Where is the reason?
by Sharief Khan
April 15, 2001
GEORGETOWN - I received the following message on Good Friday from a Caribbean colleague of mine who had been here to cover the March 19 elections:
"It is with sadness that I continue to follow the horrible situation taking place in Guyana. A country so beautiful, so rich in resources is being laid waste.
"Where is the reason? At the end of the day the only ones who'll suffer are Guyanese - can't they see that?
"Common sense is certainly not common."
My Caribbean journalist colleague had stayed around for a while as the unrest by People's National Congress Reform (PNC/R) supporters began in some East Coast Demerara villages after President Bharrat Jagdeo and his People's Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) had won the elections.
In those first days of the unrest when PNC/R protestors blocked roads, burnt tyres and clashed with police trying to restore the peace, the demonstrators claimed they were angered because they were disenfranchised (didn't get to vote) but many of them were shouting "No Desi, no peace!", clearly signalling they wanted their leader Mr Desmond Hoyte as President, even though his PNC/R had lost internationally-supervised elections.
As the anti-government protests organised by the PNC/R flared into more violence in the city last week, many of my overseas colleagues were wondering what was going on and what was behind the protests.
From `No Desi, no peace' and disenfranchisement, the cries had moved to alleged marginalisation of East Coast communities that have traditionally backed the PNC/R.
Then the focus of the PNC/R protests shifted to the reappointment of Dr Roger Luncheon as Head of the Presidential Secretariat, the Chief of Staff to the President post he has held since the PPP/C won the October 5, 1992 elections.
The PNC/R, it seems, wants to appoint its own person to be the Chief of Staff to President Jagdeo - a bit like Al Gore demanding that he appoint the Chief of Staff to President George Bush.
Last week, as the PNC/R protestors marched around Georgetown streets, they were shouting that Jagdeo must go, the PPP/Civic must go and former Foreign Minister Clement Rohee and others must go.
As one of our reports on the protest noted, the group which had started protesting Luncheon's appointment the week before, last week "made a dramatic switch to protesting against the PPP/C government in office."
"Several of those demonstrating...were unsure as to what they were protesting against and there were varying responses when asked what the march was about", the reporter noted.
When the violence escalated Monday and the fire which witnesses said was deliberately set at the AH&L Kissoon furniture store on Camp Street quickly wiped out almost a block of stores and offices between Camp and Wellington Streets and Robb and Regent streets, more and more of my colleagues in the Caribbean and beyond openly wondered what burning buildings in the city and beating and robbing innocent people on the streets of Georgetown had to do with alleged disenfranchisement, marginalisation and calls for the removal of Luncheon as President Jagdeo's Chief of Staff.
Completely baffled, one anchor for a popular FM radio talk show in Jamaica openly asked on air, "What's happening? Why can't Desmond Hoyte accept electoral defeat?"
I couldn't answer that question for my colleague.
And I couldn't provide answers to the others who kept asking what the PNC/R was protesting about if Guyana and the rest of the world knew the party had suffered its third straight defeat at the polls.
And when news of the attempt to burn down the world famous St George's cathedral in Georgetown broke, the astonishment and outrage mounted.
"What kind of people would want to burn down a church, a national heritage?" wondered a colleague in Caracas, Venezuela.
Our first world boxing champion Andrew `Six Head' Lewis has certainly warmed himself even more to the majority of Guyanese here and abroad with his stirring appeal for the nonsense to stop. (See interview on page 20.)
"How would the beating of innocent people in the streets and the massive burning of business buildings in the city help the country or the people in any way?" he also wondered.
"People are looking down on us. We are behaving as if we have no manners, no culture, no nothing", the concerned boxer stressed.
"We should concentrate our time and efforts on positive activities, like doing things that will help to build the country, not destroy it. The fighting and burning will only hamper the country's growth and development and in the end we suffer", he said.
"In the final analysis, when you come down to the heart of the matter, we are destroying our own assets; things that belong to all of us. Guyana is our country and her wealth is there for all of us to share. We should treat it with more respect and dignity."
"All the political parties and the people should accept the elections results and stop the fighting and burning down of the commercial buildings, because you see, we are destroying what is rightfully ours and we will suffer", Six Head noted.
He added, "here I am trying to put Guyana on the world map so that it could garner respect from other countries around the world and sadly, a handful of people are bent on destroying the image on the land".
A businessman whose store was destroyed in Monday's fire told me he would have to lay off hundreds of his employees.
Those employees now put on the bread line have children and families to feed, clothe, house, send to school and care for in so many ways.
He also pointed out that his stores cater for the ordinary people and the company has been concentrating on selling cheaper goods to meet their pockets, including school uniforms and other supplies.
With the fire destruction, stocks have been wiped out and the scarcity will drive prices up for some time to come, he observed.
A lot of what is happening in the guise of anti-government protests will affect a lot of poor people, he projected, wondering how any of this helps the cause of alleged marginalisation of depressed communities.
Amid the rising violence, heads of government of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) came out in open support of the government of President Jagdeo, re-elected at the March 19 elections.
They deplored the "wanton violence" triggered by street protests against the government by the PNC/R since the incumbent PPP/C won the elections.
Current CARICOM Chairman, Barbados Prime Minister Owen Arthur said the heads reviewed the Guyana situation and decided "that the Community should express its support for the newly re-elected government as it seeks to carry out its mandate entrusted to it by the electorate."
In a statement, Mr Arthur noted that the CARICOM electoral observer mission to Guyana led by former President of the Jamaica Court of Appeal, Mr Carl Rattray, "has advised that a genuine effort was made by the Guyana Elections Commission to hold elections which were free, fair and transparent."
"The report of the electoral observer mission noted that the poll was orderly and in compliance with established procedures, and was conducted in an atmosphere free of intimidation or fear", he said.
"CARICOM Heads of Government fully endorse the report of the CARICOM electoral observer mission.
"We therefore wish to state that we recognise the legitimacy of the present Government of Guyana", Mr Arthur reported.
He said heads "call on all parties to abide by the results of the polls and to urgently commit themselves to a process of genuine dialogue with a view to resolving any differences."
"We do not believe that wanton violence, the destruction of property and the endangering of life can serve to create an environment which can foster economic development and the political and social stability necessary for the Guyanese people to achieve their full potential.
"The Heads of Government of (CARICOM) therefore call for a return to normalcy in Guyana", he said, adding that the community was ready to assist Guyana "in its efforts to overcome the present difficulties."
The senselessness of the violence triggered by the anti-government protests since the elections continues to baffle outsiders but of course, those who have been following the attempts to derail the government since 1992 would know what's behind it all.
In declaring that "we recognise the legitimacy of the present Government of Guyana", the CARICOM heads of government have demonstrated an awareness of the true situation.
In spite of protestations to the contrary, democracy continues to be under serious threat in this land.
And my colleagues overseas say they do understand.