Guyana must liberate itself from painful history

By Professor Bhikhu Parekh
Guyana Chronicle
May 28, 2000

ALTHOUGH I know something about the history and politics of Guyana, I would not claim to be an expert. It would therefore be presumptuous of me to express opinions about its current problems let alone offer solutions of them. I would therefore prefer to deal with the questions the distinguished editor has asked me in a general manner.

An ethnically divided society cannot hope to enjoy stability and prosperity unless it bears five general principles in mind.

First, it must liberate itself from its painful history and not remain trapped by its memories. Colonial powers everywhere maintained their rule by a policy of divide-and-rule, and left behind a legacy of inter-ethnic bitterness from which new leaders must find ways of freeing themselves. Otherwise, there is no true decolonisation.

Second, people have multiple identities, the ethnic being only one of them and not necessarily the most important. They generally stress their ethnic identity when their other identities are weaker or when it is given undue political salience. It is therefore important to build up cross-ethnic economic, political and other ties, loosen the hold on ethnicity and get people to think of themselves as citizens sharing a common loyalty to their political community rather than as members of this or that ethnic community.

Third, when a multi-ethnic society consists of two evenly balanced communities or one of them has a numerical advantage, it is extremely important that the minority community should gracefully accept the results of democratic elections and not seek to subvert them by violent means. But equally, the majority community should not use its political power to oppress and humiliate the minority or pursue its own narrow interests.

Both majority and minority communities should practise self-restraint and find ways of working together. No political community can be built if a sizeable section of its members feels deeply disadvantaged or alienated or if its members refuse to accept democratic norms.

Fourth, in an ethnically divided community, political life should not be overloaded. More and more power should devolve to institutions of civil society, such as trade unions, religions, schools, universities, cultural associations and local bodies. They should bridge the divide between the communities, build up the social capital of mutual trust, encourage inter-ethnic cooperation and anticipate and promptly deal with inter-ethnic conflicts.

Fifth, in an ethnically divided society, institutions of the state play a crucial role in building a common life and uniting the community. They should therefore represent all communities, and not become the preserve of anyone of them. They, especially the police and the armed forces, should be and should be seen to be totally impartial, and severely disciplined for their lapses. These two institutions vitally and directly affect people's lives and represent the state in popular consciousness, such that the state loses its legitimacy if these institutions are seen to be blatantly partial and partisan.

All policies, practices and institutions in a multi-ethnic society should be decided in the light of these principles. Those societies such as South Africa today, Lebanon in the 1950s and 1960s and Northern Ireland in recent months that have borne these and related principles in mind have enjoyed relative stability. Those such as Sri Lanka and Pakistan that ignored them have come to grief. I would tentatively suggest that the following have much to commend themselves.

1. A multi-ethnic society must make a clean break with its past and resolve to build itself on a new and just basis.

2. It should devise a constitution in which no major community is deprived of political power. Proportional representation, power-sharing, rotation of important offices between different communities, etc. are crucial.

3. A judicious policy of affirmative action is needed to make major institutions of the state fully representative. This is as true of the police and the armed forces as the civil service. Each community then gets used to the other exercising power over it and does not monopolise the state.

4. Legislation should ban racial discrimination and incitement to racial hatred and set up an ethnic relations commission to monitor it, give legal help to victims of discrimination, and regulate public discourse.

5. Political power should be decentralised and developed to municipal bodies. This enables different communities to work together and build up habits of cooperation, gives power to a community at the local level when it may have none or little at the national level, and prevents all controversies and political passions from accumulating at the national level.

6. Education is crucial in building up common citizenship. It should therefore be multi-cultural and foster inter-ethnic understanding. The society has a vital interest in ensuring that textbooks should not reinforce ethnic prejudices and stereotypes.

7. There should be a neutral and non-political national forum made up of respected leaders of different communities whose job should be to express and attack falsehoods and exaggerations that spokesmen of one community might spread about another.

8. Economic development should be planned and avoid ethnic and regional imbalances.

Guyana has had a painful history with rigged elections, mutual suspicions and hostilities between Indian and Africans, over-representations of the two communities in different areas, violence, and foreign interference. All this is not unique to it. Other societies with similar history are managing to turn the corner, for example, India and Northern Ireland.

All that Guyana needs is a will to break with its past, the political wisdom to evolve new inter-ethnic institutions and policies of the kind described earlier, and above all, a full and honest recognition on the part of its two major communities that unless they practice self-restraint and respect democratic procedures, they will both suffer.

Once these conditions are met, they will bring prosperity and economic differentiation, and that, in turn, will loosen the hold of ethnic rigidity and avoid political mobilisation based on solid ethnic blocks.

Bhikhu Parekh graduated from the University of Bombay and obtained his Ph.D from the London School of Economics. He taught at the LSE and the University of Glasgow, and is currently Professor of Political Theory at the University of Hull.

He has been a visiting professor at several European and North American Universities, including McGill University, Harvard University, Institute of Advanced Studies in Vienna, the University of Pompeau Fabra in Barcelona, and the University of Pennsylvania.

In 1981, Professor Parekh returned to India for a period of three years as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Baroda, one of India's most distinguished universities.

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