Forbes Burnham
by Rakesh Rampertab
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Forbes Burnham as Prime Minister of Guyana.

Some individuals make for difficult subjects to write on. Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham is such a person. He is either well admired or passionately despised. Either way, or altogether, he remains, unquestionably, one of the Caribbean’s most controversial personalities of the twentieth century. Forbes Burnham was born on February 20, 1923, in Kitty, Georgetown, one of three children born to poor but strict parents. He received his early education from his father who was the headmaster of a Methodist Primary school.

At eleven, young Burnham began his secondary education at Central High School, and remained there briefly before going to the colony’s elite Queen’s College (QC), where his academic brilliance earned him at least two internal scholarships with which he paid for the remaining years of secondary education, his family unable to afford the fees. Described in his school report as a “diligent and studious” student and a “natural leader,” Burnham wins the prestigious Guiana Scholarship in 1942, as the colony’s top student.

Delayed by World War II in Europe, he completed a Bachelor’s Degree externally, and taught both at a private secondary school and as an assistant master at his alma mater. Guyana’s premier poet-revolutionary, Martin Carter, a close friend of Burnham (QC days) under whom he served as a minister, wrote an impressive forward to Burnham’s collection of speeches, A Destiny to Mould (1970), noting that Burnham was “acceptably the most intellectually gifted of the masters at Queen’s College.” Burnham arrived in England in 1945 and attended London University where, as the best debater, he won the Best Speaker’s Cup of the Laws Faculty. Two years thereafter, he received an LL.B. (Hons.). In 1948 he was called to the Bar Gray’s Inn. In London, he became involved in students’ activities, a platform used then for colonials’ call for “self-rule,” and joined other activities such as those held by the League of Coloured Peoples (LCP). As the President of the West Indies Student’s Union in 1947, Burnham led its Delegation to the World Youth Festival in Czechoslovakia.

Back home in 1949, a qualified professional with some grass-root political exposure, he established a private practice and plunged into local politics, joining Dr. Jagan’s Political Affairs Committee (PAC), which became the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) shortly thereafter, due to Burnham’s suggestion. Burnham joined the British Guiana Labour Union (BGLU), the oldest union in the British Commonwealth which held considerable de facto power in the colony, and by 1952, his growing reputation made him the union’s president, a position he would not relinquished two decades later.  “It is impossible,” he said in 1969, addressing the Fourth Caribbean Congress of Labour, “for a trade union to have any vitality and play its proper role in the scheme of things in the context of developing nations unless it takes an intelligent interest in politics.”

Burnham is one of those people who were fortunate to recognize a destiny. According to his sister Jesse Burnham who distributed a provocative pamphlet, warning against her brother, “Beware of my Brother Forbes,” young Burnham’s ambitious list of goals includes becoming mayor of Georgetown, chief justice, prime minister, and the non-existing position of prime minister of the West Indies, reflecting the canvassing nature of his political inclination. Busy with studies in London, Burnham maintains contact with home activities via letters to his mother, one that expresses his disapproval of the rise of Indians in commercial Georgetown; “I feel strongly about the Indian attitude but the time has not come for me to broadcast these feelings and muddy my waters after all…”

In 1952, as President of the BGLU and a senior member of the PPP, Burnham began his grapple for political leadership. Popular in Georgetown, he convinced Dr. Jagan that the PPP congress should be held in the city instead of Jagan’s stronghold Berbice, with a members’ instead of a delegates’ voting session. Although his supporters outnumbered the delegates, his intention to outvote Jagan failed when Sydney King (Eusi Kwayana), a senior and popular Black PPP member, realizing Burnham’s objective, objected strongly in a passionate speech against Burnham’s wishes. Protesting that he should be “leader or nothing,” Burnham settled for chairmanship in place of the previously favored Aston Chase, who was regarded as less “educated.” After the PPP won the general elections in 1953, Burnham became the minister of education. Jai Narine Singh is included on the legislative team in place of Janet Jagan who is dropped to accommodate Burnham’s request. When the PPP is removed from office after 133 days, and the constitution suspended by the British, and PPP officials (Jagan included but not Burnham) are jailed on technicalities, Burnham again seized the opportunity to become party head.

With many PPP officials still imprisoned in 1955, Burnham and others weary of Jagan’s communist leaning, jointly called for another congress in Georgetown. Upon his release, Jagan agreed to a meeting but one in which no motions were to be made. However, when one of Burnham’s supporters motioned that all rules be ignored, Burnham (chairman) recognized the motion. Consequently, the Jagans walked out denouncing the motion as a vote of no confidence. Nevertheless, Burnham assumed his victory and declared himself party leader. For the first and only time, the PPP headed into the general elections (1957) as two separate factions, each with a version of the Thunder, the PPP newspaper. The one headed by Burnham was called the PPP Burnham Faction.

Defeated in the elections, Burnham disappeared from public politics, appearing in court where he developed a formidable reputation between 1957 and 1959. In 1959, he was elected President of the British Guiana Bar Association and the following year, became a Queen’s Counsel. When Burnham returned to the political scene in 1958, his PPP was revitalized under its new name, the People National Congress (PNC). Dr. J.P. Latchmansingh and Jai Narine Singh as chairman and party secretary respectively, represented the crux of the PNC’s Indian minority. By 1960, the PNC had become essentially a “Black” organization with Latchmansingh dead, and Jai Narine Singh forced to resign after publishing a memorandum (against party rules) criticizing the PNC’s “Africanisation.” Burnham, Singh wrote, had become a man whose “head has grown too big for his hat.”

Under Burnham, the PNC entered its first general elections in 1961, as did the United Force, led by the colony’s leading entrepreneur, Peter D’Aguiar. This third consecutive elections victory for the PPP convinced Burnham that the PPP was unbeatable unless his strategies changed. He appealed to his constituents intensely, suggesting that a PPP government meant an “Indian” government (and “Indian racial victory”) and the destined subjugation of Blacks. He intensified his campaign to change the voting system. Desperate to remove the “communist” Jagan from power, the British acquiesced, replacing the “first-past-the-post” method with proportional representations (PR) for the 1964 elections. Under PR, despite increasing its share of total vote cast, the PPP won fewer seats than it had previously. Thus, Burnham became prime minister in 1964 through the PNC/UF coalition which resulted in more seats than the PPP’s 24.

The period of 1961 to 1964 is extremely critical because it involved the orchestration of the demise of the PPP by Burnham. He led the public servants in crippling strikes against the government (1962 Kalder Budget and 1963 Labour Relations Bill). Instead of exhausting the parliamentary process, Burnham took central issues to the streets, making it difficult for Jagan to rule via parliamentary democracy. As president of the Guyana Labour Union, Burnham did not object to CIA involvement in local union activities (financing strikes and striking workers’ wages), which helped deteriorate PPP’s image in London and Washington. The violence culminated in the racial and communal violence of 1964 between Indians and Blacks, leaving at least 170 dead, thousands injured, and more than 1,000 homes destroyed. Dispossession of thousands led to the establishment of today’s “squatting areas,” as people moved to neighborhood dominated by their own race.

Leading from the streets, Burnham challenged his supporters through racial fears, reinforcing their sense of “power,” saying, “In fact, comrades, you do not realise your power, but I do not want you to use your power recklessly.” By mid-year of 1963, PNC’s campaign of violence reached government officials (Senator Christian Ramjattan was attacked and hospitalized) and buildings. Some foreign ships (Cuban tanker, m.v. Cuba) also became targets for sabotage. Horrified with his party’s campaign, Dr. D.J. Taitt, a founding member of the PNC, accused Burnham of leading its members into a “blind alley of improvised tribalism at variance with the economic and social realities of the two major ethic groups of our country…”

At Bourda Green, in May, 1963, Burnham suggests that the PPP plans to form “an authoritarian regime” in the Legislature, and if such occurs, then “there would have to be a shifting of the scene of agitation and opposition from the Legislature to the places where they grow rice.” A message loaded with racial overtones, “rice,” of course, symbolizes Indian-populated districts. Despite the discovery by the police of plan X13, an insurrectionary plot to overthrow the PPP by force and national instability, as well as arms, ammunition, chemicals for bomb making, etc. at Congress Place, the PNC headquarters, Burnham’s rhetoric about violence intensifies, suggesting that the “PPP plan violence and propose to execute violence,” and thus, his supporters “must be in a position to apply the remedy.” Thus, when asked why he refused to travel in Georgetown and assist in the arrest of the disturbances (asked by Governor), his response was that “we were very short on petrol and we felt that if we went around Georgetown using up this petrol…we would have no petrol for the vehicles to carry out Party work.”

He aligned with leaders he once regarded as “traitors”(e.g., Lionel Luckhoo and businessman John Fernandes who supported the suspension of the constitution), in their anti-PPP attacks. Regarding the racial zeitgeist, the Commonwealth Commission of 1962 (reviewed role of CIA), noted that the “political professions of the PNC were somewhat vague and amorphous. There was a tendency to give a racial tinge to its policy. Mr. Burnham expressed the opinion that it was Dr. Jagan who was responsible for this unfortunate development. We do not, however, think that there is much substance in the contention of Mr. Burnham and it seems to us that whatever racial differences existed were brought about by political propaganda.” And “political propaganda” became instrumental in Burnham’s campaign theme for the 1964 elections, called the “New Road.”

It is not surprising that a few months after the Wismar massacre, in which a majority Black population engaged in an orgy of violence, including rape and murder, against the small Indian community there, Burnham appealed to Indians in his first radio broadcast after assuming office; “We wish to let our Indian citizens know therefore that they can depend on this government as they could not upon the previous administration for justice and fairplay, peace and security, ordered progress and economic advance.” However, whatever confidence existed amongst Indians for Burnham from the early days of the PPP had been dissolved entirely by this tragedy.

On one critical issue, the right to self-rule—Forbes Burnham must be credited for his continual and emphatic efforts toward this end. Despite advocating that the PPP and PNC can never form a coalition government, Burnham announced that he would have supported whichever party won the 1964 elections, in the fight for independence. Some PNC members protested, particularly Sydney King (by now a PNC member), who resigned the day before the elections. A Guyana under Jagan, arguably, was an easier target to usurp than one governed from London. In 1966, the year that Burnham eventually received the instruments of independence, he created the National Security Act, giving the police sweeping powers to search, seize, and arrest at its will. For the 1968 general elections, he introduced the “overseas vote” which was used heavily to rig the elections. By the end of the sixties, he turned opinions in the West by establishing ties with China and the Eastern Bloc, essentially communist and socialist nations.

The 1970s belonged essentially to Forbes Burnham. It is in this era, the most important in the history of Independence Guyana, that Burnham became transformed from the “intellectually gifted” and cunning politician into the pragmatic but overtly vainglory national leader. No English-speaking Caribbean personality wielded more power over a section of the region, as nationalization of assets, extensive electoral fraud, political repression, party paramountcy, cult activities, IMF/World Bank intervention, mass migration, and Burnham’s own “cooperative socialism” all became tenets of a political landscape substantially reflecting the leader’s dreams.

Burnham was not disillusioned, nor was his plans altogether impractical. In 1970, Guyana became the world’s first Cooperative Republic by ceasing ties with Britain, thus, replacing the Governor General with an Executive President. The Guyana National Cooperative Bank was opened to help finance “cooperative” ventures in particular, such as the Sanata Textile Mill, the hydroelectric plant on the Mazaruni River, and the Yarokabra Glass Factory at Timehri. The “cooperative” Burnham tells us, is to be the “principal instrument for achieving socialism…making the small man the real man.” Under this theory, the “cooperative sector” is to be the “dominant sector.” He imported a successful economic model of production used in Puerto Rico, and began nationalizing companies with heavy foreign interest, such as the Demerara Bauxite Company (DEMBA), a subsidiary of the Canadian bauxite company, ALCAN. The massive sugar industry was nationalized in 1975. An External Trade Bureau (ETB) was established to monitor imports and exports. All seemed well for the citizens.

Under Burnham, Guyana’s status in international affairs even elevated. World recognized leaders such as Indira Gandhi and Fidel Castro visited Guyana. Burnham hosted the first Caribbean Festival of the Arts (CARIFESTA) (1970), importing fleets of luxurious cars as part of the grand arrangement for the historic occasion (“Festival City”). A key person behind the formation of CARICOM in 1973 is Burnham, who had also played host to the Conference of Foreign Ministers of Nonaligned Countries in 1972. That same year, relationship with Cuba was reinstated. Later in the decade, Burnham allowed the Cuban Army to use Guyana as a transit point on its way to Angola, a polemic move since Barbados had withdrawn its support (due to US protest), and Trinidad announced that it would not honor such a request if it were made. Unquestionably, Burnham’s image was greatly improved, especially in Cuba, Eastern Europe, and in the West Indies.

Setting out to realize his “co-operative” socialist revolution, Burnham gathered technocrats and skilled intellectuals par excellence to his ranks. Vincent Teekah, former senior PPP member, defected to become a minister under Burnham (Teekah was mysteriously murdered in his car). Another Indian intellectual, Shridath Ramphal, was attorney general before becoming General Secretariat for the Commonwealth, a position used to cushioned Burnham’s messages. The military expanded as defense allocation increased from $8.76 million in 1973 to $48.72 million in 1976 (500% increase). The Guyana National Service (GNS) (1974) and the Guyana People’s Militia (1976) began. Having established the 1763 Monument, a key national symbol with which primarily Blacks align, Burnham ordered and partook in the supervision of the construction of the Enmore Martyrs Monument in 1976. Long told by Burnham that this progressive “cooperative socialism” would “feed, house and clothe” Guyana by that same year, Guyanese, it seemed, had good hopes.

But Burnham’s agenda was, from the inception, overloaded with much of his own will, and by the end of the seventies; his dream had became a colossal nightmare. His 1973 elections campaign began unofficially with the seizing of paper stock from the PPP organ, Mirror. Days before the July elections, the government announced that ballots will be transported for their “protection,” by the armed forces and government bodies to army headquarters at Thomas Lands, Georgetown. They remained there for more than twenty-four hours. Two PPP supporters, Jagat Ramesar (17) and Jack Parmanand (35), in an attempt to prevent the seizure of ballot boxes, are shot and killed in Corentyne. While the police harassed and intimidated Indian voters outside, PNC party members and government officials at the polling stations employed technicalities to curtail the PPP vote.

Despite the rigging, Burnham declared 1973 as the “year of the breakthrough,” claiming that the PNC won the “Indian” vote in Berbice. He also proclaimed the birth of the New Guyana Man. Back in office, the “Founder Leader” crystallized his paramount presence in his “Declaration of Sophia” (1974) speech, in which he declared that the PNC “party should assume apologetically its paramountcy over the government which is merely one of its executive arms.” Consequently, the government created the Office of the General Secretary of the PNC and the Ministry of National Development (OGSMND) (1975), which, as the name suggests, became a conduit between the PNC party and the PNC government, making government business and resources those of the PNC party. A party card became essential for access to social benefits, civil service positions, contracts, and such things as business permits. By the mid seventies, an estimated 80% of the economy fell under the eyes of the PNC government whose workforce more than doubled since 1964, becoming replete with PNC party members (replacing the “old guard”).


Burnham (third from left) as part of the PPP cabinet in 1953. Third from right is Jagan.

Copyright © Rakesh Rampertab 2001  
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