OPINION: The Guyana Insurgency

Last Updated on Sunday, 27 August 2023, 13:35 by Writer

Dr Randolph Persaud Professor Emeritus, American University, Washington DC

Twice during the funeral proceedings for Dr. Roger Luncheon, PPPC Vice President Dr Bharrat Jagdeo expressed frustration he and the former HPS faced during what used to be routinely labelled as the “crime spree” that followed the February 2002 Jail Break. The PPP General Secretary, however, went beyond the familiar “crime spree” construction. Instead, he spoke of an “insurgency” during this period when the national security of this country was fundamentally threatened. What are the differences between a crime spree and an insurgency, and what implications do these differences have for understanding those years of maximum threat, not only to citizens of this nation, but to the state itself?

According to Graham Farrell “[a] crime spree or spate usually means more than two similar crimes in a short time period, suggesting they are intense near repeats” (2015: 3). The FBI uses the same definition. The problem with this definition is that it is based only on frequency. Though not in the formal definition, a crime spree also implies (violent) action intended for ‘economic’ gain. The sociological definition also focuses on the offender, that is, on “persons” who have broken the law. Jagdeo is correct to object to this characterization of what transpired after the Jail Break. How is an insurgency different?

For clarity on the subject, I turn to FM 3-24. This is the US Army-Marine Corp Counterinsurgency Field Manual, a rewrite of the Small Wars Manual (1940).

FM 3-24 clearly states that an insurgency is a multi-methods campaign aimed at realizing political objectives. The central objective of an insurgency is political in nature. Most people make the mistake of restricting insurgencies to violence, especially violence based on guerrilla warfare and other types of War of the Flea tactics analyzed by Robert Taber (2002).

Insurgencies aim at exploiting or building popular support for a political cause. According to FM 3-24, four methods are used, namely, persuasion, coercion, encouraging overreaction, and use of apolitical fighters (FM 3-24: 105). Persuasion tactics include spouting of an ideology, promises to fix grievances, and actions that demonstrate the capacity for achieving results. In Guyana’s case, leading members of the party that had rigged elections for a generation, combined with ideologues from what used to be the WPA, preached a cocktail of grievances based on racial oppression and, concomitantly, on racio-cultural emancipation.

Coercion is also crucial to insurgencies. You may recall that General Secretary Jagdeo reminded us about the violent penetration of Buxton. In classical insurgencies (Mao), insurgents are supposed to mix-in with the local population who provide cover through what I shall call the mundane rituals of daily life. But Mao did say if the fish goes onto land, there will be trouble (Taber 2002). Old time COIN operations in Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Algeria, Kenya, and Korea were based on massive and comprehensive violence to separate the fighters from the general population. In Guyana, this was not needed because the insurgents did not have broad support for what was clearly an ill-begotten adventure of ideological idolatry.

Inducing overreaction is a third method of insurgents. The idea is to provoke a legitimate government to overreact, and then use that same overreaction to appeal to the international community for intervention. In those days, shared governance was the official expression of what was demanded. The PPP government was provoked by a string of violent actions (so-called crime spree), including massacres at Lusignan and Bartica. Numerous businesspeople were also killed to create a stream of departures from the country. And several members of the police and army were also murdered to break the morale of the disciplined forces. Please see Stabroek News 11/18/2019.

The “apolitical” fighters noted in FM 3-24 were crucial to the Guyana insurgency. We had then (as we do in some way now) what the manual describes as “media insurgents.” They typically use some or all the following to get their concocted grievances out– word and mouth, speeches by elites and key leaders, flyers and handouts, newspapers, journals and magazines, audio recordings, video recordings, radio broadcasts, television broadcasts, web sites, email, cell phones, and text messaging (FM 3-25: 107).

All these methods of spreading the ideas of the insurgency were used. In my own view, some newspapers, TV stations, radio stations, as well as intellectuals were the chief means of sustaining the Guyana insurgency. General Secretary Jagdeo bemoaned the fact that senior officers in the GDF scrubbed intelligence reports. The Defense Board struggled with this, but there were enough professionals who stood up. In 2009, the US Government issued a Counterinsurgency Guide. One key point in it is that interagency cooperation is critical to a successful response to those bent on doing harm. While this is true in fighting crime, it is even more vital when the survival of the state is in question.