The pattern of political repression by the PNC regime

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With the PNC firmly in control of the government after Guyana achieved independence, it immediately began to implement a studied strategy to repress the political opposition. Even its coalition partner, the United Force (UF), was on many occasions kept out of the decision-making and some leading members of that party were even cajoled by PNC leader Forbes Burnham to cross over to the PNC.

Ever since the coalition government was set up after the December 1964 elections, Burnham continued to claim that it was the PPP that stoked violence during the eighty-day strike in 1963 over the Labour Relations Bill and during the six-month strike, called by the PPP-backed Guyana Agricultural Workers Union (GAWU) in 1964 to demand recognition as the representative of sugar workers. [Over the past decade, documents released by the US Government have revealed the collusion of the CIA, the PNC, the UF and the TUC in propagating strife during 1962-1964 to destabilise and overthrow the PPP government].

To repress the PPP, which formed the opposition after December 1964, PPP members, detained without any charges by the British authorities in 1964, continued to remain in prison, and more of them were detained on the grounds that they were planning terrorism against the new government.

National Security Act

In the face of stiff local and international opposition to the detention of the PPP members, the coalition government decided to "legalise" the holding of the political prisoners by passing the National Security Act in 1966 shortly after the country became independent of British rule. This law was very repressive, and it gave the government authority to suspend the right of habeas corpus and to restrict and detain any Guyanese without trial for an indefinite period.

Shortly after the rigged July 1973 elections, the regime re-enacted the National Security Act which added further restrictive measures. These provided for preventive detention and restriction of movement of persons, control of firearms and ammunition, powers of search without warrants, and increased police powers. Furthermore, the government armed itself with authority to make regulations - in situations deemed as "periods of war, threatened subversion and other emergency" - which were even more despotic than before. Among these were provisions for "censorship and the control and suppression of publications, writings, maps, plans, photographs, communications and means of communication", and confiscation of property.

The penalties provided were extremely harsh. One section of the Act stated that "any person who, without lawful authority, the burden of proof of which shall lie upon him, purchases, acquires or has in his possession any firearm, ammunition or explosive shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding one thousand dollars or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years or to both such fine and imprisonment and, on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for life."

Another sub-section stated that "any person who is proved to have had in his possession or under his control anything whatsoever in or on which is found any firearm, ammunition or explosive shall, until the contrary is proved, be deemed to have been in possession of such firearm, ammunition or explosive."

Under this draconian regulation, the accused was thus presumed to be guilty until he could prove himself innocent.

There was also the odious provision of guilt by association. Another section stipulated: "Any person who consorts with or is found in the company of another who, without lawful authority, has in his possession any firearm, ammunition or explosive in circumstances which raise a reasonable presumption that he intends or is about to act or has recently acted with such other person in a manner prejudicial to public order or public safety, shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable . . . ."

This repressive law encouraged regular police harassment and intimidation of opposition leaders and activists and numerous persons were arbitrarily arrested and detained especially after the rigged local government elections of 1970, the rigged general elections of 1973, 1980 and 1985, and the fraudulent referendum of 1978.

In the light of all this, the PNC also subverted the army, police and judiciary to crush political opponents. Police harassment became common-place and thugs associated with the PNC and its youth arm, the Young Socialist Movement (YSM) with impunity and in full view of the police, violently broke up public meetings organised by opposition political parties. Under these conditions, freedom of assembly was merely nominal.

The National Security Act was finally repealed in September 1991 at the time when Guyana was preparing for general elections.

Repression against rice farmers

From the time it assumed power, the PNC also moved to destroy the PPP's long-standing support among the rice farmers who had benefited substantially during the period of the PPP government from 1957 to 1964. Among the benefits of that period were amendments to the Rice Farmers (Security of Tenure) Act, huge land reform projects, better drainage and irrigation, introduction of new strains of seed which improved yield, better marketing and prices, official recognition of the Rice Producers Association, re-organisation of the Rice Marketing Board, and a general improvement in the standard of living of rice farmers and their families.

Burnham's coalition government immediately reversed the PPP's policy and implemented a barefaced strategy of discrimination against rice farmers. It reduced the prices paid to farmers, removed all subsidies on products associated with rice production such as fertilisers and fuel, de-recognised the RPA and dismissed the Association's representatives from the Rice Marketing Board (RMB). The regime also made it a criminal offence for rice farmers to be in possession of their own rice and paddy without permits. Later the PNC established "Rice Action Committees" made up of its political supporters, and persons it selected from these groups were placed on the management of the RMB which itself was staffed with PNC supporters with little knowledge of the rice industry. The result was that rice farmers became alienated from control of their own industry. Earlier (in May 1965), when they mounted a peaceful picketing exercise outside of Parliament to oppose legislation to de-recognise the RPA and restructure the RMB, the police using dogs, tear gas and batons, brutally assaulted and seriously injured many of them.

In a further act to discourage the rice farmers, rice exports to Cuba, which offered very high prices, were stopped. In addition, major land development schemes were neglected and drainage and irrigation suffered. As a result, land under rice cultivated declined from over 250,000 acres in 1964 to less than 90,000 acres by the late 1980s. By then, the PNC had realised the folly of its anti-rice policy and was attempting to rehabilitate the industry, but unfortunately there were not a large number of rice farmers who were willing to expand cultivation. Actually, many of the experienced rice farmers and their families, as a result of this political and economic repression, had already migrated to North America and elsewhere. Progressive agricultural communities fell into decay and many small privately-owned rice mills across the coast of Guyana were forced to close operations.

Pressures on sugar workers

The PNC also continued acts of repression against the sugar workers. From the time Burnham became Prime Minister in December 1964, he vehemently opposed a democratic poll to decide which union held majority support among the sugar workers. The union recognised by the sugar producers was the Man Power Citizens Association, widely regarded as a "company union", and was unabashedly politically allied to the PNC and the UF. The militant GAWU was heavily supported by the sugar workers - who were almost totally PPP supporters - and it was with this fact in consideration that Burnham felt that a poll, which the union would easily win, would give it more clout in the sugar industry and would, at the same time, be politically damaging to him and his party.

However, a long general strike in the sugar industry called by GAWU in 1975 eventually forced the government to agree to the holding of a recognition poll in the sugar industry on 31 December 1975. Thee results of the poll indicated that the GAWU won the support of more than 98 percent of the sugar workers in every sugar estate in the country. Significantly, the results showed that the PPP still had majority support in the sugar estate areas; the rigged elections of 1968 and 1973 had given the PNC "massive victories" in these areas, and Burnham had boasted that his party had breached these PPP strongholds.

In 1976, the sugar industry was nationalised, but the PNC regime installed a management style which was not much different from that of the Bookers and Jessels companies, the previous owners of the sugar industry. The nationalised entity also discouraged workers' participation in management and continued to place obstacles in the way of improving the working conditions of the sugar workers. As a result, the GAWU continued to call strikes which from time to time were suppressed by harsh police action.

Anti-labour laws

Other workers also were harassed, intimidated and forcibly repressed when they protested PNC policies. Under the Burnham administration, bauxite workers were locked up, beaten by police and tear-gassed and a few union leaders were threatened and detained for long periods. Interestingly, many of these workers and union leaders had solidly backed the PNC during the time of the PPP government and even during the periods of the rigged elections.

To keep workers in check, the PNC also enacted repressive anti-labour laws. By the Labour (Amendment) Act, 1984, the constitution of Guyana was amended to allow for wages to be compulsorily seized without payment of any compensation. It also empowered the TUC, even without being consulted by the Government, to enter into enforceable collective labour agreements binding on all public sector workers, thus denying individual trade unions the right of concluding agreements on their own. The government's intention was based on the belief that it was easier to impose its will on a single body, the TUC (which was controlled by the PNC), rather than the 24 active unions, in applying wage restraint policies which were part of the IMF conditionalities applied on the government.

Under the Desmond Hoyte administration, another anti-labour law was derived from the Constitution (Amendment) Act of 1988 which deprived trade unions and other organisations of the right to contest in court any denial by the government to consult with them, or failure on the part of the Government to involve them in the management and decision-making processes of the state.

Fortunately, these repressive laws failed to threaten the few militant unions and their leaders into submission.

Pressure on the Mirror and other opposition media

In November 1971, Prime Minister Forbes Burnham told parliament that his government had passed "no legislation or done anything to prevent the publication of any newspaper in this country and has no intention of doing so." But soon after that utterance, the regime in February 1972 assumed powers to control the importation of newsprint, printing equipment and materials. By issuing two special trade orders in December 1971 and February 1972, the government prohibited the importation of newsprint, book binding machinery and printing equipment, except under the authority of a licence granted by the competent government Ministry.

Because of that control, an import licence was refused the New Guyana Company Limited, publishers of the Mirror to import a printing press from the United States on which a down-payment of G$32,000 (about US$16,000) had been made. The PNC regime at first had granted the import licence, but soon after it issued the trade orders, the permit was withdrawn. And when the licence expired, the regime refused to renew it, thus causing the company to lose its down-payment.

And because of delays in issuing licenses for the importation of newsprint, the Mirror was forced to cease publication on three occasions for a period of about two months in 1972-73 and for six weeks in 1974.

The intensity of the efforts launched from time to time to suppress the Mirror demonstrates the degree of discomfort which the Burnham regime suffered on account of the militant stand which this newspaper adopted. Efforts to stifle this newspaper were part of a wider scheme of media control which became an integral element of the Burnham regime's plan.

On one notable occasion, the government on 8 June 1973 seized newsprint intended for use by the Mirror. Even before this date, the supply of newsprint had been in short supply on account of repeated restrictions placed upon the importation of adequate quantities. Repeated efforts by the New Guyana Company to import vital spares and new printing equipment also met with repeated denials. And gift newsprint from newspapers in Trinidad to the Mirror was not allowed to enter the country by the PNC regime. Resort to the courts by the publishers of the Mirror failed to win sympathy from the judges.

Another media critic of the regime, the Catholic Standard, the weekly newspaper of the Roman Catholic Church, also suffered the whiplash of this form of repression when the state-run Guyana National Printers Limited refused to continue to print the paper. And when the paper found another printery, it suffered from the non-availability of newsprint.

The regime also applied further harassment in the form of libel suits against the opposition media. These included libel suits against the Catholic Standard, Dayclean (organ of the Working People's Alliance [WPA]) and Open Word, a weekly stencilled political news-sheet. There were five libel suits filed against the Catholic Standard - one by President Forbes Burnham and four by Vice-President Desmond Hoyte.

Burnham sued the newspaper because of its claim that his decision to re-open the Venezuelan border issue was either "a blunder or treason". Hoyte sued because it published articles "alleging official pressures on insurance companies to repatriate funds invested abroad and to make the proceeds available to the government as foreign exchange." The Catholic Standard also alleged that the UN Development Programme had made a "political contribution" to the PNC by funding projects run by its women's section, the Women Revolution Social Movement (WRSM).

Government ministers attempted to justify the newsprint restrictions and the pressures on the opposition media, particularly the Mirror, by claiming economic reasons for the actions. The Attorney General, Dr. Mohamed Shahabuddeen, explained that ". freedom of expression in any society is only available and exercisable within the economic potential of the country and by such methods as it could as a whole afford. It is for the state to allocate scarce resources to various competing sources as its judgement sees fit." On the other hand, the Deputy Prime Minister, Dr. Ptolemy Reid, accused the Mirror of "wasting" newsprint and saying this would not be granted until the economic crisis was over.

Later, the PNC also attempted to rationalise its position on this "censorship" issue. Addressing the Rotary Club in June 1974, Kit Nascimento, Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office said: "A newspaper or broadcaster that persistently and deliberately sets out to frustrate and sabotage government's development efforts, in my view, would have no more right to publish than a citizen to cry fire in a cinema where there is no fire."

In January 1973, the New Guyana Company sought a declaration in the High Court that the fundamental right to freedom of expression which was guaranteed by the constitution of Guyana was violated by the making of two trade orders of 1971 and 1972. Three years later, the judge, Frank Vieira, ruled in the publisher's favour and awarded damages amounting to G$10,650. Vieira declared in his judgement: "To get a licence for a printing press without obtaining a licence for newsprint is pointless . . . . and the same applies in reverse. What it basically amounts to is this: no licence and/or printing press - no freedom of expression. This clearly, to my mind, amounts to newspaper control and not newsprint and/or printing equipment control."

But in an appeal by the government in 1976, the Court of Appeal, presided over by Justice Victor Crane, in March 1979 overturned the decision and ruled that the right to import newsprint did not form an essential part of the fundamental right of the freedom of expression. This latter decision, to an extent, endorsed the government's action in its efforts to continue to apply pressure to destroy the Mirror.

From December 1977, the Mirror was forced to purchase newsprint from the state-owned Guyana National Newspapers Limited (GNNL). But on some weeks it was unable to obtain any on the excuse that shipment of newsprint was delayed, even though the state-owned Guyana Chronicle continued to be printed at its regular size and without any cutback on quantity.

This problem forced the Mirror to close operations for short periods. After one of these closures, the Caribbean Publishing and Broadcasting Association, based in Trinidad, offered the newspaper 12 rolls of newsprint as a gift, but the government refused to grant an import licence. Deputy Prime Minister Reid, at a special press conference to explain the refusal, stated that his government would not allow "those foreign newspapers to present gifts here" in order to interfere with the government's policy towards the Mirror.

By 1979, the Mirror was completely prevented from obtaining newsprint - either by purchasing from the government or from importing or even receiving any as gifts from abroad. But despite all the restrictions, the Mirror survived, and it was printed for a while as a weekly four-page broadsheet on expensive bond paper.

In the later years of the Desmond Hoyte administration, the newsprint restriction was finally lifted and the New Guyana Company was able to purchase larger quantities from the GNNL. As a result the Mirror was able to recommence the publication of its 16-page weekend and three week-day issues. However, after a while it discontinued its week-day issues to conserve on its newsprint supplies.

Party paramountcy and the repressive apparatus

As the PNC entrenched itself in power after 1973, it established a policy of "paramountcy of the party" which placed the PNC over and above all other organisations and agencies. This policy reduced Parliament and Government to a position of subservience to the PNC. Symbols of the PNC became paramount, and the PNC flag was flown on government buildings and even on the building housing the High Court of Guyana.

To enforce the doctrine of party paramountcy, the PNC regime in 1975 established an office designated as the "Office of the General Secretary of the PNC and Ministry of National Development". Dr. Reid was in charge of this office which ensured that the PNC received state funds and logistical support to carry out its political activities. [The building housing this office was destroyed by fire in 1979 and four leaders of the WPA, including Dr. Walter Rodney, were accused of burning it and were charged with arson. After Rodney's assassination, the charges were dropped against the others.]

Under party paramountcy, political repression advanced with the politicisation of the public service and the security forces. A sizeable proportion of public servants and also the security forces, especially the Guyana Defence Force, were called upon to pledge allegiance to the PNC. Some trade unions, notably the Guyana Teachers Association, also affiliated themselves as members of the ruling party, even though their members included persons who opposed the polices of the PNC.

At the same time, Burnham moved ahead to militarize the society and by 1976 one in every thirty-five persons in the population were members of the "disciplined" forces - the Guyana Defence Force, the Police Force, the paramilitary Guyana National Service (created in 1974), and the Guyana People's Militia (established in 1976). Defence spending expanded rapidly, increasing almost 500 percent from $8.76 million in 1973 to $48.72 million in 1976.

This high degree of militarization had the objective of ensuring that the PNC regime remained in power while controlling the growing political opposition. As part of this studied plan, the PNC ensured that all the disciplined forces were dominated by Afro-Guyanese, the ethnic group from whom the party drew most of its support.

Under the Burnham administration, the PNC repressive apparatus also included the House of Israel, a so-called religious cult of Afro-Guyanese, founded by an Afro-American fugitive from US justice, David Hill, who called himself Rabbi Washington. This group openly supported the PNC and was used regularly by that party to break strikes and also, even in the presence of the police, to violently break up public meetings organised by opposition political groups. On 14 July 1979 its members in broad daylight brutally attacked a WPA political demonstration and murdered a Jesuit priest, Father Bernard Darke.

When Desmond Hoyte became President after Burnham's death in August 1985, he quickly disassociated his administration with the House of Israel. Rabbi Washington was later charged with murder and received a prison sentence after he was found guilty. Without political backing, the cult lost its sting and power and soon after most of its adherents drifted away.

Despite these forms of political repression, they nevertheless could not stop the opposition forces, particularly the PPP, from continuing to resist the regime and agitate for democracy, including free and fair elections, and to condemn the despotism of the PNC. Actually, the more repressive the actions of the PNC, the more determined the opposition, led by the PPP, was able to consolidate growing support both in Guyana and in the international arena.

23 July 2007