President David Granger: Thank you, please be seated. Thank you for that introduction; it’s always good to be back at Eteringbang. Inspector General of the Guyana Defence Force, Colonel Patrick West; Battalion Commander, Colonel Fitzroy Ward; Sector Commander, Major Calder; Location Commander Lieutenant Collins; Police Divisional Commander, Senior Superintendent Boodram; my friends from the mining community; fellow Guyanese; soldiers: It’s good to be here again.
So, thank God I came in safely and this place bears lots of memories for me; in fact, my first location was not here at Eteringbang; it was at Makapa. I spent 100 days there in 1967 right opposite the Akarabisi there and this was my second location in 1967.
As you know, the GDF first deployed here in 1966 when the Venezuelans seized Ankoko. Ankoko is divided in two- there is a Venezuelan part and a Guyanese part but they occupy the Guyanese part and they have occupied it for exactly 50 years.
There used to be a boatman called Levans – I think the old miners will remember Levans – in fact yes, I think the family originally came from West Coast Demerara, Den Amstel area… (Guitar Levans; he is an old legend of the Cuyuni) but he used to have a large boat with a small engine. I think in those days the engines were called ‘Archimedes’ and Seagull engines- slow, slow, slow; if you’re swimming you could swim faster than the Seagull.
But, I say this to let you know that this river has a history and what we are today, what you see here today, is built up on the efforts and labours and sacrifices of generations. So being here is full of nostalgia; of course when we came in we use to come in with a plane called the Grumman; the Grumman use to land in the river because we didn’t have any airstrip.
This airstrip was built with cutlasses and axes first so the pilots didn’t like it at all; it was very dangerous to come in but now it is less bad… But the Grumman use to bring in about six of us at a time, land in the river; then you had to take a boat to go and meet the Grumman and of course at Makapa is the same thing; so, when the Grumman servicing, you eat green papaw and hard guava.
But this Cuyuni River is important to us; it is a definition of our sovereignty and your duty as soldiers and policemen is to draw the line so that the world would know where Venezuela stops, where Guyana begins. And this has been one of the most painful experiences of our history, even as we celebrate our Fiftieth Anniversary of Independence.
We have had to put with 50 years of provocation. Some people don’t understand how we feel about this river and about this territorial controversy- oh you take licks for 50 years so you could take a little more. The problem is that the Venezuelans have been preventing investors from coming into this country. In 2013 they actually sent a gun-boat into our exclusive economic zone to expel an unarmed petroleum vessel. The same year, the Venezuelan Ambassador in Ottawa, Canada actually wrote to the headquarters of the Goldfields which is operating at Aurora; the Canadian Headquarters accusing it of trespassing on Venezuelan territory and threatening it with litigation in the court. So it has not been easy.
I tell my colleagues in other countries this is not something we could ignore; this is like a bone stuck in our throat; it is causing us pain, it is preventing us from developing this country to benefit the Guyanese people … So you, particularly the police and the soldiers, I brought you a copy of the Geneva Agreement so you can read it for yourself, signed here the 17th of February, 1966: Michael Stewart for Britain, Burnham for Guyana, and Ignacio Iribarren Borges for Venezuela. And I brought some other books you can read about everything you want to know about Guyana- here, a book about my meeting with the Secretary-General of the United Nations and I hope you get the opportunity. This is a speech I delivered to the United Nations. I leave these for you so you can understand the passion I feel about the territorial integrity of this country and you can share that passion; we can live in peace; Guyana and Venezuela could live in peace.
We live in peace with Brazil and we can live in peace with Venezuela but people across the border must understand that this territory is ours for 117 years. The court gave ruling and in 1899 the court gave Venezuela a part of our territory near to the Amacuro because they were afraid that if we were too close to the Orinoco Delta it would interfere with the shipping. Over 5,000 km² were given to Venezuela in 1899 and they accepted it until Guyana started to come close to independence then they claimed two-thirds of our territory.
So, we cannot stop being vigilant because this land belongs not only to us because we are just the trustees. When you are dead, you cannot carry it with you- if you are a Hindu, you can’t put it on the funeral pyre; if you are Muslim, you can’t bury it; you have to leave it to your children and grandchildren and we have a duty to give them as much or more than we received from our parents and fore parents.
So you here, soldiers and policemen and civilians, you are the eyes and ears at this western most point of Guyana to keep us informed and to let us know if there is any breach of our territorial integrity by the Sindicatos, by the Guardia Nacional, by the Fuerzas Armadas – all of them must understand and respect our territorial integrity.
So today I come to you first of all to thank you for your service during 2016. As you know, on the 1st of November I declared Defence Force Day last year because I respect the work that the Defence Force had been doing for 50 years and on your fiftieth anniversary I declared 1st of November Defence Force Day. So every year we celebrate that day but I also want to encourage you to continue to be vigilant.
The moment we drop our guard or drop our vigilance, the moment we are slack we are going to face aggression and provocation. And that is what happened in 1966; we were not even here; the force was not even one year old when Ankoko was seized. We ran up here with our little Number Four rifles; by that time the other side already had FAN-automatic rifles. We came up here with our cutlasses and axes; they already had bulldozers and tractors but we came up here with determination and that determination has contributed to making Guyana and to keeping Guyana what it is today.
So today the police and the army are deployed to the four corners of this country: from Orealla to Arau; from the Amakura down to Achiwuib and further on to Masakenari and this is a permanent duty and obligation we have to the people of our country by day or by night whether it is swamp, mountain, river; we have a duty to our fellow citizens. And that is why I was so happy this year; (Colonel West can tell you) that we were able to witness ‘Exercise Home Guard’; any of you been on ‘Home Guard’? No? Okay, next time because it is every year now. Last year we did, ‘Green Heart’; anybody was on ‘Green Heart’ last year? (Like you’re the only soldier here, doing these sorts of training) But I had a saying when I was a young platoon commander and I am sure you all know the saying – “Train hard, fight easy.” So the harder your training, the more ready you are to be deployed during operations. And in so doing we must remember that we have an obligation not just to one another- our squaddies, other soldiers, other policemen, but to the whole country and these citizens here, they are our friends and, as one famous statesman said, “The army is like a fish that swims in the water and the people are like the water of the nation and you can’t take a fish away from the water and you can’t take the army away from the people.”
We have 3000km of border; 3000km of border with Brazil; over 1300km; with Venezuela nearly 800km and with Suriname over 830km; then we have a coastline of over 450km. We cannot protect such a long border, such a long coastline on our own; we depend on other Guyanese citizens to work with us, to help us and that is why it is so good to be here this Christmas to be in a typical Guyanese setting here at Eteringbang, the western most outpost of our country. And then again, Christmas is not just for Christians: if you go down town, go to Bartica, go to Georgetown you will see that this is a national festival.
Yes, the Christians celebrate the birth of Christ; that is, he came as a baby in very humble circumstances; of course when I was a young platoon commander this would have been regarded as a town. This is like a luxury. We still use to live in bunkers; still use to live in bunkers so mud and sand in everything you do. You’re lucky to get lunch without sandy rice. But Christ came in humble circumstances and humble conditions and you know, starting with a band of just about a dozen people, (one of whom was a fake) he was able to build one of the greatest religions in the world. But today we celebrate the fact that he came as a child and that celebration, that event of Christmas, has become almost international; an international symbol of fellowship, of comfort and joy, of peace- goodwill to all men.
So this is my greeting to you. You will not be home for Christmas but you can rest assured that the duty that you are performing here is one that is vital to our nation. And as the others in the hinterland and other parts of the coastland celebrate Christmas, I will remind them that their peace, comfort and security was bought at the price of the vigilance of the Guyana Defence Force and the Guyana Police Force.
So I have come here to wish you happy Christmas to share with you this important event in the defence force – what we call ‘soldiers lunch’; sometimes we call it ‘soldiers day’; but it is a tradition that we have had for 50 years that we come together at least one time a year and celebrate our common mission, our common duty to the people of this country.
So thank you very much for coming, thank you very much for the cultural show. I wouldn’t make any comments but it is always good to have fun and to appreciate others company at this time of the year. So thank you. May God bless you and may God bless your families.