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The Rupununi Uprisings Revisited
Need for a Full Account

by Gokarran Sukhdeo
(GuyanaJournal, October 2005)

Over the past few months a number of people, all with excellent credentials, have written on the Rupununi Uprisings of December 1968/January 1969. They are: Seelochan Beharry PhD; Damon Gerard Corrie, President, Pan-Tribal Confederacy of Indigenous Tribal Nations; former GDF Warrant Officer Depoo; M. Samaroo; myself – Gokarran Sukhdeo MA, Winner of the Guyana Prize for Literature; Colonel (ret’d) Desmond Roberts; Guy Marco, Artist/Culturist; Major General (ret’d)) Joseph Singh; Lori Alexander; Mayor Hamilton Green JP; and Alfred Ramsarran BSc, Secretary, Region 9 Indigenous People Association.

Prior to Dr. Beharry’s letter in Kaieteur News which actually initiated this wave of responses (currently resembling a de facto investigation of the uprisings), others had previously inquired, researched and written or commented on the subject. Some of those are: Francisco Luna de Bomparte, Spanish journalist; Dr. Odeen Ishmael, Dr. Walter Ramsahoye, Paul Tennassee, Father Morrison, Dr. Ptolemy Reid, and others.

As far as I know, none of these writers (prior to my letter to Stabroek News on September 9, 2005) actually mentioned or investigated in any detail the primary motive behind the rebellion – the Venezuelan involvement, the plan to secede the Rupununi from Guyana and install Valerie Hart as governor, nor the secondary motives such as the ranchers’ failure to obtain titles to almost five thousand square miles of savannah (an area bigger than Jamaica), their dissatisfaction with a recently concluded general elections, and allegedly a suspected United Force complicity since Valerie Hart was the UF candidate for the Region 9 constituency. Thus, they mainly presented a case against the PNC government and the GDF as monsters resorting to severe brutality akin to genocide and ethnic cleansing (killing of 70 to 100 Amerindians, raping dozens, beating hundreds, burning numerous houses) in the quelling of a ‘dubious’ rebellion by Amerindians, and in returning the Rupununi to full sovereignty of and unquestionable loyalty to Guyana.

These individual reports are all disjointed and therefore lacked comprehensiveness, but even worse, there is indication that academic objectivity is compromised in some. It may not be so much that these writers have their own agendas, but that they are honorable people sincerely presenting facts according to their own construal and from their own limited sources and vantage points – like Dr. Beharry admitted, “unfortunately, I have no access to any of these sources.”

The Rupununi Uprisings was more than just a bunch of Amerindians taking up arms in retaliation against the police for victimizing Amerindians, as claimed by Mr. Corrie on his website in an article entitled, “Report on the Atrocities Committed in the Rupununi Region of Guyana in January 1969”. The article started, “The security forces of Guyana then (as now) were predominantly (99%) non- Amerindians, and the thuggery of these rudimentarily educated young men drawn from the bottom of Guyanese society was also a constant provocation to Amerindians of the Rupununi; as a result: 5 Policemen in Lethem Town were shot at point blank range and killed – by 1 Makushi man whom the five Policemen had been torturing for the previous three days, after taking him into custody for 'routine questioning' (a code word for 'senseless beating') based on a wealthy rancher's allegation of cattle rustling. The five Policemen had handcuffed him to the bars of a cell for the previous three days – while they all had taken turns beating him all over his body. He was also denied food for the entire three days, after satisfying them that he was indeed innocent – he was released on the morning of December 31st and told to "walk home"; some fifty miles away. As it happened he saw a truck full of gun-toting Amerindian men heading south on the single road that connects Lethem Town to the coastal settlements of Guyana, and he flagged the vehicle down; upon being informed that a rebellion was underway the man who had just been beaten by the non-Amerindian Police of Lethem town for the last three days – begged to join so he could "get revenge on those bitches" to use his own words. He was hoisted aboard the truck and given a semi-automatic rifle with a full magazine. Upon reaching Lethem the vehicle headed straight for the Police Station where the 'brave' officers hid in fear, their innocent victim of the last three days recounts how he "shot the first one in the head as soon as he entered the door – killing him instantly, then stood over the other four one by one as they begged for their lives before he shot them too.”

First of all, to have suffered so much for so long and then returned for revenge against the police with such bravado, this Amerindian man must be named Clark Kent.

But both Corrie and Beharry revealed ignorance of the international connection of the Rupununi Uprising to both Venezuela and Brazil, which M. Samaroo in his letter to Stabroek News on September 11, explained. Samaroo stated, “The Brazilian Military's "Red Line Project" (Projeto Linha Vermelha in Portuguese) sought (and still seeks) to prevent a foreign invasion of the Amazon, originating from Guyana. This resulted in the militarization of the northern borders, the construction of the Air Force Base in Boa Vista and a lot of attention being paid to events in Guyana. There is a wealth of information in the Brazilian Government Archives. It would be a good place to turn for the truth. However, for those interested, the only reason Guyana was (and has not been yet) been invaded by Venezuela (and for Essequibo still remaining in Guyanese hands) was the firm opposition, by the Brazilian Government, to the Venezuelan invasion of Guyana. As a matter of fact, when advised by the Venezuelan Government (in 1969) of the impending Venezuelan troop movements (sanctioned by the US) in the Venezuela/Brazil/Guyana borders (i.e. the Rupununi area), the Brazilian Government deployed troops and its fighter squadrons to its Boa Vista airbase and essentially told Venezuela it would repel any Venezuelan invasion of Guyana. That was the only reason the outcome became what it is today. We do owe a lot of gratitude to Brazil for standing up for us.”

Of the three persons strongly contending atrocities by the PNC/GDF, the rather impetuous President of the Pan Tribal Confederacy of Indigenous Tribal Nations, Damon Gerald Corrie, born in Barbados four years after the Rupununi Uprisings, comes with the highest credentials. With direct lineage to half the kings and queens of Scotland and England, as well as an Amerindian heritage, he presents as a prolific, ardent and genuine representative of the Amerindian tribes in Guyana. Unfortunately, his very strengths are his weakness as his subjectivity is compromised by his zeal.

Mr. Corrie claims to have met and interviewed all the 100+ victims of the aftermath of the Rupununi Uprisings listed by Mr. Bomparte. (Mr. Francisco Luna de Bomparte, a Spaniard married to a Trinidadian, and a relative of Mr. Corrie's paternal grandmother, reportedly spent about three years interviewing these “victims” who are/were residing in Venezuela, Brazil and Guyana. (Mr. Bomparte is now deceased.) Unfortunately, none of Mr. Corrie’s websites listed the names and whereabouts of these victims.

In this currently on-going de facto investigation there are three categories of respondents – those who contend that widespread atrocities were committed by the PNC and GDF, those who refute this contention and, thirdly, those who present eyewitness accounts from their individual perspectives.

Mr. Corrie hints that I am “a GDF apologist masquerading as an Indian who conveniently was present in the Rupununi…,” and baits me to tell about myself.

I would like to be thought of as belonging to the third group. But more so as a writer who always had an intention to investigate the Rupununi Uprisings in details and document it. With such public enthusiasm in the subject whipped up the past few months, my intention has been greatly magnified. I do have a plan of action and I will now try (even harder) to obtain funding for my project. I do not agree with the idea of an independent commission as proposed by M. Samaroo (SN Sept 17, 2005). True, a commission gets official mandate and funding, but the very bureaucratic nature of a commission constrains the commissioners to work “inside the box”, then their report, if not favorable, gets placed on a shelf to gather dust, or has to be modified. (I saw a commission report in New York City modified five times until it moved from extremely unfavorable to very favorable.)

As I stated in my letter to Stabroek News, I do not know of five Amerindians killed in the uprisings. Mr. Ramsarran in his letter to Stabroek News (September 22, 2005) mentioned three civilians were killed, two of whom were Amerindians. I recall now that Victor Hernandez was killed. I knew him. He was an ardent PNC activist and might have been killed by “rebels” for this reason. The other Amerindian, Thomas James, I did not know, nor do I know the circumstances surrounding his death.

I knew all five of the policemen killed. They were good men – all. I also knew Constable Fortune, a kind and jolly fellow who survived the attack on the Lethem Police Station by hiding in a closet. He had spent 27 years in the Force as a Constable and after the uprisings got promoted to Corporal.

But Corrie, Dr. Beharry and Bomparte are men of credentials and if they say, among other things, 70 to 100 Amerindians were killed, their claim at least merits an investigation. After all, we are talking genocide in the context of Guyana’s population ratio. But even worse, such “allegations”, considered for now unfounded, can provide a lethal fuel for an explosion. Besides, if left uninvestigated, it will forever tarnish the history of Guyana. It is late, but not too late for an investigation. Now is the time, seeing that most of the human resources are still living.

But Dr. Beharry is certainly not the person for this task. Yes, he must be commended for ‘opening up a can of worms’ so to speak. But in seeking to justify his reason for doing so, he has not only tarnished his academic objectivity but also revealed much ignorance of the scientific methodology of presenting data. Ironically, he is biochemist! He states that, “UG historians seem only adept at writing biographical histories of Guyana's high profile figures, or covering non-controversial and/or innocuous topics. In this way they are being safe from any political incrimination; and at the same time, they can ingratiate themselves to the ruling elites of either of the dominant political parties. Unfortunately, the long-term interests of the public are not served, since serious questions (however unpleasant and unpopular) are not being addressed. This perception probably contributes to the reality that UG historians are not respected locally or internationally. It also contributes to the non-endearment and seemingly irrelevance of UG by the Guyanese populace.”

I do have first-hand experience of the uprising. In the late sixties, I knew all the Americans missionaries working with the Makushi, Wapishana and Wai-Wai tribes. At the time I was a school teacher at their Parishara mission. They were about twenty in number. Some of them had young children who attended a private all-white school with an American curriculum, taught by Americans, on the coast. I believe that school was at Vryheid Lust on the East Coast Demerara. This, and other “apartheid-appearing” activities by the Americans severely irked the PNC. At that time the party was flirting with such ideologies as communism, Pan-Africanism and egalitarianism, and the population became fanatically nationalistic and anti-white, while many communist jargons were foisted into our diction. The “isms” became particularly attractive to our young nation striving for an ideological grounding. The University of Guyana had already been established under the Vice Chancelorship of the erudite leftist Professor Lancelot Hogben, and was churning out “revolutionary” thinkers. One must recall also that Ian Smith had just hit the international scene with his unilateral declaration of independence in Rhodesia, and South Africa was making apartheid legal. These international events played a significant role in shaping our nationalistic mindset.

The Americans were originally asked to leave the Rupununi tentatively as part of the government’s efforts to return the Rupununi to full sovereignty of and unquestionable loyalty to Guyana. Bob Hawkins and his wife, working with the Wai-Wais in the remote Konahen district were allowed to stay, albeit only for a short while. So also was Fran Tracy, a linguist who was working on translating Wapishana into a written language. Patrick Foster was doing the same with Makushi at Parishara (where I worked), but he was asked to leave.

When the “apartheid” practices of the missionaries came to light, it was blown out of proportions, and provided a solid reason for expelling all the missionaries, with the exception of Fran Tracy, from Guyana. Even Peace Corps volunteers in the coastland had to leave. Never had there been a more classical case of throwing out the baby with the bath water.

Owing to my enthusiasm, this piece has already become too long. I will pause here with the promise of more to come. But I hope I have stirred up some more interest (and perhaps tangible support) in having a comprehensive investigation by an independent and competent person into what transpired prior to, during, and after the Rupununi Uprisings.

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