Guyana and Suriname:the odd couple
December 13, 2006
There ought to be every good reason why Guyana and Suriname, a couple of poor, weak, small states should move closer together rather than further apart. Their contiguity, and the similarity in demography, geography, history and economic resources ought to have driven the neighbours into cooperative relations in an increasingly competitive global environment.
The two countries also face common criminal problems of narcotics-trafficking, gun-running and people smuggling, in addition to the normal illegal trade in a long list of contraband consumer goods. As demonstrated in the manhunt for the slippery Shaheed 'Roger' Khan, it is too easy for citizens of either country to cross the borders undetected by authorities on both sides. Collaboration on communications, security, health, transport and other matters should be in the common interest. Indeed, there has been a substantial body of joint activities.
Official relationships, though, have been far from cordial. As in the inexplicable delays to the launching of the Canawaima Corentyne River ferry project, Surinamese officials evince little enthusiasm to engage in any enterprise which they perceive might give Guyana an advantage. They have repeatedly used official contacts to stall agreements and have employed their military and law enforcement forces to badger Guyanese workers, to harass fisherfolk and to torment innocent travellers.
President Bharrat Jagdeo's aspirations, as he announced the start of oral hearings before the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) last week, that the settlement of the maritime boundary would lead to a new era of improved bilateral relations, therefore, are unlikely to be realised. The ITLOS award, whenever it comes, will deal only with a part of the territorial problem. There is still no agreement on the delimitation of the Corentyne River as an international boundary and on the New River territory, unsettled issues which will obstruct efforts to improve relations.
Suriname sees its economic future in the exploitation of strategic minerals and raw materials, particularly aluminium, petroleum and gold. Plans for tapping new reserves in western Suriname are contingent on the control of the New River territory, the Corentyne River, and the Atlantic offshore zone all three of which it pursued through spurious claims on Guyana's territory. It is this strategy, not sentimentality, that defined Suriname's relations with Guyana for the past 40 years.
Suriname's embarrassments by the Guyana Police Force which expelled its surveyors from the New River Zone in December 1967 and by the Guyana Defence Force which destroyed its armed encampment in August 1969, still rankle. Notwith-standing occasional political accords such as those between then Prime Ministers Forbes Burnham and Jules Sedney at Chagua-ramas in Trinidad in 1970, and between then Presidents Desmond Hoyte and Ramsewak Shankar in Georgetown in 1989, attitudes embedded in Suriname's foreign service and officialdom have been difficult to erase.
Not only Suriname's strategic and economic quest, but also the memory of historical hurts, explain the meaningless, interminable meetings of scores of Joint Technical Committees; National Border Commis-sions; Presidential summits; and mediation attempts by the Caribbean Community.
Guyana should not delude itself about the destiny of its neighbourly relations. To deal with Suriname in the long term, Guyana needs to establish a professional and permanent Border Commission, to reconstruct a resourceful Embassy in Paramaribo and to recruit a cadre of committed technical experts, not political appointees, to tackle the unresolved parts of the prickly problem.