• 24 Jun, 2024

Indo-Guyanese fear the PNC-loyal, Afro-dominated Armed Forces

Indo-Guyanese fear the PNC-loyal, Afro-dominated Armed Forces

Indo-Guyanese fear the PNC-loyal, Afro-dominated Armed Forces

Some years ago, one writer in the newspaper insisted that the following claim of the Indian Ethnic Security Dilemma was “a fiction”:

“The Disciplined Forces are the ultimate repositories of the power of the Guyanese state: the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), in being elected to government, may accede to “authority” to deploy those forces – but when the loyalty of the latter is suspect, their authority rests on very shaky foundation…

The People’s National Congress (PNC), on the other hand, because of the “kith and kin” element, exercises some real power over the PPP because the latter is forced to observe “the principle of anticipated reactions” of the Forces in all confrontations with the former.”

The writer, however, boiled this down to: What Mr. Dev is contending is that, since the composition of the GDS is made up of mostly African Guyanese, and since the members of the GDS vote overwhelmingly for the PNC, the loyalty of the GDS lies with the PNCR and African Guyanese.

While the reasoning may be precise, it was proposed that the word, “loyalty” in the conclusion caricaturised the thesis. In an ethnically-divided polity as Guyana (which the writer accepted) most of citizens have an interest in the fortunes of their ethnic group. For instance, in their role as “voters”, they generally vote the way they do: ethnically. When they have to perform other roles that may not be considered in the best interest of their group a certain amount of cognitive dissonance and even a dilemma is created.

The practices of an institution (as a set of rules) are given life only when they are viewed as an “organisation”, manned by human beings, with all that implies. This simple fact has profound consequences for all institutions but especially so for the organs of the state such as Guyana’s armed forces.

Army brought to quell racial violence and riots

The writer once had the honour of addressing a group of junior officers of the GDF at army headquarters Camp Ayanganna, not long after that organisation had completed its extended deployment within Buxton in an effort to quell the ethnically-directed violence emanating from that village. They all concurred that strains were created in the disciplinary regime of the GDF because of the ethnic factor.

It cannot be gainsaid that an inevitable “sentiment” resides within the members of the Armed Forces (as in all of us) concerning the fate of our ethnic groups. After all, to a great extent, that is also our fate. It would be politically naive if political leaders do not factor this sentiment into their calculus when they make political decisions. It is apposite to note that it was on the matter of control and composition of the Armed Forces that unity talks between the PPP and PNC broke down on several occasions.

The writer accepted that the doubts about how the Armed Forces would react in situations of political (read ethnic) conflict, “is a fundamental racial fear in a racialised state” but that it is “unfounded”. But notably, he did not say that the African fear of “exclusion” from the Executive was also “unfounded” and a “fiction”.

Just before the 1992 general elections, Eusi Kwayana, a leader of the (Working People’s Alliance (WPA), had warned, in discussing “the possibility of Indian control and takeover”: “It is very important, in my view, for Indo-Guyanese, who are the largest segment of the population, to realise that many people, especially their closest rivals in numbers and ambition, (Afro-Guyanese) have this fear which can be played upon and exploited.” Many, but not ROAR, chose to ignore his warning – and did so to their cost and to the cost to Guyana as a whole following the 1997 elections. That mistake should not be repeated.


Photo : Eusi Kwayana   

The reason the writer dubbed the Indian Security Dilemma a “fiction” was to claim that, “Since the coming to power of the PPP/C led Government in 1992, there has not been an instance where the GDF has shown disloyalty and/or has posed a threat to the elected government.” That statement was not only arguable and even rebuttable, but it missed the key point about human action.

Armed Forces acted against PPP and Indians

To a great extent, human consciousness and will to act on any issue are inevitably structured by their experiences over time on that issue. While social facts are thus socially constructed, they are no less real in their effects that the so called “physical” ones. And while the writer testily insisted that he was, “not a historian” it was hoped that he accepted Marx’s stricture that to understand any human phenomenon it must be considered, “historically”. 

For instance, during slavery, slaves were prevented from marrying and that experience subsequently shaped the ex-slaves’ response to “family” throughout plantation America. While African Guyanese accept the “institution” of marriage, the practices of a substantial section vary substantially from the rules of the institution. These are the structural historical accretions.

For Indo-Guyanese, their reaction to the armed forces have also been shaped by their historical experiences. Very early on, the Colonial order determined that the Indians with “cutlasses in their hands” presented a potent threat and armed policemen were deemed necessary in rural areas.

In line with their policy of “divide and rule” they recruited most policemen from the African Guyanese community. Initially at the formation of the GPF in 1839, they had given preference to immigrant Bajans to police the local ex-slaves. Those African Guyanese policemen were not only called on to violently quell protests by sugar workers for better working conditions but to enforce the “pass laws” (“Exemption from Labour Certificates”) that aimed to restrict the immigrants to the plantations.

Additionally, they were called upon to execute warrants for expulsions of immigrants from the plantation; to levy rents and to act as bailiffs who evicted tenants. The immigrant was always looking over his shoulder for the African Guyanese policeman who would harass him. This continued into the present

In the ethnic riots of the 1960s, primarily between Indian and African Guyanese, most observers and COI’s agree that the armed forces acted against the PPP, and in effect, against the Indian Guyanese. This memory has remained palpable in the consciousness of even very young Indians today because it was the defining one of their parents who would have been impressionable children then.

Less than 8% Indians in the Armed Forces

“Structures” are just a fancy way of saying that stories are passed down the generations and influence the behaviour of the listeners. The recent W. Berbice anti-Indian Guyanese violence merely reinforced those fears.

Former President Forbes Burnham understood the implications of the composition of the armed forces. In an interview for Ebony Magazine (published April 1967), Era Bell Thomson – with the ICJ’s recommendation of 75% Indian recruitment in mind - posed a question to Mr. L.F.S. Burnham, “Would troops, half (being) Indian, be loyal ... should racial strife return?”


Photo : Forbes Burnham   

She then wrote: “The Prime Minister rose from the table and stood at full height. He smiled the broad smile. His eyes twinkled. And although his answer was couched in the charming dialect of the Caribbean, he was still the politician. ‘Madam,’ he said softly. ‘We not as simple as we is Black!’”

The PNC ceased to make statistics available after 1966, but data collected by Prof. K. Danns showed that between 1970 and 1977, while the size of the force was being doubled, 92.2% of recruits were Africans with only 7.84% being Indians. Their numbers dropped to less than ten percent of the Force. The same was true of the newly formed GDF and other para-military organizations.  Their marches through Indian villages at night helped to solidify the “social fact” of fear.

Mr. Burnham was quite explicit as to what he expected of the GDF in terms of the African Ethnic Security Dilemma and its posture to any PPP aspiration of governing. Speaking to GDF Officers in 1970, Burnham said, “I expect you to be loyal to this government. If there is any other government, it is a matter for you to decide about that, but so far as I am concerned I don’t want any abstract loyalty.”

Indo-Guyanese suffered more “choke and rab [rob]” 

In addition to the composition and deployment of the armed forces , in and of themselves raising fears in the Indian community, there is the matter of their stance towards acts of violence directed primarily against Indian Guyanese from elements in the general population. In the 1960s, the “choke and rab” phenomenon had a political origin directed against Indian Guyanese visitors to Georgetown and was never aggressively dealt with by the police. It soon took on a life of its own. In the 1980s, the “kick down the door” innovation which targeted primarily rural Indians involved many ex-armed services personnel.

In 1985, Mr. Eusi Kwayana spoke about the banditry and the lack of police responsiveness. He called for “firm police action against violent crime which in Guyana has often, but not always, an ethnic direction with a flavour of genocide.” This banditry against Indian Guyanese morphed into the post 2001 East Coast criminal activity by the “African Resistance”.

While one has to commend the overall stance of the armed forces since 1992, one has to understand the PPP’s skittishness towards them against this background. ROAR has steadfastly agitated for the forces to be “professionalised” in terms of funding, training, materiel etc. 

At what some has defined as “fatal” political risk, the writer participated in the Rule of Law March in 2004 and spoke at the Square of the Revolution demanding such professionalisation. It was emphasised, however, that this will only take root when the composition of the forces reflects the population of the country.

In such an environment, it will not be as easy for politicians to court the loyalty of their “kith and kin”, nor place our servicemen in untenable situations. Similarly, citizens will not be as prone to offer “ethnic” explanations for the behaviour of the forces as is now the case.

The conclusion of the scholar Cynthia Enloe, who studied Guyana first hand, in worldwide survey, “Police and Military in the resolution of Ethnic Conflict”, is salutary:

“The resolution of inter-ethnic conflict demands that armies and police forces be examined not as neutral instruments that cope with problems, but as potential causes of the problems as well … Any lasting resolution of ethnic conflict may require that the distribution of political authority and influence in the society be basically reordered and that, as part of that reordering, the police and military be ethnically reconstituted at the top and the bottom.”

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