Seeds of ethnic conflict

Seeds of ethnic conflict

Photo : Ravi Dev

ROAR of Ravi Dev

Commendably, there are a significant number of commentators who have realized that a majoritarian system of democracy presents severe challenges in a society that is riven by groups that approach each other in numbers. Even in comparatively homogenous societies, there is the obvious question of legitimacy of the government formed when almost half of the populace did not vote for it.

 When those groups identify themselves, and are identified by others ethnically, - as in Guyana - the question of legitimacy becomes even more contested. It is not just a matter of political or economic “interests” at stake, but a question of self-worth embedded in identity. “Our” government is defended for reasons that pay scant regard to rationality – and so, also are condemnations of “their” government.

 Such governments, therefore, have to be very vigilant about the adverse effects of their policies on groups outside of their ethnic base, since it is also a matter of ‘honour”, “pride” and even survival of the group. It was for this reason I was quite pleased when the APNU/AFC coalition manifesto committed itself to a proposal I had made decades ago – issuing “ethnic impact statements”.

 My argument was if governments explicitly perform this exercise BEFORE any policy is implemented, there can be debate and discussion, especially ahead of effects impacting negatively on the “out’ group, which can then be addressed. There may very well be valid political or economic reasons for the action and the emotional impact can be mediated and possibly moderated through engagements that acknowledge the group’s fears. This becomes even more necessary when, as with the APNU/AFC government, the challenge of legitimacy was acknowledged and they boasted their coalition Accord between the PNC-dominated APNU and AFC conferred the necessary “multi-ethnic” legitimacy.

 But the composition of the Cabinet announced soon after the elections sent disturbing signals in the Indian-Guyanese “out” group. This was strengthened when eventually 16 of 17 Permanent Secretaries were revealed to be African-Guyanese. While it is “traditional” for parties to place their supporters in decision-making positions in government, the removal of a wide swath of predominantly Indian Guyanese officials who had been appointed by the PPP and replaced by African Guyanese, not surprisingly was perceived as “vindictive” by the former community. Then came the firing of 5700 mostly Indian Guyanese sugar workers, against the recommendation of the government’s own COI.

In 1992, we had supported the PPP because they had been historically rigged out of office by the PNC following their ouster after CIA-fostered riots and British electoral “innovations”, but also because the PPP had promised an inclusive government if they won. The “Civic” component, with Sam Hinds clearly did not satisfy the PNC and they launched a strident campaign against several policies and initiatives of the PPP government as being biased against African Guyanese. The government was accused of engaging in “ethnic cleansing” of the Public Service, even though the PPP had staunched the mass dismissals of Public servants initiated by Desmond Hoyte at the instruction of the IMF.

As early as 1995 at a conference in T&T on “Youths and Violence in the Caribbean”, I predicted violence would erupt from the African Guyanese community because of their conviction of being excluded from the ‘national patrimony”. This was reported back in Guyana with some indignation since at the time I had been appointed to the Race Relations Task Force. But the PNC had rejected this body as a source of mediating their ethnic complaints because of Bishop Randolph chosen as Chairman.

 I concluded that when political activists in the African Guyanese community evaluated their “social facilitation factors” – dominance of the Police and Army (leader of the PNC, Mr Desmond Hoyte referred to them as “kith and kin”); the Civil Service and most importantly “lumpen elements” in the capital city of Georgetown where the government offices were located, violence would be seen as a most viable option. So said, so done; starting from 1998 and ending in 2008 – a period President Granger euphemistically refers to as “the Troubles”.

The question whether the increasingly polarized, ethnically defined crisis in the Indian Guyanese community will erupt into violence depends how their political leaders assess their “social facilitation factors” – especially the power resources available to them - versus the “social control factors” –civil retribution and “official” sanctions that will be unleashed.