Burnham was a strong leader but no demon
February 2, 2004
It is not the first attempt to discredit Forbes Burnham and to demonize him nor will it be the last; but the recent attempt in the Kaieteur News of December 31, 2003 was by far the most wicked, nasty, illogical and racist.
Even then, it could have been ignored as an attack from the fringe. When, however, the author is Vishnu Bisram, a respected columnist and pollster, one has to take it seriously. Nearly twenty years after his death, what could be the real reason to compare Burnham with Uganda's Idi Amin. Burnham was far from perfect. Some of the policies he proposed and implemented did not always receive popular support. Many argue that those policies negatively affected the country's development. Yes there would be negatives to be counted, but any honest and objective assessment would show that the positives far outweigh those negatives.
Forbes Burnham was a great nationalist and a respected international statesman.
Burnham was a strong leader, a powerful leader, but he was no demon. There is something sinister, and I suggest cleverly racist, in seeking to compare him with Amin. It is a weak attempt to rewrite history.
Let us take a look at Bisram's comparisons. "Amin, he says, "was a former cook of a British regiment in Uganda and, according to reports, was considered an imbecile, Burnham, on the other hand was a cunning lawyer."
Burnham, Mr Bisram, was a brilliant scholar. He demonstrated that he was the brightest of his time by winning the Guyana Scholarship. He could have mastered any discipline. But he chose law and became a brilliant lawyer. It is this inability to be honest that bothers me with Bisram's article.
Bisram says that Amin was a racist not quite unlike Burnham and like Burnham he oppressed Indians.
You know those of us old enough would know of a time in this country when those who were Christians (basically non-Indian) were made to believe that theirs was the only religion and regarded Hindu and Muslim religious celebrations as heathen.
It was Burnham who sought to bring respect and dignity to the Indian community by declaring the festival of Phagwah, Deepavali, Edi-ul-Azha and Youman Nabi as national holidays. Notice again recent attempts to rewrite history.
Burnham, in fact, tried to reduce racism in Guyana by breaking down the walls of those ethnic enclaves. Burnham believed in one people and demanded changes of names of places like the East Indian Cricket Club (to Everest), Chinese Sport Club (to Cosmos), Portuguese Club (to Non Pareil) with the hope that they would widen and expand membership ethnically.
At a time when the colour of your skin determined suitability for membership of institutions like the Georgetown Cricket Club and the Georgetown Club, it was Burnham who broke down those walls.
Those social climbers who now sit comfortably and socialize at these places must remember that, because of their ethnicity and their lack of pedigree, they could not have been part.
"Burnham lived a life of comfort, while the rest of Guyana lived on a starvation diet in much the same way that Amin lived in luxury in Uganda to the neglect of the rest of Uganda."
Compare and contrast for a moment Burnham and the current political administration. Burnham did love the good life. But Burnham was a professional whose fees as a lawyer would have supported any lifestyle. Today, we have those without academic certification or professional skills who own Prados and vast castles, which could not have been purchased on their official income, and who tell their slaves nothing more than five percent.
"Amin was a homicidal dictator who killed over three hundred thousand while only a few disappeared under Burnham."
The count is more than a few over the last few years and it is still growing.
Bisram says that Burnham and Amin oppressed Indians. He and others were forced to abandon home and property to flee their homeland under Burnham.
Again compare and contrast things then and things now.
Today, twenty years after Burham, Guyanese Indians are involved in all sorts of illegal passport rackets and Indo-Guyanese are paying as much as US$10,000 each to escape their homeland. Bisram must ask himself how come backtracking has become such a viable profession over the last decade.
Bisram concludes by saying that Amin "died a hated person in much the same way that the entire Guyanese nation breathed a sigh of relief at Burnham's passing."
Not the entire nation, Mr. Bisram. Today, nearly twenty years after there are still many who lament what Guyana has become and regret that there is no one with the vision and the strength to put this country together again. Oh for a Burnham!
Regrettably, they are cowed from expressing those thoughts by the flood of letters from the spin-doctors and the hatemongers, who are seeking to rewrite history.
We must no longer retreat. We must let them know that Burnham was a great leader, a great nationalist, a great regionalist and a great international statesman who made enormous and indelible contributions at all levels. Burnham was an intellectual capable of great vision and of thinking outside of the box.
Little men with limited minds are incapable of appreciating the value of his contributions. Against a background in which there are no virtues to be extolled among the current and past leadership of this administration, they will continue to provide distractions.
The criticisms will continue, but there should be some attempt at honesty.
We sent a copy of this letter to Mr Bisram for his comments. His response follows:
"I feel constrained to respond to Marcus's (no last name) letter seeking to defend Burnham's abysmal record and attacking me personally without offering an iota of evidence to back his spurious allegation of racism. It is very sad to know that there are still Guyanese who sing praises to Burnham. Here was a ruler who impoverished and pauperized Guyana, who killed, victimized and
intimidated political opponents and religious figures, and who took away Guyanese right to vote, and yet people consider him a hero. How can anyone of honesty and objectivity make a decent argument that Burnham was a great ruler? It is frightening and downright dangerous that there is (are) Guyanese who have a nostalgia for Burnhamism (the suppression of dissent and the policy of brutalization of Guyanese for power's sake or to impose stability); it means the country could slip back into a dictatorship if Guyanese are not careful.
This feeling of Marcus ("Oh for a Burnham") and the defence of Burnhamism speaks volumes about the inability of Marcus and his ilk to accept the critiques of failed leadership. Marcus is lucky that today he can pen a lengthy article in a respected independent newspaper; under Burnham, he could not have a line published.
In my brief commentary on the former dictator, I did not "discredit and demonize" Burnham, as Marcus contends; the late dictator discredited and demonized himself through his own misrule, brutalizing Guyanese and when he transformed Guyana into an oppressive dictatorship denying people the right to cast a vote. My brief commentary on Burnham was an honest and objective assessment and at no time did I critique his race.
Marcus has not systematically debunked the points I made; indeed, he can't because the whole world knows the real Burnham. Every point I wrote on the brief commentary on Burnham was accurate.
Marcus qualified each of my points about Burnham's misrule to show that Burnham also did some good things. But these statements do not debunk my arguments which still hold. Surely Marcus recognizes that I was not writing a book on Burnham - just a brief commentary on his misrule and as such it was impossible to pen all the good and bad things done by Burnham. Indeed, Burnham did some positive things but his negatives far outweigh his positives and at any rate people don't remember the positives when they are overshadowed by a mountain of atrocities.
Burnham was a pseudo-nationalist and internationalist and an opportunist and outright racist. Read Jesse Burnham's essay on Forbes, Father Morrison's Book, Ashton Chase's book, the Latin American Bureau's book on Fraudulent Revolution, and Clive Thomas's essays in Monthly Review, among other publications and watch the documentaries put out by British Granada Television. They exposed the real Burnham, his racism, authoritarian rule and opportunistic internationalism. The fact that Burnham recognized Indian religious holidays and he renamed ethnic sports clubs and schools did not make him less of a racist or undo my critiques of his misrule. Numerous cases of his racism are cited in the above publications.
With regard to Burnham's professed nationalism, has Marcus forgotten that Burnham conspired to destabilize and topple a democratically elected government? that is treasonous, not nationalistic. Dr. Rodney, one of the world's most brilliant historians and a hero to Guyanese was murdered and elections were rigged; those were not nationalist acts. Burnham's internationalism was self-serving; he sought to become an internationalist to win back friends after killing Rodney and many Guyanese and establishing a dictatorship that bordered on fascism.
He was isolated and wanted to rejoin the world after serving as a stooge of imperialism. It should also be noted that his nationalism and internationalism were built around a cult of personality rather than doing something positive for Guyana.
The auditor general's reports year after year showed missing funds and discrepancies during the Burnham era. In particular, huge sums of money went missing during the construction of the Linden/Soesdyke highway.
Marcus has taken my critique of one man and responded by attacking an entire race and a whole administration (the current PPP government). That is racism. Most of his response is immaterial to the issues in contention and have in no way debunked my critique of Burnham. I never made the argument that the current government is beyond criticism. That was not the purpose of my commentary on Burnham. He argues that there are some in the current administration who have limited academic qualification and "who own Prados and vast castles, which could not have been purchased on their official income"; but the same (in fact worse) existed under the previous regime.
He argues that many Guyanese have been killed since the PPP came into government but Marcus fails to tell us who is doing the killing and who is being killed. Who is behind the instability and who benefits? As far as has been reported in the media, there is no evidence to indict the present incompetent administration for any killing. But there is a mountain of evidence (House of Israel, etc.) of indicting Burnham in the killing of Guyanese political opponents. What is interesting is that in the 1960s when the PPP was in government there was instability and killings. When the opposition came into government, the instability and killings stopped. Again since 1992, with the inept PPP back in government, there is instability and killings. Some analysts predict if there is a change in government at the next election, the instability and killings would stop. What does Marcus make of this trend and analysis?
I disagree that there are not virtues to be extolled among past PPP leaders. I did not like the late Cheddi Jagan's socialist policies. But he was a decent human being who did not kill anyone. Cheddi was a great statesman and the most honest leader produced by Guyana, a man of integrity who was even praised by Burnham, Green and Hoyte. Burnham was no comparison.
There is no denying that the present PPP leadership is weak and leaves much to be desired. But how does that debunk my critiques of Burnham. And while it is true that the PPP is weak, I cannot fathom anyone appreciating the values of Burnhamism.
Certainly not me. If that makes me "a little man with a little mind", then so be it.
As a patriot and democrat, I can never remain silent to authoritarian rule, murder of nationalists and conspiracy against a democratically elected government. Burnhamism must be exposed even if it is nineteen years after Burnham."