Contributions Towards the Resolution of Conflict in Guyana

Written by Frank Birbalsingh for Indo Caribbean World on

Whatever else it may not do, for example, provide a foolproof formula for solving ethnic conflict in Guyana, Judaman Seecoomar’s Contributions Towards the Resolution of Conflict in Guyana confirms that conflict was generated by three and a half centuries of colonial rule, more specifically, by British rule in Guyana from 1803 to 1966. Not that such historical illumination is completely new: after all, Walter Rodney’s classic A History of the Guyanese Working People, 1881-1905, (1981) illuminates one period of British rule with equally meticulous research. But, in general, such studies are mostly found in unpublished academic theses, some of which are mentioned in Seecoomar’s splendid bibliography. Seecoomar’s real achievement is twofold: to make his formidable research available to general readers, and to do so in an accessible format and style.

If his main theme is conflict between Afro-Guyanese and Indo-Guyanese, the heart of Seecoomar’s matter is an administrative and economic structure in which the plantation formed the apex of society in colonial Guyana. The plantation was simply the be all and end all of everything; and the role of British colonial administrators, as George Orwell suggested when writing about Burma, was to secure compliance from the local population to facilitate the profitable running of British plantation business.

One may argue that some British governors were more humane than others in applying the legislative or military measures required to secure local compliance, but it is unarguable that their function was to diplomatically manipulate the living conditions of the local population to suit the economic interest of British planters and businessmen. According to Seecoomar, it was this manipulation that deliberately fostered ethnic conflict in an unsuspecting, Guyanese population.

The story begins with African slaves who supplied the labour on British-owned, sugar plantations for over two centuries before slavery was abolished in Guyana, in 1834. To secure compliance from the freed Africans, plantation owners employed every stratagem they could muster, for instance, by neglecting the maintenance of roads, bridges, and sanitation and irrigation works that were essential to the success of newly created African villages. The aim, evidently, was to create a post-Abolition society that still functioned like a pre-Abolition, plantation economy. In short, plantation owners, with the connivance or acquiescence of British governors, ensured that African freedom became largely an illusion.

Seecoomar’s book supplies chapter and verse to illustrate the stratagems of colonial power brokers in manipulating living conditions in Guyana immediately after slavery was abolished. If one major stratagem was to frustrate post-Abolition African efforts to create living conditions independent of the plantation, the master stroke was to bring in (chiefly Indian) indentured labourers who could work for low enough wages to undercut the bargaining power of the freed Africans, and force them back on the plantations. This locates the primal, historic source of African resentment of the Indian presence in Guyana. Even worse, Africans were saddled with increased taxes to pay for the costs of indentured immigration. As the author aptly describes it: 'they /Africans/ were being made to pay for the rods to beat their backs' (p.54). Thus were seeds planted that would sprout a bitter harvest for Guyanese to reap more than a century later when, again in the well chosen words of the author: 'Anti-immigration had hardened into anti East Indianism' (p.58). The pity was that, as Seecoomar correctly claims, indenture was no picnic for Indians either, and Indian and African - victims both - had been pitted against each other in a conflict not of their own making. Yet, as its rather cumbersome title suggests, Seecoomar’s book is not concerned only with the origin of conflict, but with its resolution.

The final one third of his book - Part Two - is devoted entirely to what he calls Resolution-Needs theory, or strategies for resolving conflict. In the process, two models of mediation are examined - the so called Good Friday Agreement hammered out to settle the problem of Northern Ireland, and the Oslo Accord devised to resolve deadlock between Israel and the Palestinians. No doubt it is easy to dismiss these models as unworkable in Guyana since they now seem to be unravelling, something the author could not have foreseen when writing his book. But as recent news indicates, the situation in Guyana grows more perilous by the hour, and any form of structured mediation seems preferable to the peril of ethnic warfare that looms.

It is either stern, hard-headed realism or sheer cynicism to contemplate the peril of terminal, ethnic warfare, as the novelist Roy Heath does, when he says in an interview: 'Humans have not yet produced a way of ethnic groups living together except by slaughter and counter slaughter' (p.236). If this is the final solution that we now face, Seecoomar’s contribution of structured mediation is infinitely preferable.

It is also preferable to another solution, frequently touted: that we are Guyanese rather than Indo-Guyanese, Afro-Guyanese, Chinese, Portuguese, Amerindian, or whatever else. This is a piece of dangerous, if well meaning nonsense that needs to be smartly scotched; it is mere wishful thinking that seeks to erase fundamental feelings and attitudes entrenched in Guyanese through the history that Seecoomar documents so graphically in his book.

Many ethnic groups have boasted of their common nationality as neighbours, friends, even family for centuries; yet, when the chips were down, they engaged in whole scale slaughter, for example, of Bosnian Muslims after the break up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Similarly, during a visit to Guyana in the same decade, when I observed that ethnic harmony seemed to prevail among crowds in the streets of Georgetown, Martin Carter cautioned me not to be fooled: all it would take, he said, is one small incident for deadly, ethnic violence to erupt. That is why, despite similarities with other post-colonial situations throughout the world, we should agree on two things: that Guyana’s ethnic problem must eventually be solved mainly by Guyanese, and the solution dare not ignore the information provided in Contributions.