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Last Wednesday, May 26, Guyana marked another Independence Anniversary. Independence was achieved under the leadership of Premier Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham who remains one of the most misunderstood leaders of our time. From his policies, deportment, competitiveness, intellect, philosophy, patriotism to his charisma, detractors have found ways to downplay and demonise attributes that normally would be sources for discourse to arrive at an objective understanding of the man.
For keeping his eyes on the prize to achieve independence and having successfully influenced the coloniser and its ally (Britain and USA), in the Cold War Era, to accept his embrace of socialism as unthreatening and posing no opportunity for USSR/communist expansion in the Caribbean/South America, rather than acknowledge his shrewdness he is accused of being power hungry. That he subsequently fought for Republican status, finally breaking the yoke of domination and a compromise date struck for February 23, he is accused of fixing this date to celebrate his birthday. February 23 marks the enslaved first (1763) major blow for freedom in the New World, and this final attainment (1970) is a fitting homage to those who began the struggle centuries before.
He is accused of restricting or banning food items to punish one race. Ignored is the fact that the restriction of these items impacted all races. The allegation ignores flour was/is used to make bakes, bread, cakes and roti which are staples of all. The accusation ignores split peas was/is used in soup, cook-up and dhall and used by all. Irish potato was/is a staple of all. More importantly,the allegation ignores the circumstances under which Guyana was unable to continue the importation of these items. Disregard is the function of the government to make choices or tough decisions spending scarce foreign exchange on expenditures and debt repayment.
The oil crisis of the early 1970s that sent economies reeling and non-producing, oil-dependent countries like Guyana into a tailspin was blamed as a fault of Mr. Burnham. That Guyana, unlike countries like the USA and Trinidad and Tobago had no social safety net to cushion the effects made matters worse. Efforts by his administration to encourage citizens to conserve and be self-reliant were labeled as a return to dark times. Where developed societies are driven by the ingenuity and entrepreneurship of its people, at home forces influenced the masses to think self-empowerment equals deprivation and anti-development.
Alongside the oil crisis, were political strikes and economic sabotages costing the Treasury millions of foreign exchanges. An insight of this could be gleaned from Dr. Tyrone Ferguson’s book “To survive sensibly or court heroic death….” Mr. Burnham stands accused of being anti-Indian, racist, even though he zealously pursued the aspiration of “One People, One Nation, One Destiny.” His remains an unsurpassed record to bring racial healing and forge positive race relations.
The record includes the designation of major religious and racial observances as national holidays, legitimising Hindu and Muslim weddings, allowing pandit and imam to become marriage officers, the repeal of the Obeah Ordinance, the legitimising of children born out of wedlock which also impacted Indians who did not conform to the western marriage, the policies of mandatory early education and free education from nursery to university which opened the doors to learning for all.
Mr. Burnham’s additional achievements are the national symbols, including naming of awards, the Coat of Arms, the reconfiguration of local government boundaries which allow for diverse groups to work together in common pursuit, honouring the 1948 struggles of sugar workers, the building of all-weather roads in Canal No. 1 & 2 that allowed farmers improved road access to bring their produce from the backdam to the main road, the Demerara Harbour Bridge which improved trading, the construction of silos that allowed for improvement in rice storage, Hinterland Scholarship, Mashramani events which showcase cultural diversity in celebration after hard work, etc.
As Head of Government, Mr. Burnham used his power to remove ‘Jim Crow’ laws and topple the class, colour and race barriers in sugar and bauxite. This policy had a domino effect in Guyana Stores, Fogarty’s etc. No longer if you were non-white, dark and from poor families you had to stay back. He established financial institutions such as GAIBANK, GNCB, GNCB Trust Cooperation and Mortgage Finance, making it possible for the ordinary man to own his home and engage in business.
Amidst accusations that Mr. Burnham wanted to steal workers’ money and calls to boycott by his political rival, he forged ahead with the National Insurance Scheme (1969), which remains the nation’s major social safety net in times of sickness, maternity, injury, death, invalidity, disablement and old age. The single largest bloc of beneficiaries to the Industrial Branch benefit remains sugar workers.
Dr. Cheddie (Joey) Jagan Jr in a letter, published in Stabroek News ( Feb 8, 2010) said this about Mr. Burnham: “As a teenager I remember during the dark period of the early 1960s, when the PNC and PPP were engaged in spreading violence, my godfather, Forbes Burnham, and my father, Cheddi Jagan met on several occasions secretly (they even went to the seawalls some evenings), I am sure to contain the violence….”
Mr. Burnham’s contributions to Guyana’s development begs for truthful and contextual examination. It requires giving him his due credit and where mistakes were made, learning from them. To do otherwise would be allowing others to wipe his contributions from history and Guyana’s development.