Guyana's road to political independence and its significance
History This Week
By Tota C. Mangar
May 26, 2005
Today May 26, 2005 marks the 39th Anniversary of our country's attainment of political independence from Great Britain. On this historic day in 1966, a new nation, Guyana, formerly British Guiana, the only English speaking one on the South American continent achieved national sovereignty to become the 24th member of the then British Commonwealth of Nations thus bringing to an end decades of British colonial rule.
Guyana's road to political independence was indeed turbulent and painstaking. For a brief period in the early 1950s its nationalist movement, the original People's Progressive Party under the leadership of the late Presidents, Dr. Cheddi Jagan and Mr. Forbes Burnham, enjoyed overwhelming support from the working class and the masses in general as they pursued the noble objective of national unity. Their resounding victory at the 1953 general elections astounded many including local reactionaries, the Colonial Office and moreso the US State Department.
The mass-based party's tenure in office was only short-lived as Great Britain under considerable American pressure, suspended the Constitution and overthrew the legally elected government "ostensibly to prevent the establishment of a communist state in the only British colony on the South American continent." The ironical thing about this sordid state of affairs was that an interim government was imposed on the colony of the then British Guiana and it comprised of many individuals who themselves suffered crushing defeats at the hands of the toppled nationalist candidates.
As if that setback was not enough, the nationalist movement the PPP itself became severely fractured in 1955 into a Jaganite and a Burnhamite PPP. It was this development which paved the way for the subsequent intense rivalry between our two foremost leaders, Dr. Jagan and Mr. Burnham. In 1957 the latter changed his faction to the People's National Congress (PNC).
Unfortunately it was this split more than anything else which led to racial strife and insecurity. Subsequent events such as political and social instability, including strikes and disturbances as a result of the Kaldor Budget and the Labour Relations Bill in the 1962-1963 period clearly illustrated the turbulent waters this nation had to endure. Loss of several lives and the wanton destruction of properties and the dislocation of hundreds of families were the sad reality during this unfortunate period of our nation's history.
Under a new electoral system of proportional representation in 1964 Mr. Forbes Burnham headed a People's National Congress - United Force coalition government. As Prime Minister he shouldered the responsibility of leading the country to independence while his former colleagues and then bitter rival, Dr. Jagan served as Opposition Leader. With independence on May 26, 1966 came the termination of more than a century and a half of British colonial rule. At the hour of midnight thousands of Guyanese of all walks of life stood proudly and cheered lustily as the Union Jack was lowered and the national flag went up to herald the birth of a new, and independent Guyana.
Among those who witnessed the highly significant and unique ceremony were the Duke and Duchess of Kent, Sir Richard Luyt, the first Governor-General, former Conservative Colonial Secretary, Mr. Duncan Sandys and Colonial Secretary, Mr. Anthony Greenwood and sixty-two (62) delegates drawn from forty-seven (47) countries worldwide.
Of added significance and to the tumultuous applause of all who thronged Independence Square was that symbolic, comforting 'bear hug' embrace between Jagan and Burnham, the architects of Guyana's freedom only minutes before the attainment of nationhood. That emotionally charged moment promised much but in the final analysis realised very little, as subsequent events were to unfold.
As part of Independence we saw the emergence of our new Guyana Coat-of-Arms. On it is seen the pride of our fauna life, two jaguars holding a pickaxe and stems of rice and sugar-cane and facing each other proudly across a painted shield on top of which rests a visored helmet topped by the feathered crown of an Amerindian chieftain. Beneath a scroll-like banner boldly proclaims the Nation's Motto: "One People, One Nation, One Destiny" while on the shield itself there are three barrulets of azure blue symbolizing Guyana's watery nature and its water potential. This Coat of Arms justifiably accords pride of place in our national minds and reminds us of our unity and sense of purpose.
Independence brought with it our National Flag, a slender golden arrowhead set proudly on a background of green and red and stands as a striking symbol of Guyana's journey into the future. The lush green colour symbolizes the fields and forests of Guyana's assets, of which the country is richly endowed. The red triangle represents the zeal and dynamic nature of nation-building that lies ahead of this young and independent nation while the deep black border stands for the endurance that will sustain the forward thrust of its people. Finally, white symbolizes our rivers, waterfalls and our hydro-electric potential of this 'Land of Many Waters'.
Our new National Anthem is a popular aspect of our Independence. Reverend, Archibald Luker wrote the words of "Green Land of Guyana" in response to a nation-wide competition sponsored by the then National History and Arts Council while our distinguished Guyanese educationist and musician, the late RCG Potter composed the music. The title of our National Anthem is appropriate and is expressive of colour, vitality and of land fertility.
On the morning of that historic day, May 26, 1966 the National Assembly witnessed all the pomp and pageantry and ceremonial aspects of Westminster.
It was in that Public Building that the Duke of Kent handed over to the country's first Prime Minister, Mr. Forbes Burnham, the constitutional instruments conceding to us the dignity and pride of Independence on behalf of Her Majesty the Queen.
Undoubtedly, the expectations of all Guyanese were very high at that point in time and they certainly had every right to be so. Our Prime Minister for this part expressed high optimism when he said "Thus our journeying to Independence have ended. We face, however, the harder, but more emotionally satisfying and definitely more self-respecting task of making Guyana great among the nations - the tasks of building a free and just society".
What can we say 39 years after gaining independence? We certainly share the joy, pride and dignity of being an independent nation. Our expectation was that with political independence we would have enjoyed political stability, national unity and social and economic progress. Unfortunately, the stark reality is that today despite several positive signs our nation cries out in shame.
In some aspects we are worse off now than then in spite of the very best efforts of many.
As a matter of fact political stability and national unity are as elusive as ever. In reality the post-1997 period of our history has witnessed street protests, periodic boycott of parliament, a breakdown in the dialogue process and the escalation of a serious and prolonged crime wave.
While some progress has been made on the social and economic front the nation is still to fully rid itself of economic dependency. Foreign debts continue to stifle us and we experience depressed world market prices for our products.
We need to accelerate our production and productivity drives. We continue to suffer from migration and consequential 'brain drain' and capital flight.
As we reflect on independence let us display a heightened sense of purpose and maturity.
Let us show greater mutual respect, tolerance and understanding of all Guyanese if we are to survive as a nation. Let us put nation first at this crucial juncture of our country's history and in the face of an often harsh and oppressive global environment.
A happy 39th Indepen-dence Anniversary to One and All! Long live the Co-operative Republic of Guyana.