May 13, 2001
The danger with a political situation such as the one the nation faces now, is that it could slide into a zone where it might not be responsive to measures of containment or even efforts at intercession. Already with the events of last week people are beginning to retreat into their ethnic laagers. The tenuous bonds which bind us as a society are under extreme stress, and we are in danger of becoming almost two societies rather than one, each with its own code of communication and perception of events.
In such circumstances international negotiators go for what are known as 'confidence building measures.' The main confidence building measure here since the election, has been the dialogue process between President Bharrat Jagdeo and Leader of the Opposition Desmond Hoyte, but if we accelerate towards anarchy, both leaders will come under pressure to abandon the talks, or at least to filibuster and dissemble.
It is important, therefore, that the dialogue be seen to deliver some results. The forms are there, but there needs to be some flesh on the skeleton. The talks received their first setback with the appointment of Justice Carl Singh as Chief Justice in a context where the Leader of the Opposition had been consulted, but there was no agreement. This is not to say that Chief Justice Singh is not eminently qualified for the post, he is; it is merely to suggest that the unilateral decision on the part of the administration to appoint him, undermines the trust being built up between the two political leaders, and gives ammunition to supporters of the PNC who appear not to endorse the official party decision to negotiate. Having said that, however, this particular government faux pas is nowhere near sufficient excuse for the opposition to abandon dialogue in a situation where there is so much at stake. For its part, the PPP/Civic has to recognize that we are already in a new dimension, and consultation means consultation, inclusion means inclusion, and agreement means agreement.
The government has elected to respond to the East Coast unrest which itself represents a major threat to the talks by the application of more force.
The only question to be answered here is, will it work? One problem is that Buxton and the East Coast cannot be kept battened down forever; there is simply not enough manpower, since the security forces - more especially the police - are already stretched thin. It could be, for example, that over the longer term it would simply contribute to a further rise in tension between the village residents and the police, making it difficult to return the situation to normality.
On the other side of the coin, of course, it has to be recognized that the East Coast road must be kept open, and commuters' safety must be guaranteed. The only instrument for achieving that at the moment is the security forces. The two positions could possibly be reconciled, however, if there were a two-track approach.
Buxton, with its traditions of resistance and its strong sense of village identity can perhaps be tackled first. Last Monday evening on the Channel 28 newscast a resident suggested that the Buxton villagers should put proposals to the government stating their problems, and detailing possible remedies. Perhaps through the agency of the dialogue, some mechanism could be agreed to allow the Buxtonians to do just that.
In addition, the police and village elders need to talk rather than confront each other all the time. Accepting that the police operate under huge disadvantages, nevertheless in a delicate situation like this one, they cannot continue with blanket searches and the detention of apparently innocent people. It raises the temperature and makes catching gunmen and fire-bombers more difficult, not less so. The police need to work with the communities, not against them, so the gunmen and those who support them can be isolated from the general populace.
And in this time of murders and wild rumour-mongering the elders of both Indian and neighbouring African villages need to talk to each other as well about their fears and perceptions. It is not enough for the political leaders to communicate; the people at the grass roots level must do so too.
Confidence building is just as important at the bottom as at the top. If there are those around - and there probably are - who seek ethnic confrontation for political ends, it should be made difficult for them to use the ordinary citizenry as cover.