On September 27, 1965, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) delivered a 1965-page report into Racial Problems in the Public Service of British Guiana. By letter dated April 6, 1965, Prime Minister Burnham, in his invitation, said to the ICJ that his Government had been “deeply concerned with the need to remove from our society sources of racial disharmony and to promote the right of each individual, whatever his ethnic origin, to have an equal opportunity to play a meaningful part in the community.” He said that his Government’s concern had been to “determine whether such [racial] imbalance as may exist in any particular field can be corrected and, if so, what is the shortest practicable period for such correction.” Burnham may well have been pressured by the UK to invite the ICJ having regard to searing ethnic strife of the early 1960s and the perceived undermining of Indian political representation by the imposition of proportional representation to defeat the PPP.
The ICJ accepted and the terms of reference were: “To examine the balance between the races in the Security Forces, the Civil Service, Government agencies or undertakings (including land settlement schemes) and other areas of Governmental responsibility; to consider whether existing procedures relating to the selection, appointment, promotion, dismissal, and conditions of service of personnel are such as to encourage or lead to racial discrimination in the areas concerned; to make such recommendations as are considered necessary to correct such procedures with a view to the elimination of imbalance based on racial discrimination having regard to maintain the efficiency of the services concerned and the public interest.”
The ICJ found that there was imbalance in the Security Forces, Civil Service and Government agencies having regard to the ethnic composition of the population. It did not recommend recruitment based on race or ethnicity but expressed the expectation that as education and economic development expanded the imbalance would eventually be corrected. This did not occur, as everyone knows. Imposed by the British, Burnham abandoned the project because it conflicted with the later objective of the PNC to rig elections to remain in power without the United Force. The electoral diminution of the PPP thereafter was gradual, over a twenty-year period, and had to be accomplished by discarding the votes of the Indian section of the electorate with a concurrent substitution of votes for the PNC. In order to sustain this support, the PNC displayed marked discrimination against Indian Guyanese and ensured that African Guyanese obtained the limited, available, opportunities.
Almost from the day the PPP/C Government took office in 1992, and thereafter, allegations of discrimination and marginalization have been leveled against it by the PNC, PNCR and APNU Opposition. These allegations have intensified over the years to the point where the accusations now are that the Government has created an emerging apartheid state. In this emerging apartheid state the ethnic composition of the Guyana Defence Force and other sections of the Disciplined Services, the public service including the nursing and teaching professions are substantially comprised of the ethnic group that are allegedly the victims of ‘emerging apartheid.’ In fact, that ethnic group is in almost full control of the military!
While the issues today are no longer defined as “racial disharmony,” as in Burnham’s letter, but as “ethnic insecurity,” “ethno-political dominance,” and “discrimination and marginalization,” the objective of those who seek a political solution in Guyana remains as Burnham broadly defined it, namely, “the right of each individual, whatever his ethnic origin, to have an equal opportunity to play a meaningful part in the community.”
There is a dire need in Guyana for the terms of the discourse on a political solution, whether through “One Guyana” or “inclusive governance,” to be based on foundational realities. An internationally credible study needs to be undertaken by an agency of the United Nations into allegations of discrimination and marginalization, allegations of discrimination in the award of government contracts, identification of discriminatory policies, the distribution of poverty among ethnic communities and the recommendation of measures to ensure equal opportunities for all ethnic groups. Such a report will enable specific policies to be devised and implemented, also under United Nations supervision, to address the deficiencies which have been found to exist.
Such a project is not intended to detract from or derail the efforts of those who seek a political solution to Guyana’s problems of ethno-political dominance. Such problems are rooted in the deep recesses of Guyana’s history. While one can envisage that the resources from oil, if spent wisely and equitably, may diminish the pain of majoritarianism as applied in Guyana, it certainly will not heal the real and imaginary wounds that have been inflicted by a belief that one or the other ethnic group seeks, has sought, or has actually imposed ethnic dominance at specific periods in Guyana’s history. Wouldn’t it be a great day for Guyana if after such a report is made the major political parties join together in a structured way to oversee its recommendations, as a prelude to resolving the governance issue?