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The initiative by the Ethnic Relations Commission (ERC), United Nations (UN) and University of Guyana to jumpstart a national conversation on race is most welcome. The ERC has not lived up to expectation that birthed its existence during the Constitutional Reform process. Like several other agencies it is ornamental and there is a seemingly absence of will to confront issues that shaped its existence.
Under its past chairman, Juan Edghill, it became a PPP/C vessel advancing, slanting, and speaking to issues in favour of that government. Edghill was best known as a PPP hack, seeking to stifle frank conversations on race when articulated through the voices of those perceived as enemies of the PPP/C, or conversations they did not want society to hear. For instance, the case of Dr. Kean Gibson on her book “The Cycle of Racial Oppression in Guyana” where a charge was laid against her for creating racial hostility in the society. During that inquiry not one iota of evidence was presented to support the charge, yet the Commission took a decision that the book must be removed from the bookstores.
It was an act to destroy Gibson intellectually in that whatever she was saying would not be grounded in belief. Even though she did not spear any political group, the PPP/C took particular offence because she dares to speak as an academic about the Hindu religion and violence associated with the religion over different periods as she did with Christianity. There was also an economic underpinning to the ERC’s decision. That decision aimed to achieve financial deprivation from having the book taken off the shelves. The publisher was also attacked.
The ERC has never objectively taken on race relations but operated only to serve the interest of one group. The body was used to buttress false claims of victim hood as they stifled the voice of others and ignored the marginalisation and pain meted out to others. As a constitutional body the ERC must move away from serving partisan political interest and start serving a national interest. It has failed the people of Guyana by not speaking truth to power.
The violence that occurred during and immediately after the March 2nd General and Regional Elections makes the case stronger for a nonpartisan ERC in facilitating frank, honest and open conversations in order that this nation can work towards achieving the well-deserved peace and harmony amongst its diverse peoples. We cannot continue to dither on race relations while the ERC akin to Nero fiddles as Rome burns.
It is of import that we contexualise the recent spate of physical violence in order for us to understand the dynamics at play, what truly happened and the urgency of frontally addressing race relations.
The violence that occurred during the protest of villagers of No. 5, Hopetown and Belladrum West Coast Berbice (WCB) and Mahaicony, East Coast Demerara that protest resulted from a protest in response to the gruesome slaying of two teenagers, Joel and Isaiah Henry, whose bodies were discovered on 6th September 2020 in the backdam (backlands) of Cotton Tree, WCB. A few days later, September 9th, the murdered body of teenager Haresh Singh was discovered within the same district.
The violence in Bath Settlement WCB that resulted in the beating to death of Prettipaul Hargobin on 9th September occurred during a PPP/C alleged counter protest in this known PPP/C stronghold. Prettipaul, an East Indian male was alleged to be a supporter of the A Partnership for National Unity + Alliance for Change (APNU+AFC) Coalition Government and thus became a victim of his own villagers’ rampage.
Similarly, the Latchmin and Jamal Azeez family, known East Indian Coalition activists of Bush Lot Village WCB butcher shop was burnt down on 20th March, two weeks after the General and Regional Election, and after suffering many threats. For many this was perceived as a clear act of electoral violence and intimidation characteristic of those who were making this family a target and example to enforce ethnic encampment.
Those stated acts of violence postdate the violence of 6th March in the PPP/C stronghold of Bath Settlement, Cotton Tree and Bush Lot villages, WCB. A school bus was attacked, stoned and set ablaze and school children who were on that bus on their way home from school were stoned. Some had to seek medical attention. Police officers, including a female rank, trying to protect the peace and our nation’s children were viciously attacked. Some of the police were brutally chopped up even as they were forced, though armed, to flee for their lives in a manner never before seen in Guyana.
It is alleged the police were forced to fire shots to save the life of the police who was being brutally chopped and suffered broken bones. A protestor, Hansraj, allegedly shot by the police later succumbed. On this same day others were injured including Sergeant Ibaran and Constable Fraser, who had to seek medical attention. These unrest and physical violence were preceded by an invasion of Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM) where threats were made by Attorney-at-law Glen Hanoman, a member of the local observers’ mission, against young female police officers who remained professionally composed.
The storming of the GECOM Ashmin Building headquarters on 4th March. In that incident, Chief Election Officer (CEO) Keith Lowefield was virtually harangued, and his physical space violated by an uncontrollable mod, seemingly headed by PPP/C General Secretary and Leader of the party’s List of Representative Bharrat Jagdeo, and including other well-known PPP/C political personalities.
Even as we address the physical violence that arose in a carefully orchestrated politically charged and volatile environment, what we must not overlook and must turn our attention to is the emotional, social and economic violence being nurtured to foster and deepen divisions in the society. Such acts hinder the progress of forging national comity, social cohesion and a nation at peace not torn apart by internal upheavals.
Bodies such as the ERC cannot continue to ignore the struggle and need for justice- more specifically political, economic and social justice within the protection and sanctity of legal justice as a requisite of modern civilisation, human interactions and rights preservation.
It cannot be overemphasised the importance and need for national conversations on race and race relations. These are vital to moving the country forward and living up to our motto “One People One Nation One Destiny”. Demanding racial justice is not racist or practicing racism, it is progressive and consistent with UN Conventions, rights and the Rule of Law. It augurs well for peace and stability in national development and building an egalitarian society.