Since late February of this year, incidents have taken place at the mouth of the Sarstoon River around Sarstoon Island which have driven up the tension between elements of the Guatemalan military/navy, on the one hand, and the Belize Territorial Volunteers and the Belize Coast Guard, on the other.
The Belize Territorial Volunteers (BTV) are a Toledo-based civilian organization, led by Wil Maheia, who is also the leader of a political party – the People’s National Party (PNP). The BTV has branches and allies in the Orange Walk and Cayo Districts, and their various initiatives to establish and demarcate the Belize border with Guatemala appear to be supported by the masses of the Belizean people. This newspaper has previously supported all these various BTV initiatives.
A significant problem with BTV activities has always been the expressed disapproval of the leaders of the ruling United Democratic Party (UDP) government, so that when the BTV travels to the various border points, they travel as an exclusively civilian body. The Government of Belize has refused to deploy any of its Belize Defence Force (BDF), Police Department, or Belize Coast Guard personnel to provide cover or support to the BTV. So that, when incidents have taken place between Belizeans and Guatemalans in and around the Sarstoon specifically, it has always been, with one significant exception, Belizean civilians facing Guatemalan military.
It is interesting to note that not one of these incidents since February has been reported, to the best of our knowledge, in any of the Guatemalan national press. The media in Belize, on the other hand, has featured these Sarstoon incidents between Belizean civilians and the Guatemalan military in headline news. Between May 28 and 29 of this year, there was a faceoff between the Belize Coast Guard and the Guatemalan military/navy at Sarstoon Island. This is the “significant exception” of which we spoke in the previous paragraph. With respect to these Sarstoon incidents, Belize’s ruling politicians and our diplomats have made every possible effort to downplay them. The relations between Guatemalan and Belizean politicians, diplomats, and even military leaders, appear to be excellent.
Sometime recently the Belize Territorial Volunteers announced that they were organizing an expedition to Sarstoon Island for Sunday, August 16. There has been major controversy surrounding Sarstoon Island, and no less than the Prime Minister of Belize himself, Hon. Dean O. Barrow, intervened on the morning of Friday, May 29, to ask that the Belize Coast Guard stand down from positions they had taken on Sarstoon Island on Thursday, May 28. Exactly what is the position with Sarstoon Island and what is going on there is not clear to the Belizean people, because the Prime Minister has refused to discuss the matter.
All ranking officials have confirmed that the Sarstoon Island has always been Belizean territory. Guatemala had, however, objected to the building of a Belizean forward operating base on Sarstoon Island since the May 28/29 incident, when the Belize Coast Guard were reportedly doing reconnaissance for such a base. On a visit to Belize two weeks ago, the Foreign Minister of Guatemala, Carlos Raul Morales, said that Guatemala had objected only because they thought the forward operating base would be a military base, and he claimed, in the presence of Belize Foreign Minister, Hon. Wilfred Elrington, that there had been an agreement signed by Guatemala and Belize in 2000 for there not to be built any new military bases in the border area. Since Morales’ statement, five former Belize Foreign Ministers, all from the Opposition People’s United Party (PUP), which was in government between 1998 and 2008, have denied that any such agreement exists.
On Friday, August 8, General David Jones, the commanding officer of the Belize Defence Force (BDF), gave an extended statement to the Belize press in which he declared that the BDF would not support the August 16 Sarstoon Island initiative of the Belize Territorial Volunteers, and, moreover, General Jones stated that in his opinion such an expedition as that proposed by the BTV for August 16 could provoke violent conflict between Guatemala and Belize.
We consider General Jones’ statement to be extraordinary, pointed, and one made at the behest of his political bosses in the UDP government. That statement has caused this newspaper grave concern, so much so that we would advise against the BTV’s proposed August 16 expedition. We feel that the BTV is clearly a minority group in Belize’s political democracy. It may well be that the BTV’s brave and nationalistic initiatives enjoy the support of the majority of the Belizean people, but there is no confirmation or proof of this. If, for instance, there were mass demonstrations of support going to take place in all the cities and towns of Belize simultaneously with the BTV’s visit to Sarstoon Island, this newspaper would change its perspective on August 16. The fact of the matter is that in free and fair democratic elections, the ruling UDP continues to enjoy the majority support of voting adults.
The political and diplomatic situation at the Sarstoon Island has reached a point so delicate that for Belizean civilians to dare the Guatemala military/navy there, without the support of the Belizean government and military, and without the demonstrated support of the masses of the Belizean people, this would have to be considered an adventurist initiative. Brave, yes. Nationalistic, yes. But adventurist.
Power to the people. Remember Danny. Fight for Belize.