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By Mark DaCosta
Guyanese know that we celebrate our country’s independence from colonial rule every year on May 26. Last Thursday, Guyanese celebrated 56 years of independence. We know, too, that Forbes Burnham — Guyana’s prime minister and later, president from December 14, 1964 to the day of his death on August 6, 1985 — played a pivotal role in attaining independent status. What may be less known is the fact that Burnham’s view of an independent Guyana was far wider and much deeper than freedom from colonial governance. Burnham imagined a self-sufficient State; one that would prosper regardless of the whims of international geopolitics. Burnham envisioned a truly independent Guyana.
The struggle for Guyana’s freedom from colonial rule officially began in June 1958, the same year that the People’s National Congress (PNC) was established by Forbes Burnham. On that date, the British Legislative Council — which included Forbes Burnham — passed Guyana’s history-changing resolution. That resolution called on the British government to convene a constitutional conference to discuss the granting of full self-government to the country. The British responded to the resolution with a variety of delay-tactics. But, the colonial masters eventually had to give in to the pressure being applied by Burnham, leader of the PNC and his colleagues in the Council including W.O. Rudy Kendall also of the PNC, Dr. Cheddi Jagan of the People’s Progressive Party, Jai Narine Singh of the Guiana Independence Movement, and R.E. Davis. The conference was eventually organised in London on March 7-8, 1960. The result of that conference was regarded as unsatisfactory; none of the parties involved was pleased with the lack of progress. During that time, Burnham organised numerous public engagements with the people of what was then British Guiana. Historians agree that galvanising public support for independence was pivotal to the eventual success of the struggle. Meanwhile, the name ‘Guyana’ and the design of the National Flag were both approved by a select committee of the the legislature in 1962.
Between 1962 and 1966, there was a frenetic struggle for freedom from colonial domination. Numerous conferences were convened with the British. There were backroom meetings and public confrontations. There was civil unrest at the local level. Fortunately, that unrest, though intense, was short-lived. Forbes Burnham continued his efforts at all levels throughout that tumultuous period of history.
1966 arrived, and during the early part of that year, preparations for our country’s independence were in full swing. Another special committee designed the Coat of Arms and chose the Canje Pheasant as the National Bird. Following a nationwide competition sponsored by the National History and Arts Council the words of our National Anthem were selected from numerous entries. The winning entry had been submitted by Reverend Archibald Luker. Those words were put to music by prominent Guyanese educator and musician, Cyril G. Potter. We recall that the design of the National Flag, ‘The Golden Arrowhead’ had already been adopted in 1962. The overall design was intended to symbolise a nation moving forward, and the five colours were symbolic of the country’s various assets. That was an exciting time in our history; everyone knew that it was the dawn of a new era.
Under the leadership of Forbes Burnham, Guyana gained its freedom from 300 years of colonial domination on Thursday, May 26, 1966. The nationwide celebrations, though, began four days before and continued until May 29. Public buildings were decorated with the colours of the flag. Buntings and streamers were everywhere. On the great day, a grand cultural event was held at the National Park; foreign dignitaries attended including British officials and members of the British Royal Family. At midnight, the Union Jack — the British Flag — was lowered, and the Golden Arrowhead was hoisted. At that moment, 163 years of British colonial rule came to an end, and Guyana was born as fireworks burst across the sky throughout the country. Following a military parade, parliament convened for the first time in the mid-morning hours. The portrait of the former British governor was removed from the wall of the parliamentary chamber and replaced with the portrait of Prime Minister Forbes Burnham. The Duke of Kent made a speech on behalf of the Queen after which he handed over the constitutional instruments of independence to Prime Minister Burnham. Prime Minister Burnham delivered his own speech to the new country of Guyana. Burnham said, “The days ahead are going to be difficult. Tomorrow, no doubt, we Guyanese will indulge in the usual political conflicts and differences in ideology. But today, to my mind, is above such petty matters. For today, Guyana is free. Dr. Cheddi Jagan, Leader of the Opposition also spoke.
On achieving independence, Guyana became the twenty-third member of the British Commonwealth. The new country was instantly recognised by the international community. That recognition, though, was somewhat marred by a note from Venezuela’s foreign minister Iribarren Borges that implied a claim to our Essequibo region. Prime Minister Burnham immediately responded rejecting Venezuela’s assertion in no uncertain terms. The patriotism and strength of character exemplified by Burnham’s swift, decisive, and forceful response became a couple of the man’s defining characteristics.
On 23 February, 1970, Prime Minister Burnham declared Guyana a “Co-operative Republic.” Burnham became Guyana’s Executive President in 1980 with the adoption of a new Constitution.
Forbes Burnham, born on February 20, 1923 in Kitty, Georgetown was a family-man; he was father to seven children including one adopted child. He was also a visionary leader. His government’s policies and initiatives demonstrated his commitment to an independent, self-sufficient, self-sustaining Guyana. Burnham gave free education to all through the establishment of community high schools, technical institutes, multilateral institutions and even Guyana’s university. This, according to him, was all in an attempt to provide the best education to the post-independence generation and to foster self-reliance, to stimulate economic independence and to generate employment. In August 2018, former president Brigadier David Granger spoke of Forbes Burnham; Granger said, “[Burnham’s] policy of economic independence, resulted in the expansion and renovation of aerodromes, bridges, highways and stellings to ensure greater access to markets and to boost riverine rural and hinterland agro production.”
Unfortunately, presently, Guyana is a divided society. There are currently ethnic, economic, social, class, political, and power polarisations. Burnham would have certainly not condoned the current reality. Additionally, far from being the self-reliant country that Burnham had envisaged, Guyana, presently under the rule of a People’s Progressive Party (PPP) regime, remains a poor country; heavily reliant on foreign aid and international handouts. Many Guyanese are almost totally dependent on remittances from overseas-based family and friends just to put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads. While historians and analysts may have various views of Burnham’s legacy; historical facts cannot be altered. Foremost among those facts is the unequivocal commitment of Forbes Burnham to Guyana’s total independence, including economic independence. Perhaps, some day in the future, we may yet achieve that goal.