There is no reason to apologize for the “Burnham Era” – Commentary



FEBRUARY 23, 2012   By Brutal Facts

A Republic day message:

Today as the nation celebrates the 42nd anniversary of the Republic, it is a good time to for us to revisit the Burnham legacy. Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham was the First Executive President of Guyana, and a visionary, who along with Dr. Cheddie Jagan, are undeniably the fathers of the nation. Over the years, Burnham’s political enemies and revisionist historians have succeeded in tarnishing his image and accomplishments to such an extent that today he has become their “Bogey man”, and whipping boy.

Burnham has become so unpopular that even those within his own political party the Peoples National Congress (PNC) rarely tout his accomplishments and are seemingly afraid to mount a battle to salvage his image.

The PPPC and those who hated Forbes Burnham have created a situation where there can be no reasonable debate about the man and his times. Anyone who tries to engage in a pro-Burnham discussion, or highlight his contributions to Guyana and the wider world, is shouted down and labeled “apologists” and worse by those with an axe to grind.  The end result is that even PNC stalwarts speak of him in whispers, fail to boast about his contributions and allow the opposition to rewrite the history of Guyana to suit their racist motives.

Space will not permit me to fully examine the Burnham legacy, but what is intended here is to sound the call to intellectuals, historians and the party faithful to mount a credible expose of this past president. I don’t think that Forbes Burnham measured up to being anointed a saint, but I don’t subscribe to the theory that he was the demonic figure that revisionist wants us to believe. To discuss the Forbes Burnham legacy without a dispassionate assessment of the period in which he served Guyana; taking into consideration local, regional and world events, is intellectually dishonest at best and racist at worst.

If they are honest, many Guyanese who lived in Guyana during the “Burnham era” will share that although there were many hardships and disappointments during that period, there was also much to be proud of.  President Burnham was a lighting rod, well admired by his allies and passionately despised by his foes. What cannot be debated is that he was a nationalist who believed that Guyana was a country for all Guyanese. He surrounded himself with many technocrats and intellectuals, many of whom crossed the political divide to join him, like Ranji Chandisingh, Vincent Teekah and Sydney Sukho; he had brilliant colleagues like Shridath Ramphal, Dr. Mohamed Shahabudeen; Dr. Kenneth Kind; Desmond Hoyte; Rashliegh Jackson,Winifred Gaskin, Shirley Field Ridley, Jean Maitland-Singh and many more.

Burnham was a visionary who dreamed big dreams and had confidence that Guyana could be self reliant. Burnham believed that with our God given resources we did not have to go” hat in hand” begging; he believed that we could feed, clothe and house ourselves. Under his watch there were some hard times when the country suffered a severe foreign exchange crisis due to Western influences and a drop in the world price for sugar.   Imported items were severely restricted and the country suffered many shortages, but those who claim that the shortages were deliberate to punish the Indian community are evil liars who are either playing politics or playing race. Every ethnic group in Guyana suffered; we were all in the same boat.

That same period proved Guyanese to be a brilliant and resilient people as community farming spread throughout the country.  Home ownership and land for farming was government policy, as many citizens received low interest loans to purchase land and materials to build their own homes for the first time.  At no time in Guyana’s history were more housing schemes and homes built.  Education became free and many racially segregated schools allowed brilliant students of all races and class into their institutions for the 1st time. Citizens were able to produce many credible alternatives to the restricted products; packaging our own hams and bacons; LIDCO milk; mixed fish at $1.00 per pound ($1.00 Guyana dollar); local corn, black eye peas, palm oil, strong brown cotton, white cotton, rice flour; experiments in Bio gas and other forms of alternative energy….Many of these items have today been proven to be more nutritious alternatives and continue to sell at a premium in Western countries.  What if we had maintained those industries?

Burnham was also a builder who contributed immensely to the country’s infrastructure development. Building the Linden Highway (after the PPP’s Del Conte fiasco), The Demerara Harbour Bridge, The Canje Bridge, The bridge linking Mackenzie with Wismar; the East Coast highway; the East Berbice Highway linking New Amsterdam with Corriverton; The first airport at Timheri; the Santa textile plant, the Yarokabra Glass factory; the 1763 monument; the Enmore Martyr’s monument; the Umana Yana; the Non aligned monument; the Black Bush Polder extension; the Mahaica- Mahaicony Abary development project; and many others too numerous to mention.

It is customary that just the mere mention of the name Burnham triggers debate, that is a brutal fact, but to ignore his contributions would be cowardly, and politically deceitful.  Burnham was the creator of Mashramani, he taught us to respect each other and celebrate our diversity. He instilled a fierce sense of pride in the youth of that era which today is evident in the numerous accomplishments of youths who grew up in that era.  Under his watch every major religious holy day was made a public holiday and unlike Guyana’s current regime, his cabinet, the diplomatic corp., state boards and the leadership of Cooperation’s were mirror images of Guyana’s rich diversity.

Forbes Burnham was not a racist and we do this generation and future generations a disservice by not allowing him his rightful place among the champions of the anti-colonialism and the Independence movements in Guyana. It is time for us to stop demonizing and start celebrating Guyana’s history. Even with his many faults, there can be no argument that in our Nation’s darkest hour, Burnham and Jagan stood with us and for us. It is time we stand up for Forbes Burnham.

— Post #1135

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  • Ercumbaldo Larralba  On 02/24/2012 at 1:47 am

    I was in Guyana for quite a long time during Burnham times I can tell that those were the worst times for Guyana,everything was banned. All elections were rigged. Even dead people voted in the elections (of course dead people voted PNC)

    • Sarj  On 06/11/2012 at 2:25 am

      Burnham caused me to leave Guyana in 1982 and never to return. I ended marrying outside my race because this was the only way not to return to Guyana. Today I am a qualified accountant with my own practise. But still missed Guyana and would like to re-connect with the Guyanese life.

  • Chandra  On 02/24/2012 at 3:48 am

    I also grew up in Guyana during the Burnham reign and experienced life quite differently. Take off your blinders! His terrorism on his people far outweighs what is claimed here. What, when my negro friend/classmate with 3 subjects at GCE got the job that my brother with 6 subjects including English and Math did not get..and there are numerous examples of you think this bordered on racism? If he was that great why did those farming industries listed not take off and flourish but lived short lives and died fast deaths? And we all know those crossovers or brilliant people were mostly just opportunists. During what period was the mass exodus of Negroes, along with Indians out of Guyana? If Burnham was so great why did so so many of his own people flee Guyana…in droves? Wake up man!

  • nizam  On 02/24/2012 at 4:56 am

    you’ve got to be kidding ….. every sane Guyanese would never entertain a positive discussion of this demigog

  • C Chester  On 02/24/2012 at 6:38 am

    What cemetery did this ghost occupy before posting this?

    Cognitive Dissonance 101. Go back to school – make it an “Objective History Program” this time!

    The insider stories on Burnham show him to have been a megalomaniac, an egotist, conceited and a lover of the finest consumables that we, the people, were deprived of.

    He had no monopoly on anti-imperialist sentiment. Every one of us shared a dislike and rejection, of the colonialist master. But most of us didn’t wrap ourselves in our hatred of the imperialists to cloak our abuse of power, and in the process, fellow citizens.

    You will find little support among free-thinking people for the views you articulate here. The one vote he forced the nation to make was with its feet – and a pox on him for it.

  • Mann  On 02/24/2012 at 2:05 pm

    I do not belong to any of the major races and was the last among my friends to leave Guyana (clinging to the last hoping it would change). While Burnham was a visionary and had some positive accomplishments….

  • Mann  On 02/24/2012 at 2:24 pm

    I do not belong to any of the major races and was the last among my friends to leave Guyana (clinging to the last hoping it would change). To judge Burnham you have to look at the net end resuot.While he was a visionary and had some positive accomplishments. His arrogance and lust for power sent Guyana ino the downward spiral its still experiencing today. Among his negative contributions to our cultural change are;
    a. The “Party” is paramount over all (Merit, Ability, Intelligence, Decency….) corrupting the minds of current and future generations, destroying the work ethic we were once so proud of.
    b. Bringing his politics into the level of the family unit, where your children right to education could be threatened if the family politics was deemed suspect.
    c. Corruption at all levels of society for (To survive the poor must break the law) once sets its difficult to remove.
    d Fear yes there were lots of fear during my time and those are images that are difficult to remove from the hearts and minds of anyone
    e. The Brain drain (Where the educated were publicly mocked and shamed in his various speeches)
    The list is much longer but these are enough to draw the picture of how Guyana got to where it is today.

  • Ercumbaldo Larralba  On 02/24/2012 at 5:34 pm

    Ha,ha ,ha ; I do hope this guy will never attempt to write in favor of Mr Burnham,he have to be crazy,or believe that people forget so easy.

  • Danny Mason  On 02/24/2012 at 6:33 pm

    This comment is for “Chandra”…..Since LFSB was so bad; what about “Jagdeo”?

    • Chandra Singh  On 02/25/2012 at 6:45 am

      Danny, Have u gone to Guyana recently? Jagdeo has done a whole darn lot during his time in office vs the entire PNC era..schools, hospitals, roads, highway lighting, river bridge, economic development, race relations, etc, etc. How can u compare performance of these two?

  • Rosaliene Bacchus  On 02/24/2012 at 6:56 pm

    I am a Guyanese of mixed descent who lived in Guyana during the Burnham era.
    Oh, how I wish I could share the author’s sentiments!

    It brings tears to my eyes to think what a great nation we could have become if our Comrade Leader had not succumbed to the darker side of power. It saddens me even more to see that our new leaders have not learned from the mistakes of our past.

  • Lionel Sewpershad  On 02/25/2012 at 12:18 am

    I would like share my personal experience when I returned to Guyana in 1969. i was teaching Sociology in a Univ outside of Guyana when I decided to return home to continue my life as a Guyanese which I thought was the most natural thing in the world. After almost 2 months and several rebuffs my last resort was with the minister of Home Affairs who jocularly and a demeaningmanner said,
    ” what would a Socioligist do in the police dept”? I thought I gave a reasonable if not plausible expalnation about the need for a positive relationship between the police and the community. Most would have felt humiliated or belittled by the reaction of the Minister. That was the last straw so I decided to write a very heartfelt but not so pleasant letter to the President who at the time was encouraging all qualified Guyanese to return home to contribute to their country. I shared the letter with a realtive who said in essence, “you’e wasting your time …Burnham will probably not see the letter and if he does he’ll just dump it in the garbage.” I changed the tone and sent the letter and about two weeks later [which i thought was pretty prompt] I received an invitation to an interview by the President. After the usual introduction and opening pleasantries
    the interview was disarming to say the least. The President asked where I was from and I replied ” from the country” my thought at the time was he will deal with my need so I can return home [a good distance away]
    The prez then opened a file on his desk and said to me..” i know you are from Bath Settlement and that’s a Jagan stronghold….why should I give you a job…why should I trust you”? to which I replied give me an opportunity and then make your judgement….after some back and forth he said to me..”I know you are a Jagan man …..if I decide to give you a job and you f…k with me I’ll cut your throath and I mean that literally”. I did not hear again from the Office of the Prez. I returned abroad to a teaching position.
    All this to say that my experience was not good and am not sure how many people might have had similar negative experiences. In 72 I returned home and after some similar experiences and a wait for 3month I landed a job in one of the ministries. Had to wait in long long lines to buy oil and other necessities, learn to save and substitute chicken fat to start cooking….was a horrendous time for me and my family…..So very difficult for me see Burnham as some kind of hero or great leader in spite of whatever might have been positive during his time in government.
    Left in 74 only to return on vacations. To be honest I would love to return and contribute if the opportunity arises. Still involved in many ways and will continue to do so….as long as life continues… my ma usually reminded me when she was alive ”bai u nable srting berried behind a we fowl coob”

  • stevinski  On 02/25/2012 at 1:26 am

    RE: “Forbes Burnham was not a racist”.
    As a former commissioned officer of the Guyana Defence Force I wish to add my “two cents” to this discussion, fully cognizant that there is much more I can add, however this blog is neither the time or the place.
    During the early 1970s, then Prime Minister and Minister of Defence, Mr LFS Burnham directed the senior leadership of the GDF to dismiss the most senior indo-Guyanese staff officer to the force Commander, and replace him with an afro-Guyanese staff officer; and for this purpose a list of three highly trained and competent afro-Guyanese staff officers was compiled, and after a trial period, each of these afro-Guyanese officers was judged unable to perform at the high level required of that position.
    To the everlasting credit of the then Chief Of Staff and Force Commander, the indo-Guyanese staff officer was not dismissed but reassigned (unknown to Mr Burnham), and after the debacle of the three intended replacements, the indo-Guyanese senior staff officer was returned to his previous post where he continued to distinguish himself.
    Several months later when Mr Burnham visited Camp Ayanganna and saw the senior indo-Guyanese officer still in uniform he demanded to know why his directive was not carried out. He was frankly told that there was no suitable replacement, to which he replied, “I still want him gone”.
    Please note that Mr Burnham wanted this highly trained, highly qualified, highly competent and efficient officer dismissed for one reason only, namely, his ethnicity.
    It is worthy of note that this particular officer is today considered one of the most successful, honest and well respected former Chiefs of Staff of the Guyana Defence Force.

  • B.N.SINGH  On 02/25/2012 at 9:34 pm

    WOW everybody picking on the COMRADE, let my uncle RIP, PLEASE, thank you.

  • pet meery  On 02/27/2012 at 8:52 pm

    A visionary that to date Guyanese cannot comprehend sad!!!!

    • Ercumbaldo Larralba  On 02/28/2012 at 4:27 am

      Yea, very sad ,will never comprehend,but will be living better without him!!

  • Kp  On 02/28/2012 at 3:19 pm

    Talk about revisionist history!
    What’s being advocated is akin to a torturer lopping off four fingers from one hand and telling you to be happy that you still have one left. The bottom line always is: if a government is satisfied that its policies are beneficial for its people, it should hold a free [i.e not rigged] election and discover what the people think about those policies. I believe its a universal truth that the elections during the Burnham era were rigged. Why?

    • Ercumbaldo  On 02/28/2012 at 6:59 pm

      It is actually a shame to read something favorable to a dictator ,someone who rigged all elections.he use to live like a king having every thing and people suffering bannings.

  • Cyril Balkaran  On 05/18/2012 at 7:50 am

    Hypocracy is the art of deceit and is practised by con men of the arts. Is it an attempt to rewrite history and to paint a saint out of a sinner? I ask this vexing question because i am unsure whether my views will be entertained by this system. We are alive today because many of us fled Guyana during the Burnham era. The facts speak for themselves. You may fool some of the people some of th etime but never all of the people all of the time! May God bless you.I am proud to be a Guyanese at all times.We must also remember that every Saint has a past and every Sinner a future. Enjoy the day folks!

  • Cyril Balkaran  On 06/11/2012 at 12:43 pm

    What Guyana needs today more than ever is spiritual healing through positive thoughts and positive actions. The history of the past does not die away so easily as some bloggers may believe. It does not amaze me to read both the positive and negative comments. Perhaps some historian will impartially give us the LFSB Legacy as is. I had the chance of meeting LFSB in 1970 in New Delhi in Jan of that year. He had gone with an entourage of 72 people to attend the Commonwealth Conference of that year in Singapore. He was nice to about 30 students for whom he hosted a party at the Ashoka Hotel in New Delhi. I was introduced to him and Viola by his former speaker Sase Narain. The Trinidad and Tobago Ambassador was also there and a small talked developed as to why the Aluminium Smelter was not developed as a joint venture between Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana. As things got a little off balance,LFSB retorted that you Trinis will have to drink your oil for survival some day! It was a practical but humurous joke as was intended. Everyone laughed at the comments. There were hard discussions on the possibility of that venture being an attempt at regional cohesion, the smelter would have been fed the Aluninium Ores from Guyana and Jamaica, but the energy and gas Country opted to have it placed in Trinidad for which a seasoned negotiator as LFSB was, refused to give in. In hindsight, the Caricom group of nations would have benefitted from such a venture. Today Alcan, Reynolds and Demba still rule the Roost as far as this Industry is concerned in Guyana. What a wasted opportunity and poor Vision for a region as unique as CARICOM! WHO LOST ANOTHER OPPORTUNITY, Of Course the Region and its people! WHO CARES ABOUT THIS LOST OPPORTUNITY? This is the order of the day in Politics.

  • Cyril Balkaran  On 06/12/2012 at 1:39 pm

    This note is for Chandra, both presidents did achieve lots of things but only the bad things people will ever remember.This is a strange but true feature of the Human mind,my dear. Then also while the first and elder president ruled the country with the dictatorial powers he arrogated unto himself, the youngest president operated under the dictates of the Democracy that was returned to us by the President Jimmy Carter of the USA! This is another phenomenon for the people of Guyana to think about. In 1963, President Kennedy flew to London to meet with Harold MacMillain,the then British PM to persuade him to block the independence for Guyana until his plan for Jagan’s removal from office materliazed. This was done by the introduction of PR for British Guiana. Jagan was removed in 1964. Lo and behold President Carter had next to remove Burnham’s Party and Hoyte from office. What and Why and How so much Intereferences of the superpowers in the affairs of Guyana, from the days of the cold war until 1992. This is why those current leaders must in common parlance
    behave themselves in office. They are being assessed daily and this thing of having an American Ambassador pick up garbage from the streets of Georgetown is no laughing matter. Look out for the inevitable. It is coming slowly but surely. Have a good day Folks! You can reap what you sow only!

  • Florence Mangru  On 07/04/2019 at 5:36 am

    My father was a Police in the Force during the 1960s and I was a small child during the reign of Burnham’s government. My dad told me that Burnham did not want any Indian Police Officers to escort him and he was replaced. Who is the racist? My dad suffered with PTSD from his experience with the Guyana Police Force. Next my father had 4 children. All of us were placed on food lines in Georgetown to get one chicken a piece. That went for bread, rice, flour etc. Guyana grows rice. My grandfather was a rice farmer. Legacy? Are you serious? Burnham was a puppet of Western governments who sought to stop the spread of Communism in the West. That’s the long and short of it. He functioned as a dictator and balanced his power on the backs of the Guyanese population. Many fled his tyranny and the standard of living forced on them in Guyana to countries where many were displaced and many suffered more in foreign countries from loss of culture, community and lifestyle afford them in Guyana with less than a million in population. My family relocated to Brooklyn, NY and we left Guyana with $15.00 Guyana dollars. That was the regulation. My mother with four small children arrived at JFK in 1979 with an American 50 cent piece for which she gave to a porter to collect our luggage. People throw around the word legacy a lot; as a leader you should be measured by how many lives were benefited from your leadership, not by your color, creed or your noble intent. I met many Guyanese of all races in NYC. Many of them with the same story of displacement like myself. My family suffered at the hands of Burnham’s government and that is a fact. I would not be surprised if you do not post this comment because all freedoms were restricted during Burnham’s reign as well. Speaking out against his government could likely get you killed.

    • guyaneseonline  On 07/04/2019 at 6:11 am

      Hello Florence Mangru:

      To balance this entry one should also make the following facts:
      1. Many non-Indians who lived under Burnham have similar stories of food shortages and being forced to emigrate….
      2. Freedom to criticize the Guyana Government has been curtailed since Independence in 1966. The assassinations under the Jagdeo regime especially against opponents of the PPP should not be forgotten… hundreds were killed.
      3. The emigration of Guyanese to foreign countries has continued apace even after Burnham and the PNC were no longer in power. The long lines at the US Embassy are legend. … plus there is the “backtrack” business where Guyanese live as undocumented immigrants.
      4.The PPP were in power from 1992-2015.They had an excellent chance to mend the country but racism, greed and corruption and the massive money laundering and drug businesses have Guyana where it is today… basically a failed state.
      …. Private wealth parading alongside public squalour... businesses refusing to pay their taxes or evading them. Ask the Mayor of Georgetown about the G$16 Billion owed by businesses…

      Let us all hope that violence does not return as the race card and race drums are already in action.

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