Wisdom, not weakness

Stabroek News
June 20, 1999

Following the disgraceful events of last week the Government has come under considerable pressure to declare a state of emergency. Judging from the Prime Minister's comments to this newspaper on Friday it would seem that the violence aside, one of the PPP/Civic's greatest concerns at this time is what Mr Hinds called the "stranglehold on the docks." The administration has a right to be concerned. That stranglehold is choking the commercial life of this country, and it is a matter for pure speculation as to whether the economy will ever fully recover. It may be, therefore, that what the Government has in mind is not a full state of emergency, but a partial one, which would allow it to relieve the wharves as well as control the kind of riotous situation which erupted last Tuesday.

Caught between Scylla and Charybdis, with its only options being concessions to the Public Service on the one hand, or a resort to force on the other, the administration has seemed at times paralysed during the course of the strike. Now that it might possibly be tilting in favour of the second option, the question that it has to ask itself is whether at a practical level the invoking of emergency powers will achieve the results it wants.

In the first place, the proclamation of even limited emergency measures is likely to drag the political parties directly into the fray; the strike per se will take on a secondary role, and the political confrontation will take precedence. Even the declaration of fairly modest powers is likely to trigger resistance at a political level, and the Government would probably find itself obliged eventually to declare a full state of emergency. At that point, we would be past accords and dialogue and semi-civil exchanges; at that point the abyss would have been attained.

Secondly, it would be a brave private business entity which elected to retrieve its containers from reopened wharves under armed guard while the strike was technically still underway; the Government might succeed in clearing the wharf area, but terror would rear its ugly visage somewhere else. And that terror would not be caused by the striking public servants, but by the kind of elements which showed their faces on Tuesday. The Government of course, could batten down the city; but for how long? And what would happen when the state of emergency is lifted? In the conditions of semi-anarchy which a proclamation might possibly generate, it would make no difference whether the strike were settled or not.

Unfortunately for the administration at this stage, the logic of things requires that a deal be struck with the public servants at all costs - and that cost will be much higher now than it would have been five weeks ago. Once that is achieved, it would automatically divorce industrial issues from political ones, and if there were still mayhem on the streets thereafter, emergency powers could then be considered.

It cannot be easy for a government to stay its hand in circumstances such as those of last week. Yet if there is one thing for which history will favourably remember this administration, it is for the restraint it has shown in the past under the gravest provocation. As the experience of other places demonstrates, the underlying problems of plural societies cannot be solved by force. From its actions it would appear that the PPP/Civic has recognized this, which is not something which can be claimed for all our political parties. Now is not the time for it to listen to its justifiably nervous supporters; a state of emergency at this stage will not guarantee their security, any more than it will help the economy. If it takes the long view of our future, then its only option now is to make some major concessions to the Public Service unions, who in their turn, it must be added, should also make compromises. At this point the path of concession is not weakness, it is wisdom.

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Guyana: Land of Six Peoples