s attempt to visit and console a family of one of the murdered teenagers shows how difficult it will be to reach across the racial divide. However, one would hope that the government would not be tempted into giving up and turning its back on those who do not support it. A booming economy with opportunity for all offers a chance to alter Guyana’s socio-economic dynamics in ways that could help dismantle historical divisions.
However, money alone will not do that. In 2015, the PPP/Civic government was voted out amid allegations of massive corruption and discrimination. Having had its mandate renewed by the Guyanese people, it has a chance to redeem itself in the eyes of all Guyanese.
The scope of the challenge can be grasped when a country like Trinidad and Tobago, which has experienced nothing compared to Guyana’s history of racial violence and has a long history of harmonious race relations, can still fail at the task of fully integrating its cultural communities and hammering out a vision of its society shared by all.
The Guyana government’s move in reaching out to others for assistance is a good move, but ultimately, Guyana’s problems must be settled by the people of Guyana.