Forbes Burnham (1923-1985) led the coalition government which won independence for British Guiana in 1966 and was Guyana's first prime minister. He established himself as president of Guyana in 1970.
Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham was born at Kitty in then British Guiana on February 20, 1923. His father, James Ethelbert Burnham, was the local elementary school headmaster. His mother was Rachel Abigail (Sampson) Burnham. Burnham attended the local elementary school in Kitty, then went on to Queen's College in Georgetown where he excelled both academically and in debating. He won a British Guiana scholarship which permitted him to attend the University of London in 1942. Awarded a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1944, Burnham proceeded to study law, completing all the requirements brilliantly. He was called to the bar in 1948. Always a politically active student, Burnham served as president of the West Indian Students Union of London University for the academic year, 1947-1948. He was a delegate to the meeting of the International Union of Students in Paris in 1947 and in Prague in 1948.
Burnham returned to his native land in 1949 with a reputation as a gifted speaker with a passion for politics and as a moderate socialist. He immediately became active in local politics and remained until his death Guyana's most active and influential politician. He was co-founder, along with Cheddi Jagan, Jainarine Singh, J. B. Latchmansingh, Martin Carter, and Sydney King (later Eusi Kwayana), of the People's Progressive Party, which won a resounding victory in the first elections held in Guiana under universal adult suffrage in 1953. By then Burnham was chairman of the party, an elected member of the Georgetown city council, and the unofficial leader of the urban section of the party.
In a country where the racial divisions between Guyanese of African and East Indian descent tended to coincide with the geographical divisions of urban-coastal (Georgetown) and rural-interior, respectively, Burnham's political base gave him great strength within the party. Indeed this emerged early when, at the age of 30, he challenged Jagan for the position of leader of the House of Representatives. Burnham eventually accepted the position of minister of education, but after only a few months the British government suspended the constitution and imposed an interim government until 1957.
In 1955 Burnham and others defected from the People's Progressive Party, but their wing, though strong, lost to the Jagan faction in the new elections of 1957. That year Burnham, a sitting member of Parliament, founded the People's National Congress, designed to be a multi-racial moderately socialist party to the right of Cheddi Jagan. Meanwhile, Burnham's political star began to rise. He was elected mayor of Georgetown in 1959 and again in 1964 and served as president of the Guyana Bar Association in 1959. Moreover, he was the leader of the opposition from 1957 to 1964 and president of the Guyana Labor Union.
Burnham's party won the general elections of 1964 on a modified system of proportional representation. Instead of the usual winner-take-all of the conventional "Westminster Model" election, each party was given a number of seats in Parliament in direct relationship to their proportion of the popular vote. With the 12 percent won by the United Party, Burnham was able to form a coalition government. This government led Guyana into independence in 1966, and Forbes Burnham became the first prime minister.
The coalition did not last long, and after 1967 Burnham manipulated the electoral system to maintain his party in power. The main instrument was an overseas voting system based on registration lists of nationals. In the 1968 elections the People's National Congress gained 93.7 percent of the total of 36,745 foreign votes, allowing it to claim an absolute majority of 55.8 percent of the ballots and to dispense with the coalition. However, research done by the reliable Opinion Research Center of London could verify only 15 percent of the entries on the overseas registration lists.
Buoyed by the result of the 1968 general elections, Burnham established the Co-Operative Republic of Guyana in 1970 with himself as president. He still maintained his Commonwealth contacts, but Guyanese politics in the 1970s and early 1980s was the will of a singular individual. Indeed, in 1973 Burnham announced that his party had won two-thirds of the votes in the general election and with its corresponding proportion of the unicameral legislature had the requisite legal means to alter the constitution. To further reinforce his position, Burnham engineered a referendum in 1978 which made referenda unnecessary to amend the constitution once the proposed amendment got a two-third vote in the National Assembly. A new constitution made Burnham executive president with a wide range of powers to dissolve Parliament, to veto legislation, and to appoint or dismiss the prime minister, any minister of the cabinet, the vice-president, the leader of the opposition, and/or any member of the bureaucracy.
As Burnham consolidated his political power and created a new variant of ethnic politics in Guyana, the national economy went from bad to worse. Although Guyana is potentially rich, possessing extensive fertile coastal lands and a vast interior with deposits of gold, emeralds, bauxite, lumber, and other natural resources, the country had been bankrupt for nearly a decade. The massive schemes of nationalization of industry in the 1970s increased neither employment nor production nor income for the state. Opponents of the government—which by 1980 had virtually become synonymous with Burnham—were crudely beaten by thugs, hounded out of the country, or, as in the case of Walter Rodney, the leader of the Working People's Alliance, boldly assassinated.
Despite a confused rhetoric suggesting Marxist orientation and amicable relationships with the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, and the government of Maurice Bishop in Grenada, Burnham succeeded in retaining open, if exasperating, relations with the United States, the British Commonwealth, and the Caribbean community. Foreign support of the Burnham regime merely facilitated the consolidation of power by the People's National Congress and further demoralized the opposition.
President Burnham succumbed to heart failure while undergoing a throat operation on August 6, 1985. His successor was Prime Minister Ptolemy Reid.
Further Reading on Forbes Burnham
Burnham is listed in the International Who's Who and Personalities Caribbean, 1982-1983. His political opinion-cum-auto-biography is A Destiny to Mould (1970). Critical accounts of his policies and his government may be found in Clive Thomas, Plantations, peasants, and state: a study of the mode of sugar production in Guyana (1984); and J. E. Greene, Race vs. Politics in Guyana—Racial Cleavages and Political Mobilization in the 1968 General Election (1974).