Contributions Towards the Resolution of Conflict in Guyana

Written by David de Caires for Stabroek News on

Mr Judaman Seecoomar, a Guyanese who has been living in England for over 30 years has written a book called Contributions towards the resolution of conflict in Guyana. The publisher is Peepal Tree Press Limited. Guyanese owe an incalculable debt to Mr Jeremy Poynting, its managing director, who has facilitated the publication of a number of useful books on Guyana which might otherwise not have seen the light of day.

Mr Seecoomar argues that the ethnic mistrust that now exists is a legacy from the culture of colonialism and specifically the policy of divide and rule, and that communal conflict results from the struggle for the control of the state. He writes in his conclusion:

'Throughout the period, from 1838 onward, with the exception of one short interval, colonialism’s culture of divide and rule has held Guyana in a straitjacket. Repeatedly, it set dissension within the ranks of the African and Indian Guyanese. It helped to create and fed the stereotypes, mistrust, suspicion and fear which provide the foundations for existing antagonisms whose perpetuation contemporary Guyanese must take responsibility for.

'Guyana finds itself constricted by the tensions which its historical legacy produced. Unable to define common goals or to devise processes for peaceful coexistence, it has been unable to break out of this stranglehold and make this complex society work in harmony. Instead, it has turned in on itself. Conflict continues to be the deadly game between African and East Indian Guyanese leaders and their supporters for the control of the resources and status allocations of the state. These, the book argued, are not only the obvious tangible benefits which winning brings, but also the abstract satisfactions which this confers. These are the vital intangibles of humanness - dignity, self-respect, security, confidence and pride. This is the realm of human existential needs.

'In the zero sum nature of Guyanese political democracy, losing is interpreted as being humiliated, condemned to insecurity, inferiority and lack of dignity. Losers feel justified in not recognising the claims of legal authority, may oppose its every act and set out to sabotage even its best efforts. In these circumstances, the paradox is that winning soon loses its glow, tensions remain all pervading, development is stunted, and conflict continues. Unresolved, the society threatens to self-destruct.'

There is an interesting analysis in Chapter Six under the rubric of 'Needs theory' of those 'abstract satisfactions,' for example the needs for security and recognition, which the author sees as vital for the understanding of the ethnic dilemma we face. He writes:

'The empirical evidence for deducing needs, and the conflicts to which the struggle for their satisfaction gives rise, are most dramatically demonstrated in multi-ethnic communities. Whether the marker for satisfying the need for identity is language, legends, religion, race, tribe, historical virtue, territory or some other cultural construct, the release from the stiflings of empire, colony or ideological straitjacket has set off a mass movement across the world towards group autonomy and dignity. This groundswell of struggle by groups and nascent nations to control their own welfare has resulted in ‘several hundred ethnic conflicts of varying intensity on all continents’....

For those in Guyana involved in the debate on the possibilities of dialogue leading to various accommodations and governmental reform the most interesting part of the book will be the Chapters that deal with a strategy for the resolution of conflict. This involves a theoretical discussion of the concept of dialogue with a facilitator and some guidelines that have been proposed by theorists for successful dialogue.

This is followed by two examples of prolonged discussions that led to productive outcomes. The first is a description of the secret discussions between representatives of the Government of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation fostered by the Government of Norway that led to the signing of the 'Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government in Gaza and the West Bank' in 1993 which provided for the ending of a fifty year period of non-recognition between the signatories and opened the way for mutual respect and understanding. This became known as the Oslo Accords and though obviously the situation in the Middle East is still in turmoil it was an example then of what was possible, a step forward out of chaos.

The other example is the multi-party talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland which involves a form of power sharing. Senator George Mitchell, the former majority leader of the US Senate, played a vital role as one of three independent chairmen who acted as facilitators.
These chapters indicate what structured dialogue can achieve but also how tortuous the process can be. Senator Mitchell displayed exemplary skill and patience in keeping the process going and his comments at various stages give useful insights.

What we might learn from this book is that our own homegrown dialogue process that has arisen since the last elections is potentially very valuable and useful. However, it may need to be more structured and to be given some more resources, secretarial and financial, to enable it to proceed more smoothly and productively and to ensure the timely implementation of the recommendations of the dialogue committees. Above all, it might benefit enormously from the services of an experienced and sophisticated facilitator such as Sir Shridath Ramphal who is familiar with the history and insecurities of politics in Guyana.

It is good that Guyanese in the diaspora like Mr Seecomar continue to join in the debate on our future.