By Dr. David Hinds
The Ethnic Relations Commission held its national conversation on Ethnic Relations this past week. The question posed to the participants was this—What can be done to improve Ethnic Relations in Guyana? Those invited to participate were for the most part the usual suspects—those known to have publicly and consistently weighed in on the issue of race and ethnicity over the last two decades or so. Not surprisingly, the majority of these are African and Indian Guyanese. However, the ERC was careful to invite persons of Amerindian, Chinese and Portuguese extractions.
Since the conversation, some commentators have had their say. These comments range from criticism of the ERC to disappointment with the presence of some participants to the endorsement of some of the suggestions that emanated from the presentations. It is worth noting that the PPP boycotted the event. Its leader, President Alli explained that his party and government were not consulted , that they objected to the participation of some people and that they are peeved that the ERC did not join them in condemning “rigged elections.” That is quite an interesting but not unexpected stance from the PPP. It confirms the PPP’s praxis of domination and its lack of interest in a shared solution of our ethnic problems.
I am certain that I was one of those participants who did not meet the PPP’s litmus test. Frankly speaking, I don’t give a damn. The PPP has a right to decide who they want to sit with, but don’t make us fools. You cannot want to sit with Granger today and refuse to sit with Alexander et al tomorrow ostensibly because they “rigged elections. Didn’t you say that Granger was the chief rigger? I am not letting the PPP, or their clap-trappers pin their sins on me. That party knows full well its own participation in the ugliness that passed for its electoral “victory.”
But back to the ERC Race Relations conversation. I think it was a useful exercise. It is always better to do something than to do nothing. Beyond that there was not much to take home. We rehashed some old arguments and those who bothered to make recommendations found themselves straining to do so. Many of the recommendations including the one by Nigel Hughes about the need for data came over as more abstractions than concrete interventions. This was not the fault of the ERC.
Rather it had to do with the context or lack thereof in which the conversation took place. Despite some prompts by some of us, the conversation avoided the core issue that underpins poor race relations in Guyana. My central point was that it is difficult to talk about improved race relations outside of the just concluded election. In other words, you cannot award the biggest prize—political power—to one ethnic group and then ask others to talk about improved relations. The core cause of poor ethnic relations in Guyana is the uneven distribution of political, economic and cultural power. If the conversation does not begin there, then you are wasting time.
It is not the ERC’s fault that this didn’t happen. The responsibility lay with the participants. The Chinese, Portuguese and Amerindian participants did not touch it for obvious reasons—it is not their business. I am always amused when there are calls to include these “middlemen” groups in discussions of ethnic conflict in Guyana. These groups, given their small sizes, are peripheral to the problem. The ethnic problem in Guyana is between African and Indian Guyanese—it is they who have to solve it. Period! So, it was not surprising that the participants from these groups did not contend with the underlying problem.
The Indian Guyanese representatives, Dr. Baytoram Ramharack and Ravi Dev, dug deeper than the others. But because their group hold the levers of institutional power, they did not bring an overly critical eye to the issue. In short, the skirted around the issue of institutional power. Interestingly, both men have now retreated from power sharing and shared governance. Why not? The Indian Guyanese party has found a way to maintain is electoral majority despite its support base not being a numerical majority. So, Dev and Ramharack steered clear of the question of power. In fact, they have now embarked on the mission to fashion a model to justify PPP’s hegemony by declaring that the Mutual Ethnic Security problem has come to an end and that each group’s security lies with “floating voters.”
It was not surprising that it was the African Guyanese participants who tried to engage the issue of power relations as critical to improved race relations. But because there was not enough time allotted to the presenters and also because those in the audience were not interested in the issue, there was no substantive discussion. What was noticeable was the swiftness with which members of the audience lathed on to Hughes’ proposal for the gathering of data. While Hughes meant it as data to confirm the extent of ethno-racial discrimination, they took it as a mechanism to prove that there is no discrimination. Going forward, we are likely to hear about quantitative data as the substitute for qualitative analysis. Let it be said here—Ethno-Racism cannot be quantified.
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