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Memoriam: Forbes Burnham
by By Stabroek News
Posted on 2010-08-27

This article is reprinted from Stabroek News July 29, 2010 in Guyana Review

Commemorating the 25th anniversary of the death of Forbes Burnham, the first Prime Minister and Executive President of Guyana Forbes Burnham belonged to a talented generation of Guianese born in the decade of the 1920s. Their world view was shaped by the oppressive living conditions under which the working people of the British West Indies languished in the aftermath of the First World War.

It was during this period that the British Guiana Labour Union was founded in British Guiana. Urban workers on the waterfront and rural labourers on the plantations were marching and rioting for higher wages, better living conditions and wider civil liberties. They had good reason to do so.

For the masses, educational facilities were meagre; living conditions were depressed; unemployment was widespread; social security was almost non-existent; the economy was controlled by foreign multi-national corporations and, before the advent of universal adult suffrage, the majority of the population had no say in the way they were governed. It was in this context that the anti-colonial struggle started.

It was into these conditions that Forbes Burnham was born on 20th February 1923. He won the British Guiana Scholarship in 1942 and went to study law after the Second World War. London in the post-War years was a hive of anti-colonial agitation and anti-capitalist activity. His thinking was influenced by the legendary African and Caribbean students and war veterans who were there at one time or another during those years.

Forbes Burnham served as president of the West Indian Students Union for the 1947-1948 academic year and was its delegate to the meeting of the International Union of Students in Paris in 1947 and in Prague in 1948. He also joined and worked for the League of Coloured Peoples and was elected vice-president of the London branch of the Caribbean Labour Congress. His grounding with the anti-colonial and Caribbean student community inculcated a strong desire for Guianese nationalism and Caribbean regionalism on the one hand, and for socialism, on the other. In this way, he came to the attention of leading West Indian activists who sought to enmesh him in the web of the Caribbean movement. He returned to his native land in 1949.

He was admitted to practice at the local bar on 11th March 1949 and became a pre-eminent attorney- at-law, leading to his appointment as Queen’s Counsel. He cultivated a political constituency among waterfront workers and joined the British Guiana Labour Union in April 1949, serving as its attorney. He was elected president of the Union, member of the Georgetown City Council in 1952 and mayor in 1959 and 1964 and served as president of the British Guiana Bar Association in 1959.

Forbes Burnham became one of the main architects of the constitution and one of the major activists in the original People’s Progressive Party. Along with Cheddi Jagan, Janet Jagan, Ashton Chase, Jai Narine Singh, Joseph Lachhmansingh, Martin Carter, and Sydney King (later Eusi Kwayana), Boysie Ramkarran and others, the party was launched in January 1950. Forbes Burnham was elected the party’s first Chairman and Cheddi Jagan, Vice-Chairman.

The original PPP effectively articulated the grievances of the masses and responded to their needs. When the first elections were held under universal adult suffrage in April 1953, the PPP was supported by only 51 per cent of the voters but won 75 per cent of the seats. The British Government declared a state of emergency, suspended the constitution, expelled the six PPP Ministers and sent in the British Army on 9th October 1953.

After a struggle between the militant faction of the PPP led by Cheddi Jagan and the moderate faction led by Forbes Burnham, the latter was expelled en bloc. The dissidents decided to establish a party – the People’s National Congress – on 5th October 1957. Forbes Burnham was elected leader, Joseph Pryag Lachhmansingh, chairman and Jai Narine Singh, general secretary. A third party called the United Force, led by businessman Peter d’Aguiar, was launched in November 1960. Three main parties therefore contested the elections held on 21st August 1961.

The years 1962 to 1964 were scarred by the ‘Disturbances’ and marked fierce struggles between the Guiana Agricultural Workers Union and the Manpower Citizens Association in the sugar industry and among the three political parties. Burnham declared that the GAWU strike of 1964 was not a ‘struggle for independence and national liberation against the forces of imperialism’. He described the strike as “a brutal, cowardly, self-destructive war in which Guianese were deliberately encouraged to destroy one another and the imperialists were forgotten.”

The British Guiana (Constitution) Order 1964 established a House of Assembly as a unicameral legislature, consisting of 53 members elected in accordance with a system of proportional representation. It was under this system that elections were held in 1964 which resulted in the displacement of the PPP from office by a coalition of the PNC and UF Parties. Forbes Burnham was invited to form a coalition administration and was appointed Premier.

The colony’s finances were in a mess after seven years of PPP administration. According to the British government, the colony was ‘insolvent.’ Forbes Burnham, however, was able to report to the people a remarkable recovery at the end of just six months later. His administration had established peace in a country that had been torn apart by civil violence. The economy started to show signs of buoyancy.

It was Forbes Burnham’s privilege to receive the Constitutional Instruments of Independence as Guyana first Prime Minister on 26th May 1966 when Guyana became an independent state after having been the colony of the Dutch and British for over 350 years. The Guyana Independence Act 1966 of the British Parliament removed UK Government responsibility, renamed the colony ‘Guyana’ and empowered the Guyana Legislature to make laws for governing the new State.

New institutions were developed. The National Insurance Scheme was established. Multilateral schools and Teachers’ Training Colleges and buildings for the University of Guyana were constructed. Infrastructural works – pure water supply, sea defence, drainage and irrigation, and electricity generation – were undertaken. The Black Bush and Tapakuma agricultural schemes were completed and the new international airport was opened.

There were major social and cultural changes. Free education from kindergarten to university was introduced. The Caribbean Festival of Arts and the Guyana Festival of Arts were initiated. The State Paper on the Equality of Women was presented and adopted in the National Assembly. Special emphasis on the welfare of the indigenous peoples was signalled by the passage of the Amerindian (Amendment) Act and the process of vesting land titles in Amerindian communities began. Guyana’s religious, ethnic and cultural diversity received special consideration. The Islamic festivals of Eid-Ul-Adha and Youman Nabi, and the Hindu festivals of Holi and Deepavali became national holidays under the Public Holidays (Amendment) Act approved by the National Assembly in 1967.

There were also major changes in the economy during the decade 1970-1980. Consistent with its policy of ownership and control of the country’s natural resources, the Government proceeded to nationalize the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy including banking, bauxite and sugar interests with the full support of the People’s Progressive Party. Burnham emphasised the practice of self-help and self-reliance and this resulted in many productive enterprises.

There were changes in foreign and regional relations. Forbes Burnham, at the regional level, played a key role – with the active support of two other Caribbean prime ministers Vere Bird of Antigua and Barbuda, and Errol Barrow of Barbados – to pioneer the Caribbean Free Trade Association, the forerunner of the Caribbean Community. Burnham was one of the four founding fathers who were the original signatories to the 1973 Treaty of Chaguaramas which established the Caribbean Community and Common Market. He also led the Caribbean in opposing apartheid in South Africa and became a formidable ally of the liberation movements of Africa.

Burnham became Executive President and Head of State and Government under a new Constitution promulgated in 1980. By this time, however, the shock of steeply rising petroleum prices, the management of nationalized industries, difficulties with neighbouring states and deteriorating relations with Western powers had started to take their toll on the economy and the quality of life of citizens. Internally, labour unrest in the nationalized industries, especially the huge bauxite and sugar corporations festered. The sugar industry, in particular, was rocked by thousands of strikes and thousands of hectares of cane destroyed through arson.

Forbes Burnham died in office on 6th August 1985. He had become Prime Minister in 1964 when the country was still smouldering from internal conflict and reeling from external aggression. He led Guyana to independence and defined the principles of statehood which have been largely responsible for the country’s non-aligned posture and its adherence to the Caribbean community. His enduring legacies are the spirit of independence and self-determination.

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