Today May 26th 2021 is the 55th anniversary of Guyana’s Independence. It also the 57th anniversary of the Wismar Massacre, an anti-Indian act of genocide. It is one of the earliest organized acts of ethnic cleansing after the Jewish Holocaust of the late 1930s and 1940s. In fact, the New York Times and other independent international media carried reports describing the 1964 attack on Indians (who were an ethnic minority in the Wismar-McKenzie area) “as an orchestrated orgy of violence. It was an ethnic cleansing”.
It should not be forgotten. Guyanese must embrace history and be willing to learn from its varied lessons so as to avoid a repeat of May 26th. Some of the media reported that “it was a pre-planned annihilation of Indians – many Indians were murdered, many Indian men were beaten and brutalised, hundreds of Indian women were raped, many females were stripped naked, children were terrorised and traumatised, countless Indian homes and business were burned down, and with all fleeing Wismar for safety elsewhere”.
An official British government report on the Wismar Massacre said, “It was politically and racially inspired … and the fact that the security forces were in no case able to apprehend arsonists forces us to conclude that the destruction was not ‘spontaneous’, but was organised, and well organised.”
Reporting on the anti-Indian violence, the media (local and international) described the 1964 Wismar Massacre as “an orchestrated orgy of violence against peaceful Indians”. Some reports quoted officials and the then British Guiana Police as saying the act was one of a “terrorist group X13 Plan”. Right after the massacre of Indians on May 26, 1964, the People’s National Congress (PNC) held its party congress in Mackenzie, that adjoins Wismar, and celebrated the victory. Making snide remarks and mocking Prime Minister Dr Cheddie Jagan and his ruling PPP party. The Opposition PNC eventually came to power in coalition with the United Force in December 1964.
Linden Forbes Burnham described May 26, 1964 as a day of victory because it was a day of defeat of Indians in Wismar-McKenzie, of running them out of the area. Not surprisingly, he renamed the place after himself, Linden. And he deliberately chose May 26 as the date for Guyana’s independence in a triumphalist mode. The opposition PPP objected. Some media reports and PPP activists stated that “May 26 was deliberately chosen as Independence Day to celebrate the expulsion of Indians from Wismar”. Dr Jagan and the PPP opposed the date. Dr. Jagan pointed out the insensitivity behind the selection of the date (when Indians were massacred), pleading on Burnham to select another date. Burnham was unmoved. PNC insisted on May 26, and the British acquiesced.
What the PPP Government should do
Guyanese must not erase the history of May 26, 1964. Wismar is the first incident of official ethnic cleansing of a community in any part of the globe after the Jewish pogrom of Europe. It is a historic date that the country must not forget. Memorial service should be held for the victims. And compensation for the victims and descendants should be considered.
Instead of celebrating May 26, an effort must be made to bring reconciliation between victims (and their descendants) and perpetrators (victors and celebrants). Victims and their descendants are still hurting and can’t bring themselves to celebrate Guyana independence. One must be sensitive to the remembrance of the victims and not join in celebrations of the victors.
Reports say the Indians were beaten and robbed; regrettably, some of the non-Indian neighbours took part in the pogrom. International reports stated: “Some 3,000 Indians were victims of terror, murder, physical barbarism, and psychological trauma. They were uprooted from their homes, other properties, businesses and jobs. They lost gold, money and other valuables in the tens of millions of dollars of value at that time (tens of billions in today’s value). They fled for their safety and were not allowed to return to their properties or collect their valuables. They received no compensation for their humongous losses”.
Victims should be allowed to reclaim their property. Or government should establish a fund from which people can get compensation. There is precedent for compensation. I recall in 2012, there was violence in Wismar-McKenzie area. Homes were burnt and people shot. The victims received compensation.
In Uganda, some 40 years ago, the dictator Idi Amin carried out a pogrom against Indians. Many were raped and their property and cash wealth confiscated. They were forcefully expelled from the country. After Amin was toppled from office, a decade later, Indians were urged to return and reclaim their property. The government granted compensation and offered various incentives to the expelled Indians to return to their Uganda homeland and help in the development of their country. The Guyana government can emulate this Uganda model and compensate the victims of tens of millions of dollars. May 26th should not and must not be a day for celebrations by any Guyanese. It was a day of infamy. It should be a day for atonement by those who carried out the massacre against Indians and a day of remembrance for the victims and their descendants who are scattered all over the diaspora. The May 26th attack at Wismar has left an indelible scar on Guyanese who witnessed or experienced it; it remains a trauma to those who are still alive. It affected all Guyanese and several of them described their experience at remembrance ceremonies. In remembering the victims and their contributions to the anti-colonial movements, we are honouring them for their sacrifices and paying tribute to them. In so doing, we are also reflecting on the independence struggle.
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It is estimated that over one million Guyanese, when counting their dependents, live outside of Guyana. This exceeds the population of Guyana, which is now about 750,000. Many left early in the 50’s and 60’s while others went with the next wave in the 70’s and 80’s. The latest wave left over the last 20 years. This outflow of Guyanese, therefore, covers some three generations. This outflow still continues today, where over 80 % of U.G. graduates now leave after graduating. We hope this changes, and soon.
Guyanese, like most others, try to keep their culture and pass it on to their children and grandchildren. The problem has been that many Guyanese have not looked back, or if they did it was only fleetingly. This means that the younger generations and those who left at an early age know very little about Guyana since many have not visited the country. Also, if they do get information about Guyana, it is usually negative and thus the cycle of non-interest is cultivated.
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