Linden Forbes Burnham
Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham served Prime Minister of Guyana from 1964 and as President from 1980 until the time of his death in 1985 at the age of 62. He was a lawyer, a politician, a fierce freedom fighter and a father of six children. Arbitrary detention of civilians, physical abuse of prisoners, and summary executions became standard police behavior during Linden Forbes Burnham's regime (1964-85).
In the first year under Burnham, conditions in the colony began to stabilize. In a public broadcast made by Forbes Burnham in 1964 after he was sworn in as President he said that, “this Government holds that all the people of this country are equally important, whether they belong to a large group or a small group. To us, the Amerindians are important. To us, the Chinese are important. To us, the Portuguese are important. To us, the Europeans are important. To us, the mixed races are important. To us, the Africans are important. To us, the Indians are important. In short, all Guianese are important and valued members of our community and we cherish them and consider that, as a Government, it is our duty and privilege to guard, protect and further the real interests of all.”
The new coalition administration broke diplomatic ties with Cuba and implemented policies that favored local investors and foreign industry. The colony applied the renewed flow of Western aid to further development of its infrastructure. A constitutional conference was held in London; the conference set May 26, 1966, as the date for the colony's independence. By the time independence was achieved, the country was enjoying economic growth and relative domestic peace.
The newly independent Guyana at first sought to improve relations with its neighbors. For instance, in December 1965 the country had become a charter member of the Caribbean Free Trade Association (Carifta). Relations with Venezuela were not so placid, however. In 1962 Venezuela had announced that it was rejecting the 1899 boundary and would renew its claim to all of Guyana west of the Essequibo River. In 1966 Venezuela seized the Guyanese half of Ankoko Island, in the Cuyuni River, and two years later claimed a strip of sea along Guyana's western coast.
Another challenge to the newly independent government came at the beginning of January 1969, with the Rupununi Rebellion. In the Rupununi region in southwest Guyana, along the Venezuelan border, white settlers and Amerindians rebelled against the central government. Several Guyanese policemen in the area were killed, and spokesmen for the rebels declared the area independent and asked for Venezuelan aid. Troops arrived from Georgetown within days, and the rebellion was quickly put down. Although the rebellion was not a large affair, it exposed underlying tensions in the new state and the Amerindians' marginalized role in the country's political and social life.
The 1968 elections allowed the PNC to rule without the UF. The PNC won thirty seats, the PPP nineteen seats, and the UF four seats. However, many observers claimed the elections were marred by manipulation and coercion by the PNC. The PPP and UF were part of Guyana's political landscape but were ignored as Burnham began to convert the machinery of state into an instrument of the PNC.
After the 1968 elections, Burnham's policies became more leftist as he announced he would lead Guyana to socialism. He consolidated his dominance of domestic policies through gerrymandering, manipulation of the balloting process, and politicalization of the civil service. A few Indo-Guyanese were coopted into the PNC, but the ruling party was unquestionably the embodiment of the Afro-Guyanese political will. Although the Afro-Guyanese middle class was uneasy with Burnham's leftist leanings, the PNC remained a shield against Indo-Guyanese dominance. The support of the Afro-Guyanese community allowed the PNC to bring the economy under control and to begin organizing the country into cooperatives.
On February 23, 1970, Guyana declared itself a "cooperative republic" and cut all ties to the British monarchy. The governor general was replaced as head of state by a ceremonial president. Relations with Cuba were improved, and Guyana became a force in the Nonaligned Movement. In August 1972, Burnham hosted the Conference of Foreign Ministers of Nonaligned Countries in Georgetown. He used this opportunity to address the evils of imperialism and the need to support African liberation movements in southern Africa. Burnham also let Cuban troops use Guyana as a transit point on their way to the war in Angola in the mid-1970s.
In the early 1970s, electoral fraud became blatant in Guyana. PNC victories always included overseas voters, who consistently and overwhelmingly voted for the ruling party. The police and military intimidated the Indo-Guyanese. The army was accused of tampering with ballot boxes.
Considered a low point in the democratic process, the 1973 elections were followed by an amendment to the constitution that abolished legal appeals to the Privy Council in London. After consolidating power on the legal and electoral fronts, Burnham turned to mobilizing the masses for what was to be Guyana's cultural revolution.
A program of national service was introduced that placed an emphasis on self-reliance, loosely defined as Guyana's population feeding, clothing, and housing itself without outside help. Government authoritarianism increased in 1974 when Burnham advanced the "paramountcy of the party." All organs of the state would be considered agencies of the ruling PNC and subject to its control. The state and the PNC became interchangeable; PNC objectives were now public policy. Burnham' s consolidation of power in Guyana was not total; opposition groups were tolerated within limits. For instance, in 1973 the Working People's Alliance (WPA) was founded. Opposed to Burnham 's authoritarianism, the WPA was a multiethnic combination of politicians and intellectuals that advocated racial harmony, free elections, and democratic socialism. Although the WPA did not become an official political party until 1979, it evolved as an alternative to Burnham' s PNC and Jagan's PPP.
Jagan's political career continued to decline in the 1970s. Outmaneuvered on the parliamentary front, the PPP leader tried another tactic. In April 1975, the PPP ended its boycott of parliament with Jagan stating that the PPP's policy would change from noncooperation and civil resistance to critical support of the Burnham regime. Soon after, Jagan appeared on the same platform with Prime Minister Burnham at the celebration of ten years of Guyanese independence, on May 26, 1976.
Despite Jagan's conciliatory move, Burnham had no intention of sharing power and continued to secure his position. When overtures intended to bring about new elections and PPP participation in the government were brushed aside, the largely Indo-Guyanese sugar work force went on a bitter strike. The strike was broken, and sugar production declined steeply from 1976 to 1977. The PNC postponed the 1978 elections, opting instead for a referendum to be held in July 1978, proposing to keep the incumbent assembly in power.
The July 1978 national referendum was poorly received. Although the PNC government proudly proclaimed that 71 percent of eligible voters participated and that 97 percent approved the referendum, other estimates put turnout at 10 to 14 percent. The low turnout was caused in large part by a boycott led by the PPP, WPA, and other opposition forces.
Burnham' s control over Guyana began to weaken when the Jonestown massacre brought unwanted international attention. In the 1970s, Jim Jones, leader of the People's Temple of Christ, moved more than 1,000 of his followers from San Francisco to Jonestown, a Utopian agricultural community near Port Kaituma in western Guyana. The People's Temple of Christ was regarded by members of the Guyanese government as a model agricultural community that shared its vision of settling the hinterland and its view of cooperative socialism. The fact that the People's Temple was well-equipped with openly flaunted weapons hinted that the community had the approval of members of the PNC's inner circle.
Complaints of abuse by leaders of the cult prompted United States congressman Leo Ryan to fly to Guyana to investigate. The San Francisco-area representative was shot and killed by members of the People's Temple as he was boarding an airplane at Port Kaituma to return to Georgetown. Fearing further publicity, Jones and more than 900 of his followers died in a massive communal murder and suicide. The November 1978 Jonestown massacre suddenly put the Burnham government under intense foreign scrutiny, especially from the United States. Investigations into the massacre led to allegations that the Guyanese government had links to the fanatical cult.
Although the bloody memory of Jonestown faded, Guyanese politics experienced a violent year in 1979. Some of this violence was directed against the WPA, which had emerged as a vocal critic of the state and of Burnham in particular. One of the party's leaders, Walter Rodney, and several professors at the University of Guyana were arrested on arson charges. The professors were soon released, and Rodney was granted bail. WPA leaders then organized the alliance into Guyana's most vocal opposition party.
As 1979 wore on, the level of violence continued to escalate. In October Minister of Education Vincent Teekah was mysteriously shot to death. The following year, Rodney was killed by a car bomb. The PNC government quickly accused Rodney of being a terrorist who had died at the hands of his own bomb and charged his brother Donald with being an accomplice. Later investigation implicated the Guyanese government, however. Rodney was a well-known leftist, and the circumstances of his death damaged Burnham's image with many leaders and intellectuals in less-developed countries who earlier had been willing to overlook the authoritarian nature of his government.
A new constitution was promulgated in 1980. The old ceremonial post of president was abolished, and the head of government became the executive president, chosen, as the former position of prime minister had been, by the majority party in the National Assembly. Burnham automatically became Guyana's first executive president and promised elections later in the year. In elections held on December 15, 1980, the PNC claimed 77 percent of the vote and forty-one seats of the popularly elected seats, plus the ten chosen by the regional councils. The PPP and UF won ten and two seats, respectively. The WPA refused to participate in an electoral contest it regarded as fraudulent. Opposition claims of electoral fraud were upheld by a team of international observers headed by Britain's Lord Avebury.
The economic crisis facing Guyana in the early 1980s deepened considerably, accompanied by the rapid deterioration of public services, infrastructure, and overall quality of life. Blackouts occurred almost daily, and water services were increasingly unsatisfactory. The litany of Guyana's decline included shortages of rice and sugar (both produced in the country), cooking oil, and kerosene. While the formal economy sank, the black market economy in Guyana thrived.
In the midst of this turbulent period, Burnham underwent surgery for a throat ailment. On August 6, 1985, while in the care of Cuban doctors, Guyana's first and only leader since independence unexpectedly died. An epoch had abruptly ended. Guyana was suddenly in the post-Burnham era.
Forbes Burnham was the author of social cohesion and architect of national unity, who transformed Guyana from a divided colony to a more united and less unequal country. The local situation in British Guiana, during his childhood and adolescence and the international situation and intellectual currents in the British Empire convinced him of the injustice of colonialism and the common destiny of the Caribbean peoples. The unequal distribution of wealth and the denial of opportunity to the masses – at the global, regional and local levels – combined to mould Forbes Burnham’s thought. He responded to the challenge of an unfavorable social environment with a determination to change our country in fundamental ways.
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