The Buxton violence

Stabroek News
May 6, 2001

The events which occurred in Buxton last Wednesday night are profoundly disturbing and should be condemned by all Guyanese of whatever ethnicity or political persuasion, not least by the PNC. The throwing of fire-bombs into mini-buses filled with passengers is not a political act, it is a criminal one, and no amount of dissembling or verbal camouflage can disguise that fact.

Then there is the matter of the exchange of gunfire with the police - a sinister development in itself. It would appear that the trouble began following a funeral in the Friendship cemetery, and Buxtonians were of the view that criminal elements were on the road waiting to take advantage of any situation where a gathering was present. Some time around six o' clock when it was getting dark, fires were lit not far from the Company Road bridge, according to eyewitness accounts. These must have been clearly visible to the Vigilance police based not more than a quarter of a mile away, but according to residents, the police took a very long time to arrive at the scene. When they finally appeared they were greeted by a hail of stones and wooden missiles, to which they responded by firing their weapons in the air.

What happened next, said residents, took not just the police by surprise, but also Buxtonians. Police heard their fire returned from the side streets, but it was not the sound of single shots like the ones they had been discharging which were reverberating in the darkness, but rather rapid staccato reports from automatic or semi-automatic weapons. Subsequent police contingents, like the riot squad, were also met with semi-automatic fire, and silence did not descend finally over the area until around midnight.

At least one resident was of the view that the police had waited too long before they responded to the fires set on the road, and that had they acted earlier the situation might not have deteriorated. Whether that was so or not in this instance, in general it is true that it is better for the law enforcement authorities to confront a situation quickly, rather than allow it to escalate.

Leaving the police response aside for the moment, the real questions emerging from this relate to the identities of the gunmen and who was behind them. In addition, the public would like to know the provenance of the weapons they used, and the source of the money which paid for them. Finally, of course, there is the question of the purpose of the action.

What the residents of Buxton themselves had to say about the first question was revealing. They told this newspaper on Thursday and repeated it yesterday, that the action had nothing to do with the protest against disenfranchisement and marginalisation, rather it represented "wanton criminal acts," perpetrated by "rogue elements," a few of whom seemed to have had some military training.

All of the Buxtonians to whom this newspaper spoke, unreservedly condemned the violence of last Wednesday. They expressed the view that some of the gunmen had come from Georgetown and other villages, and not just from Buxton itself. They went on to allege that the police knew who the criminal elements were, and what types of weapons they had in their possession.

Where the purpose of the action is concerned, one has to conclude that the gunmen intended sabotaging the talks between President Bharrat Jagdeo and Leader of the Opposition Desmond Hoyte. One must infer that there are those who support the PNC, but who are not in agreement with its present direction. Living in a fantasy world dating back to the Cold War era, they presumably believe that violence will drive the Government out, and that ethnic confrontation will solve their problems. Leaving aside other considerations, they appear incapable of recognizing that the international climate makes accession to power by force impossible - let alone hanging on to it by force - and that civil war would invite outside interference in one form or another. Mr Hoyte has chosen the only viable road for both his party and the nation, as, it might be added, has President Jagdeo.

One hopes that the episode on Wednesday night was an isolated incident, but the senior command of the police force certainly cannot operate on that assumption, particularly since the gunmen might appear to have their own political agenda. The police have to do some serious strategic thinking to be prepared for any future developments. They have to review their rapid response arrangements along the East Coast to make sure that they really are rapid, and they need to work on their intelligence capacity in order to be able to identify the gunmen, always assuming, in contradiction to what the Buxtonians have claimed, that they don't know who some of them are already. If they do know, as is being alleged, but have not moved against them, then that raises even more serious questions.

What we do not need is blanket dragnets in the villages in order to prove to the public that something is being done. Alienating entire communities with indiscriminate searches is not only not going to solve the problem of the gunmen, it is also going to make the situation worse. Having said that however, the villagers who support dialogue also have to understand that the police officers on whom the nation depends to maintain the peace are being required to exercise judgement in difficult situations where they are badly trained and often indifferently led. It might be added that they are also tired and under great stress.

Perhaps it is time for the politicians to broker meetings between the representatives of villages like Buxton and senior police officers to reduce the tensions and come to some understandings. The ones we really need to arrest in this situation are not innocent villagers, but those who fire-bomb mini-buses (where were the police then?) and the gunmen. But if that is to be done, and the good faith of the majority of villagers is to be accepted, they too have to evince a preparedness to do what they can to help the authorities.