Burnham, Forbes (Guyana)

Reference work entry


Forbes Burnham was the first prime minister of independent Guyana. He was in office for 21 years and was responsible for the formation of his country’s political structure. Elected to government with the aid and approval of the USA in 1964 after a campaign of harassment against the previous government, Burnham proceeded to follow a pro–capitalist and moderate programme of reforms. His increasingly autocratic style at the end of the 1960s damaged the economy and quality of life deteriorated. His party was widely believed to have rigged the elections in 1968, 1973, 1978 and 1980 to maintain power. He was married twice, to Sheila Lataste in 1951 and to Viola Harper in 1967; he had five daughters.

Early Life

Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham was born in Kitty, East Demerara, British Guiana on the 20 Feb. 1923 to parents of African descent. He attended Queen’s College in Georgetown, and in 1942 won the British Guiana Scholarship. He travelled to England in 1945 to study law at the University of London and gained his LLB in 1947.

In 1949 he returned to Guyana to enter politics, co–founding, with Cheddi Jagan, the People’s Progressive Party in 1950. He was appointed chairman. Burnham was elected to Georgetown City Council in 1952, and to the Legislature a year later. He was made minister of education after the first general elections with universal suffrage. He challenged Jagan for the leadership of the party but was forced to back down. After 133 days the British, fearing the socialist direction of the new government, suspended the constitution on 9 Oct. 1953.

Encouraged by the British, on 13 Feb. 1955 Burnham led a split of the PPP. He proposed a more moderate party, less committed to socialism and acceptable to the British. The divide followed mainly racial lines, with Burnham leading the Afro–Guyanese section and Jagan heading the Indo–Guyanese faction. In the general election held under limited suffrage in Aug. 1957, Burnham’s party performed worse than anticipated, winning only 3 out of 14 seats. Burnham was appointed leader of the opposition, merging with two other small parties to form the People’s National Congress (PNC).

From 1957–64, Burnham continued to lead the opposition, with the PPP winning the 1961 election with 20 seats out of 35. The period of 1961–64 was characterized by strikes, riots and protests against the PPP and between the divided ethnic groups. The PNC combined with the United Front (UF) and was aided by CIA in attempts to destabilize the government. In May 1963 PNC headquarters were raided and ammunition and documents detailing assassination plans for PPP leaders were found.

The British government changed the voting system in 1964 in a response to pressure from the PNC as they believed it unfairly represented the East Indian community. The switch to proportional representation in the general election on 7 Dec. 1964 saw the vote split between the PPP (46%), the PNC (41%) and the UF (12%). At the invitation of the governor the PNC and the UF proceeded to form a coalition government and Burnham was elected prime minister.

Career Peak

In May 1966 Guyana became independent and Burnham was appointed prime minister. He enforced a moderate line, cutting ties with Cuba and encouraging local and foreign investment. He steered towards a non–aligned socialist state, but held to a pro–capitalist economic policy. He implemented a wider range of benefits especially in health (including the establishment of rural clinics) but also in education, housing, road and bridge building, agriculture and rural development. With these policies he attempted to attract members of the Afro–Guyanese middle class, differentiate himself from the PPP and attract international investment and aid. His tenure was disturbed by border disputes with Venezuela from Oct. 1966.

By the general election of 1968 the PNC, aided by defections from the PPP and the UF, held a majority in the National Assembly. The PNC won 30 seats, the PPP 19 and the UF 4; Burnham retained his position as prime minister though it was claimed by many that the elections were fraudulent.

Burnham’s second term was marred in 1969 by a rebellion among ranchers in Rupununi region, which was put down by the military. Burnham started moving in a new political direction, proclaiming Guyana as a Cooperative Republic in 1970 and taking an increasingly socialist stance. His leadership also became increasingly autocratic. He re–established diplomatic relations with Cuba and the Soviet Union and between 1971–76 carried out a nationalization programme, reducing the private sector’s share of the economy to 10% by seizing American and Canadian–owned mines and British sugar plantations and refineries.

In the general election of 10 July 1973 the PNC won a two third majority, though accusations of vote-rigging were again widespread. Burnham endeavoured to extend government control by amending the constitution and abolishing legal appeals to the Privy Council in London and politicizing the civil service. All mechanisms of state were considered part of the PNC and under its control. Burnham also sought a position of leadership among third world countries, becoming a force in the non-aligned movement. In 1972 he hosted the Conference of Foreign Ministers of Non–Aligned Countries.

In an attempt to consolidate his rule, Burnham cancelled the general election of 1978 in favour of a national referendum. Burnham claimed a 75% turnout and 97% approval for his government. In 1978 the mass suicide of 900 people of a religious cult called Jonestown, preceded by their assassination of a USA government official, put Burnham’s government under intense foreign scrutiny.

Constitutional changes in 1980 gave Burnham even wider executive powers when he became president of Guyana. Elections later that year saw the PNC claim 77% of the vote. In the 1980s, Burnham held to his ambition to build a socialist society. The economy stagnated, the quality of life decreased and the country’s infrastructure and public services deteriorated.

Burnham died in office on 6 Aug. 1985 whilst undergoing a throat operation.

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