Learn from the ethnic riots of January 12, 1998

We are one month away from the 20th anniversary of the January 12, 1998 ethnically directed riots in Georgetown, in which Indian Guyanese were brutally assaulted in full view of the Police by roving mobs of African Guyanese, including women. The ethnic riots were the direct escalation of protests organised by the PNC against the December 1997 election results, The Stabroek News baldly reported the next day that “mobs…assaulted and robbed citizens…” and the Government refused to conduct an Inquiry into the ethnic violence.
A group of Indian professionals and businessmen formed the “Guyana Indian Foundation Trust” (GIFT) and conducted the Inquiry. It documented evidence from 228 Indian Guyanese who were brutally beaten, robbed and molested – all by African Guyanese, including women. It estimated at least 800 more Indian Guyanese were assaulted and over 10,000 experiencing some curtailment of their freedom of movement in Georgetown. One Indian woman was stripped. Eusi Kwayana said the report was “fair” and later wrote that the violence was committed by Africans of whom he was not proud.
One week later, I wrote a letter (excerpted below) that was published in the SN. It called on Guyana to establish a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” to interrogate the tragedy, rather than depending on the Herdmanston Accord brokered by Caricom. Twenty years later, with ethnic tensions rising we again make this call.
The letter said, “The Accord rewards the PNC for jettisoning the rule of law and due process in Guyana. It rewards the PNC for demonstrating to the people that if you lose by a set of rules you yourself had drafted, simply seize the umpire and demand new rules which will guarantee your victory. The Accord rewards the PNC for its willfully lawless, bullying tactics culminating in the January 12th pogrom launched by African (Guyanese) against Indian (Guyanese).”
In sweeping the ethnic violence under the rug and insisting that the Caricom-brokered Herdmanston Accord, in which the PPP made a number of concessions including truncating their term of office by two years, ‘resolved” the crisis, I asked, “If we even aspire to become a nation, should we not at least inquire as to why some African Guyanese had no compunction in suddenly unleashing the most extreme forms of terror on another set of citizens who just happened to be Indians? How can any accord bring lasting peace when we have thousands of Indians still traumatised?” I concluded this was a continuation of lying inculcated during the PNC regime, which denied it illegitimately occupying office through rigged elections. The supporters of the PNC and those that wished to “go along to get along” went along with the lie.
I then insisted we had to move beyond an Inquiry into the violence: “Guyana will never be capable of sustained development (in its wider sense) unless we destroy this culture of lying and make-believe and the participants in the political process are seen as legitimate by all Guyanese. This condition does not now exist. If we cannot deal with truth, however harsh it may be, then we will always be interacting with each other with distrust and suspicion. There have been several commentators that have lauded President Mandela and the post-apartheid South African accommodations which have allowed that country to move forward.
None of these accommodations and progress, however, would have been possible without the establishment of their “Truth and Reconciliation Commission”. Its work has not been to settle scores but to bare to all peoples the past of the present players. South Africans can then, in reconciliation, put that past behind, make choices – political and otherwise –and have confidence in the system.
For the overwhelming number of Indians in Guyana, they have no confidence in the PNC because of that party’s sordid record during their illegal dictatorship. Murders, rapes, discrimination, theft, lootings, and riggings by individuals who today cannot and carp of “forensic audits” leave a bitterness in mouths that amounts at times to nausea. These cannot be swept under, or brokered away, by any “Accord”, especially after January 12. Guyana will see no real progress without a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.”
What say we now?