April 12, 2003
Shortly after the latest round of discussions by the Guyana and Suriname Border Commissions dissolved in Georgetown on 10 March, Head of the Presidential Secretariat Dr Roger Luncheon announced that the Cabinet was "heartened that the climate was conducive to discussions aimed at amicably resolving a neighbourly dispute over the New River Triangle".
The March meeting, a follow-up to the failed meeting in Paramaribo on 25-26 October 2002, was postponed from January and followed Suriname's artful circulation of a note to diplomatic missions in Paramaribo advising that published Suriname maps should include Guyana's New River Zone as part of its territory.
The timing might not have been adventitious and, apart from any other matter on the agenda, the note on its own was certain to wreck any prospect of an agreement between the two sides. The Cabinet, nevertheless, was concerned that efforts should be made to reduce the fallout from the furore over the diplomatic note and that the two sides should proceed to have a constructive approach to the border difficulties. But this did not happen.
According to Dr Luncheon's press briefing Foreign Minister Rudy Insanally had briefed the Cabinet to the effect that Guyana was taking a firm stance on the New River Zone issue and was "prepared to take whatever action is necessary" to protect Guyana's sovereignty and territorial integrity. As if by chance, the GDFS Essequibo's visit to the East Berbice-Corentyne Region at this time provided a spectacular opportunity for the Coast Guard's flagship to show the flag by sailing along the maritime median line in the area of dispute.
The Foreign Minister expressed optimism that Suriname would respond to Guyana's request to retract the note and that it will desist from doing such things again, indicating that "the window of dialogue remains open". He said, too, that the Government of Guyana "views this ill-advised action by the Republic of Suriname as having serious implications for the commitment which the Presidents of Guyana and Suriname made in January 2002 to enhance cooperation between their two countries."
But all this came too late. The damage had already been done. So far, Suriname has not retracted the note and probably never will. The optimism conveyed by Dr Luncheon to the press in Georgetown was very different to what de Ware Tijd newspaper was reporting about the same meeting in Paramaribo. Defence Minister Ronald Assen, who at that time was acting Foreign Affairs Minister in place of Marie Levens who was visiting India, found little that was heartening in the meeting between the Border Commissions.
In fact, Assen is reported to have announced that the border talks with Guyana had been "suspended until further notice" and that Suriname would decide whether, depending on Guyana's attitude, follow-up sessions of the joint border commissions will be continued. The next meeting ought to take place in Paramaribo in June but Assen thought that meeting was likely to be useless. Our Foreign Minister has said he is not aware of these statements.
Assen is also reported to have mentioned, among other things, the 'Chaguaramas Agreement' signed by Guyana's Forbes Burnham and Suriname's Jules Sedney in April 1970 in which both countries agreed to demilitarize the New River Zone but, last January, President Bharrat Jagdeo publicly admitted that Guyana had troops there.
Assen's threat to suspend talks was Paramaribo's reaction to Georgetown's tough talk after Suriname had published its new map with its version of the 'official' borders. De Ware Tijd reported that, in an interview with Radio ABC, Ronald Assen, this time as Defence Minister, ordered the Suriname Navy to ensure that "no boat from Guyana would be allowed to sail on the Corantijn River without permission".
Following the January 2002 meeting between President Bharrat Jagdeo and President Ronald Venetiaan, it had been assumed, mistakenly, that the two sides would have advanced rapidly to reach an agreement on ways of cooperating in the exploration and exploitation of petroleum and other natural resources in the area of maritime overlap. Clearly, this has not happened.
In what can now be regarded as an understatement, Rudy Insanally last December described progress on relations with Suriname as being "below what was expected". This contradicted the misplaced optimism of Legal Affairs Minister Doodnauth Singh, the substantive chair of Guyana's National Border Commission, on his return from the October 2002 meeting in Paramaribo.
In short, the 10 March meeting of the Guyana and Suriname National Border Commissions was nothing short of a diplomatic debacle. Far from being 'heartened', the Cabinet should be pondering its long-term strategy for the favourable settlement of this troublesome territorial controversy with Suriname, including the possible return of the oil rig to the site under protection.