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Fellow Guyanese, today is the 53rd Anniversary of our Republic and three days after the 100th birth anniversary of the late President Forbes Burnham, under whose leadership Guyana succeeded in severing the final yoke of colonial domination, putting the nation and its people on the path to self-determination.
The quest for self-determination is evident in the desire, pursuit, and attainment of republican status. Independence did not free Guyana from the vestiges of colonial domination, and it is only with the attainment of republican status that Guyana was able to establish itself as a country with its own internal self-government, its own constitution, domestic laws and pursuit of an ideology and development programme in keeping with our own perspective of development.
53 years post Republican status we are all well aware of the continued and divergent influences of colonial powers and the challenges faced. Nevertheless we must keep foremost in our minds that ours is still “A Destiny to Mould.” A destiny of ” One People, One Nation, One Destiny.” We must never give up the fight to achieve this!
In 1970 it was the People’s National Congress (PNC) government, led by Mr. LFS Burnham, who oversaw the next phase of nation building. It was a government that loved all Guyanese and believed in our potential. Mr. Burnham forged a Guyanese culture to celebrate our diversity, promote this as strength not weakness, saw it as critical to inclusion not exclusion in the nation’s ethos and development, and giving meaning to our motto, “One People, One Nation, One Destiny” This was the national vision of the man, expressed in these six words: “One People, One Nation, One Destiny”
It was a vision made known two years prior to independence. In 1964, after forming the new government in a coalition with the United Force, LFS Burnham stated:-
“…all the people of this country are equally important, whether they belong to a large group or a small group. …the Amerindians are important….the Chinese are important…the Portuguese are important…the Europeans are important. …the mixed races are important…. the Africans are important. ….the Indians are important. In short, all Guyanese are important and valued members of our community, and we cherish them and consider … it is [the] duty and privilege [of Government] to guard, protect and further the real interests of all.”
Symbols of nationhood were created by the PNC government, not symbols of an African nation, or an East Indian nation, but a nation of all Guyanese, all races.
Mr. Burnham saw no culture as superior and sought to lift every group’s culture up for recognition, respect and engagement, legalising the East Indian religious marriages, including the non-traditional religions; repealed the Obeah Ordinance, recognised other faith-based organisations such as Rastafarian, Jordanites, Mother Khali followers. Significant days on the Muslim and Hindu calendars were incorporated into the national holidays. These are Diwali, Phagwah, Youman-Nabi and Eid-ul-Adha.
I remind you today of our National Coat of Arms. It includes a crest of an Amerindian head-dress, symbolising the indigenous people of the country. This crest is also called the Cacique’s Crown. This is not by accident or chance, nor is the naming of the national flag the ‘Golden Arrowhead.’ These are in recognition and honour of this group of fellow Guyanese who first settled here. Also well positioned on the Coat of Arms is the national motto, “One people, One Nation, One Destiny“, which appears on the scroll below the shield, as a reminder of what we, all Guyanese, aspire to be and must assiduously work for.
Indigenous legal framework
Some forty-three years ago, the Guyanese nation transitioned from a constitution given to us by our former colonial master, to a constitution which was indigenous and reflective of the aspirations, hopes and ideals of all the Guyanese people. A constitution that values every Guyanese as equal participating members of society
A constitution, established under the leadership of Mr. Burnham, that outlines in its Preamble the commitment to “Forge a system of governance that promotes concerted effort and broad-based participation in national decision-making in order to develop a viable economy and a harmonious community based on democratic values, social justice, fundamental human rights and the rule of law…”
Indeed, we all would recall that no one other than Dr. Cheddie Jagan, himself, declared that he found nothing really wrong with the 1980 Constitution.
Articles 24, 26 and 27 for example, conferred the right of free medical attention and social care in case of old age and infirmity, the right to proper housing accommodation, and free education from Nursery to University. The constitutional commitment to social and economic rights as stated in these Articles of the Constitution were never intended to be barren, sterile or arid legal provisions. They were meant to be state obligations which underpin the nation of Guyana.
Fundamental laws put in place in recognition that the country’s development was dependent on the devolution of power, and development reaching throughout the length and breadth of Guyana, through the regional system as evident today with power spread across various political parties. These are meant to value the role and duty of citizens and their representatives in nation building. Today these are under threat with the politics of exclusion and tendency to treat some Guyanese less than.
Burnham established a local Appeal Court which became the final court of resort, not the UK Privy Council.
Vestiges of colonial domination were being removed and these also included naming our streets after indigenous and international heroes who struggle for liberation.
Mr. Burnham believed in the Guyanese people and our capacity to work together and thrive. He doggedly pursued programmes ‘to make the small man a real man.’ One such is the “Food, Clothe and House.” The vision of the programme was to provide Guyanese with food produced by us, not only for nourishment and economic opportunities but also in the pursuit of Food Security. Food security contributes to a nation’s economic and political self-determination. That CARICOM is pursuing this with the aim of reducing food import by 25 per cent by 2025, is most welcomed. It also reinforces that the visionary leadership of Burnham for CARICOM, of which he was a Founding Father, remains relevant in the 21st Century.
The clothing programme was not only about the style of the clothing but the quality of cloth was of equal importance which influenced the establishment of the Sanata Textile Mill supported by the production of cotton at Kimbia and other locations.
The Burnham administration created a Housing Programme that saw the establishment of infrastructure such as roads, water, drainage, electricity, playground, schools, health centres, shopping centres, police outpost, and turnkey homes, built in a manner that allowed for future expansion, and with different modalities for acquiring same. It was a holistic approach to development and a person’s well-being.
Relevance of the Cooperative Republic
It remains today relevant as stated by LFS Burnham in his speech, “A vision of the Cooperative Republic,” that this nation must be cognisant of the “social needs and wants in creating a just society for the people of Guyana.”
He advised: “A just society cannot be achieved unless the majority of the people, the masses, the little men have a full share in the ownership and control of the economy…”
With our vision trained on these responsibilities, it is also important to acknowledge the achievement of self-determination was not without challenges and setbacks, for though we were severed politically there were economic manoeuvres made that diluted the whole quest for self-determination. We also had internal challenges that suited the interest of external forces. We are seeing a re-emergence of these and the divide and rule politics at play, and an effort to undermine our national motto of “One People, One Nation, One Destiny” by replacing it with a ‘one Guyana’ slogan. It is no different from the bastardisation of the Cooperative Republic of Guyana as the Republic of Guyana when such legal amendments have not been addressed.
As Guyanese we cannot claim to be heirs of Guyana or speakers of truth without acknowledging Mr. Burnham’s legacy and contribution to the foundation of who we are as a nation. We must be true to ourselves and this nation acknowledging such contributions in advancing, representing, and defending the core values of nation building. Similarly, if we are truthful to our historical legacies and all that makes us who we are, we must be true to the successes of the party, the PNC that he founded, a party that led this nation from Independence in 1966 to Republican status in 1970; a party that pursued the creation of vibrant regional and international synergies to keep those who sought to infringe on our sovereignty at bay.
We do no justice to our national integrity when we deny the achievements of a founding leader of this nation or a party capable of bringing friends, allies and those who believe in the pursuit of freedoms, together. Building our indigenous pride and an egalitarian society whilst stripping the vestiges of the colonial masters away to set free the talents and potential of our nation. In the height of a Cold War and global crises this was no easy feat. Mr. LFS Burnham nevertheless did this without fear, building and achieving the greatest growth and national development of any other period. We, all of us, must be proud. History cannot be erased but we must ensure that it is not rewritten.
It is an honour and privilege, in this era, to be part of a collective responsible for advancing the legacy of Mr. Burnham, this Caribbean Man of the 20th Century, and I take this opportunity to call on all Guyanese to challenge the deniers and to ensure an accurate representation of every aspect of Guyanese history, from Cuffy to the Enmore Martyrs and the living martyrs protesting for a better way of life and who the state guns were turned on; from Jagan to Burnham and Peter d’Aguiar; from Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow to Joseph Pollydore, to every single worker of the field, office and factory.
The history of Mr. Forbes Burnham is the history of Guyana, and we must value the contributions and legacy of this gentleman even as we seek to further understand his ways and contributions. There can be no doubt, as stated in the Song of the Republic, written by Mr. Cleveland Hamilton, Mr. LFS Burnham sought to forge
“…a nation’s mighty soul, construct a nation’s frame, where freedom [is] our everlasting goal, courage and truth our aim; [and our people] what soe’er their breed, their hue or quality, with one firm never changing creed, [must ensure] the nation’s unity.”
These words exemplify what republican status means and why we, the current generation of Guyanese, must zealously guard, protect and defend ours.
Happy Republic Day. Enjoy your Mashramani Celebrations.