Contributions Towards the Resolution of Conflict in Guyana

Written by Eusi Kwayana for Stabroek News on

What should the major political parties and their supporters do when the society is sorely troubled in a situation of ethnic political tension and rivalry and a hardly disguised challenge of legitimacy, or the right to rule? Charge the atmosphere further, with 'battle, murder and sudden death', or do some informed and durable fire fighting? That question was more easily posed in the year 2000. At present, it seems that, regardless of where opposition electoral support may hang, the major opposition party may not be directing all happens on the ground.

Judaman Seecoomar’s new book, Contributions Towards the resolution of Conflict in Guyana
(Peepal Tree , England, 2002) is on the case. Its wisdom is packed and effectively presented in 246 pages net of footnotes, bibliography and index, which occupy the next 57 pages and are a very convenient archive on the subject, empowering the reader with a frame of reference. Part of the frame of reference is a set of Guyanese he interviewed, after the example of Madan Gopal (1992). They represented the major race groups, and included Amerindians, Portuguese and people of mixed origin. Of the twelve extracts given, four came from women. He considers them all as middle class persons and suggests that what they describe can be classified as communal conflict. For the bigoted Caribbean person, communal conflict has been Asian and tribal conflict has been African, whereas we, the post-British elect, have some racial problems. 

Although the author uses conflict resolution precedents from leading world cases of troubled societies, this review will have to accord them more weight than space.

A reading of the book will compel many pessimists to think again. From the early sixties, before the deluge, few leaders in Guyana thought of the ethnic conflict in terms of conflict resolution. The maximum leaders are certain to dismiss the idea of communal conflict. To exist, for them, it must be all-pervading and violent. 'Here?' they will argue, 'none of that exists. See how well we mingle in the markets, how we rub shoulders in schools, at workplaces, on the streets-except when there is a flare-up!'

The author’s analysis of the Guyana-Caricom efforts to reconcile the most recent crises avoids the usual broadside of strictures. It allows us to draw the conclusion that the difficulty of attempting conciliation, as in Guyana, post-1997 and post-2002 elections was that each major party found it difficult to withdraw from its charges against the other. To the election losers, the situation is more tenuous. While the winners are in office and will hardly be embarrassed by their own supporters, the opposition feels it must guard against being seen to be weak. In this it has been outdone, at great social cost by seeming supporters. Seecoomar, however, in dealing with conflict solving processes finds that a new problem, after even the best crafted, formal negotiations, is posed at the moment of 'the re-entry of the participants into the public arena'. Re-entry seems to apply at two levels. First the negotiators report back to their organisations, and then going public with agreements reached between the two sides. A good question from readers may be 're-entry from where?' Seecoomar has advocated the Conflict Solving Workshop as a useful organ in conflict resolution. Even on the brink of the abyss, those engaged in ongoing conflict must have the responsibility to recognise the possibility that their opposite numbers have needs not readily surrendered. Third parties with the necessary resources and understanding may have to help them reach this realisation. A prime, enabling role is to be played by a faciltator, or team of facilitators, with freedom to motivate the negotiating teams, with ready alternatives, detached reviews and with precedents.

The re-entry is a process risking loss of face, the suspicion of weakness, of 'selling out' and other hazards. The parties to the conflict, it can be argued, will need to change themselves to some degree, to 'get off the high horse' before changing the dire circumstances of the people.
There will be no view of reconciliation unless there is a view or theory of conflict. Is it really based on dislike of the other, or are there aspirations which when denied express themselves as dislike? Seecoomar affords the reader a generous and instructive review of the literature and shows his own preferences in that area. He sees a lot to commend in the view of John Burton, who would approach the solution of ethnic conflict through the satisfaction of needs. This theory may be better appreciated by social work professionals, scholars and psychologists than by political activists and leaders. Some years ago Professor C.Y. Thomas proposed this basic needs theory of national development, but it had few takers.

According to Burton, conflict arises in multi-ethnic societies because in a multi-ethnic society groups have needs. Along with these needs goes a sense of their being met, not met, or being under threat. Some scholars see this theory as too singular and rebuke Burton with not being concerned with the broad cultural factors. Seecoomar responds that these very issues fall under the description of needs, which must be seen not only as material needs, but as including 'goods' or essentials which are not material. As he expresses it, 'Concentrating on the Indian/African dimension, earlier chapters have shown that both sides suffer from insecurity, will not allow their identity to be submerged and demand recognition and respect. Both sides refuse to be shut out of those decision making processes that affect their lives and expect social and material goods to be allocated fairly. One can therefore posit a range of needs that require, but are not receiving satisfaction; needs for security, for identity, for recognition, for participation and for distributive justice.'

The opposite process to the problem solving workshop process is the power frame which Vivienne Jabri and others consider useful. Indeed it has been employed in peace-keeping dilemmas. Guyana’s best case is the Duncan Sandy’s imposition of 1963. Burton, the 'needs' advocate, is perceptive in arguing that the power frame fuels conflict, since it does not solve the predisposing problems of needs fulfilment.

Successful workshops help the contenders to move from self-justification and demonising of the other to problem recognition and problem solving. We can add that they help the recognition of humans by humans, even where gross inhumanities requiring redress are on record. Examining the process of a raw, unprepared or unprofessional dialogue such as those which took place here, all of us should now be willing to admit that we went about serious maters like novices. In fact, the very casualness was a big boost for our failing spirits. 'If we can only get them to sit and talk' the country flattered the leaders, 'things will be better.' We were mostly dumb enough to prize the informality as a great strength. It may not have been, as we all suspect now. Many sighed, 'If the big ones were talking with each other!' The whole romance of having a chat about things, having a drink, or dropping in, appealed to us. This is what is fed to us in most radio and TV sound bites. We never hear of the heavy searching, researching and preparation before talks. We were wrong. Yet there are Guyanese at home and abroad who are skilled in aspects of the process. This does not mean that the key roles in the technology of the dialogue should all be played by Guyanese only. At this point it will hardly be advisable.

Fortunately, the world has not taken conflicts or dismissed them as unavoidable, or due to ancient tribal feuds. While we guess our way, apply charisma, and 'go back to downs' the world has been refining a high tech of conflict solving.

Seecoomar is satisfied that Burton’s conception of conflict and its solution are fitting for Guyana. Still he does not ignore the theoretical debate and he 'interviews' a selection of experts, including Professor Arthur Lewis and Professor Ralph Premdas, just as he did the Guyanese informants, in our hearing. The Burton theory of needs comes out as the most thorough, since it embraces all needs, material and social, logical and cultural. What can be wrong with a system or process which assists its population in more and more self expression and growth under the constraints of the universal human rights? This is the direction in which the author will like to see the country moving.

Seecoomar does not think much of a process which reports continually to the public. He makes a strong case against a good case against negotiating on the television, Of course Guyana’s dialogues have been neither nor the other so far as informing the public goes. The process, in our street culture, must capture the public imagination and attention, or other things will.
The conflict solving workshops really seem to empower the contenders, not merely with executive power if that is an issue, but primarily with power over their needs.