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Ethnic Relations Commission
66 Peter Rose & Anira Streets, Queenstown, Georgetown, Guyana
Tel. +592-231-6479, 231-6473,
231-6281, 231-6265
Fax: +592-231-6246

April 26, 2011

PRESS STATEMENT

Decision of the Ethnic Relations Commission with respect to a speech made by His Excellency, President Bharrat Jagdeo at Babu John, Port Mourant, Sunday, March 13, 2011, which matter has attracted a number of public comments and opinions on same, including accusations of it being racially divisive and inflammatory.  

The Ethnic Relations Commission acting under Article 212 D of the Constitution of Guyana, considering all the information at its disposal, regarding the said matter and having deliberated on the matter on the 11th April, 2011 at a specially convened meeting hereby adopts the following conclusions on the matter.

Background

At the annual memorial held to commemorate the lives of two former Presidents of Guyana, Dr. Cheddi Jagan and Mrs. Janet Jagan at Babu John, Port Mourant, Berbice on Sunday March 13, 2011, one of the key addresses was made by the current President of Guyana. His speech at this Peoples’ Progressive Party/Civic’s affair was given large publicity and has since been the subject of intense media scrutiny and commentaries.  Accusations in the media suggest that his speech was racially divisive and inflammatory. In the premises, the ERC on its own accord has determined that the matter should be investigated.

The Speech

The following is the salient part of the speech made by His Excellency the President, Bharrat Jagdeo, which seems to be the source of concern:

The PNC has just chosen as their presidential candidate a man who was very active in that era, the era of oppression, the era of starving our people, and I say this because they have gone backwards, they have gone backwards to choose someone who is characterized by repression, who has blood on his hands, because the people in Berbice, just here, the people who were killed protecting ballot boxes, protecting democracy, were killed in full knowledge of people like Granger and others who controlled the political directions of the country at the time…So they’re counting on poor memories and they’re counting on the lack of knowledge on the part of young people to bring these white elephants, behemoths, the fossils of the past back in the political arena, and I hope that you will as I ask you, make sure that people are educated about that past…

Observations:

  1. It seems that the political party, the PPP/C has begun its political campaign by focusing its attention on the recently named presidential candidate of the PNC/R, David Granger, in what has been considered in some quarters as a personalized attack on a presidential candidate. There have also been the suggestions in the public domain that the statements made by the President are racially divisive and inflammatory.
  2. It is not a moot point that in political meetings and discourses, attacks are made on other political opponents/candidates on their alleged track record and sometimes on their personal lives. Whether this is an appropriate forum for these political statements has not been commented on by the Commission. Further, whether the accusations leveled against the PNC/R’s presidential candidate are historically accurate or defamatory in the context of his involvement in this regard, has not been determined and is not to be determined by the Ethnic Relations Commission.
  3. The issue that arises for the Commission’s determination is whether the reference to the PNC/R’s presidential candidate as having ‘blood on his hands’ and a broader reference to Guyana’s political past (the ‘era of oppression, the era of starvation’) is in contravention of the Representation of the People (Amendment) Act No 1 of 2001; and/or the Racial Hostility Act, Cap 23:01.
  4. The reference to ‘people who were killed protecting ballot boxes’ may be ascribed to a factual historic occurrence when the Guyana Defence Force (GDF) shot and killed three PPP activists who were among a group attempting to block the army from removing ballot boxes during the 1973 national elections.
  5. Deconstructing the text of the President’s speech, the Commission has noted that the deliberate reference to the ‘fossils of the past’; the reference to ‘our’ in an audience that was predominantly PPP/C supporters; the charge for people to be ‘educated about the past’; the ‘blood on his hands’ statement, are statements that may be referencing Guyana’s history which has been marred with ethnic insecurities and accusations of racism. It has been argued that these statements may be used to preserve the argument used to harness or create racial fears of the past in order to ensure that there is continued ethnic allegiance to the PPP/C.
  6. While the Commission noted commentary in various sections of the media that the President’s speech may have lacked some amount of decorum and perhaps considered to be intemperate, the Commission does not find that the statements made and which may be based on a historical occurrence was a willful attempt to excite hostility against any section of the public or against any person on the basis of their race; nor is the Commission of the opinion that the statement can result in racial or ethnic violence among people in the context and meaning of the legislation.
  7. The Commission however finds that while it may be useful to give pause and to reflect on our common history and events in the past, that it may not be in the interest of any political party to appeal, to controversial events of the past. This is more especially so if as an ad captandum vulgus, it is intended implicitly or explicitly to attract, please or to pander to any form of ethnic insecurities, which in turn may be capable of being used to isolate or to bring further division to all people in this country. This may be a dangerous and unnecessary precedent and the Commission wishes to remind all leaders of communities and political parties to set the proper example and to act responsibly.

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