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The Reign of Forbes Burnham was Frightening and Demoralizing

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First Published: 30th of August, 2020.

Last updated: August 30, 2020 at 15:13 pm

I decided to make a copy of this article for our archives because it gives details and insights of life under the rule of Mr. Forbes Burnham by someone who has lived through that era. This article was first published in the Kaieteur News by columnist and professor, Freddie Kissoon.

Source: https://www.kaieteurnewsonline.com/2020/08/30/we-must-never-forget-those-5-months-of-2020

I was walking my dog on Thursday afternoon when this young man in an open back pick-up pulled up. He thanked me for my support for democracy during the five-month ordeal we have just passed through. I said to him: “Have you lived through the days of Forbes Burnham?” He said he was born in 1979 so I told him he missed the permanent monarchy of President Forbes Burnham.

I briefly explained the nature of Burnham rule and emotionally recounted that what happened on March 4, 2020 with Clairmont Mingo was something all Guyanese who lived through the reign of Burnham had to fight against with every ounce of passion.

I described what the kingdom of Burnham was like. He rigged every election from 1968 and to change the constitution to make his rule monarchical, he rigged the 1978 referendum. There was nothing even vaguely democratic about Burnham. Whatever ideas Burnham gave birth to, he implemented without consulting any section of Guyana. There was no distinction between pathways that were harmless and harmful. Burnham sought no audience from any quarter for what he had in his mind and what he wanted to implement.

The absurdities of Burnham’s rule were incomprehensible. He decided school children must do mass games; university students, public service scholarship holders and UG students must do compulsory national service in the interior; his party should be paramount to the state so it should have an office in each major ministry of government; what types of foods should be banned; what types of clothes public servants must wear to work.

The reign of Forbes Burnham was frightening and demoralizing. He rode on horseback sharing out cigarettes in south Georgetown. Young men ran to his horse to collect their smoke. He ordered public servants to do compulsory cleaning jobs at the weekends at the state-owned Hope Estate while he rode his horse and shouted at them if they appeared to be doing their grass-weeding too slowly.

This was what the reign of Forbes Burnham was like. But the evil in his reign scared you to death when you realized that he was not elected, could not be removed through free and fair election and if fate destined him to live in the nineties, he would dominate Guyana forever. This is why free and fair election is phenomenally priceless.

By the time of the 1980 election, Forbes Burnham had become a hated figure. He rigged the 1980 election giving his party 77. 7 percent of the vote compared with 19.5 percent for the PPP. If Walter Rodney had contested the 1980 election and if the 1980 election was free and fair, Burnham would have suffered a humiliating defeat, spending the rest of his life in jail.


What the psychotic misrule of Burnham revealed is that a country can die a slow death if people are not allowed to change their governments. In 2011, the PPP lost. In 2015, the PPP lost again. In 2020, the PNC lost and refused to concede taking us back to a Burnhamite wasteland and indeed Guyana became a Draculean wasteland under Burnham. It boggles the mind to think that President Granger could see this unelected tyrant as his hero. What was heroic about a politician that could never win an election contest yet acted as if he was the greatest gift to Guyanese?

Those young souls that braved the elements and the danger of COVID-19 in fighting for free election in March, protecting the ballot boxes in Kingston and at the Arthur Chung Conference Centre and spending endless hours protecting the CARICOM observed recount need to internalize the lessons of the Burnhamite psychosis.

They were not born when Burnham became the king of Guyana and the future became hopeless. They must now spend the rest of their lives sharing the knowledge they gained from the just concluded five month ordeal.

We conclude with a simple description of how Burnhamite psychosis could have been reborn if Clairmont Mingo, Keith Lowenfield, Roxanne Myers, Claudette Singh, Vincent Alexander, Charles Corbin, Desmond Trotman, leaders in the PNC, WPA and AFC and the recently retired police commissioner, Leslie James, were not stopped by brave international diplomats. Granger would have become the president. In 2025, the same GECOM team would have engineered another PNC victory (by which time, the AFC would have become shamelessly absorbed into the PNC). Granger would have appointed his successor.

Those born in 2020, by the time they reached 25 in 2045, the only government they would have known was the PNC. They would have become sad as we did under Burnham because they would have known that the right to vote and have it counted did not exist.

Linden Forbes Burnham – A Square Peg in a Round Hole

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Have you ever looked at something and wondered how it got there? Former Guyanese President Linden Forbes Burnham is a good example of such. It makes you wonder “who elected the likes of these men to be rulers?” The answer: they were not elected but usurped power.

In the book of Ecclesiastes, the preacher laments, “I have seen servants on horses and princes walking the earth as servants.” The verse above suggests that the art of ruling cannot be taught but must be inherent within the individual. That is, rulers are born, not made.

Linden Forbes Samson Burnham (if I spelled that correctly) is a good example of a servant on a horse: a man who had no clue about the art of governance but who hijacked the seat of government and clung to it through illicit means.

You can measure a teacher’s performance by the results of the exams, and you can measure a doctor’s merits by the results of the patients he or she treats. In the same way, you can measure the capabilities of a ruler by the happiness and prosperity of the people in his territory. During the rule (or reign of terror) of Linden Forbes Samson Burnham, Guyanese starved, suffered and fled Guyana by the droves to Venezuela, Trinidad, Suriname, United States and any other country they could escape to.

Mr. Burnham actually believed that a country of just a few hundred people…more than 90% of whom were descendants of slaves and indentured laborers…could actually be self sufficient. And so he closed all borders to imports and told his “subjects” to “produce or perish.” To which in turn the people perished or fled.

This act of tyranny by this square peg in a round hole led to increased contraband activities where a few rebellious businessmen who resolved to challenge the system would make daring excursions “backtrack” to neighboring Suriname to import items such as sardines, flour, milk etc. And the high demand of these “contraband items” created high profit margins for the businessmen who dared to ply the trade.

In turn, Burnham’s soldiers would intercept and terrorize these contraband lawbreaking businessmen and demand huge sums of money in bribes from them. The soldiers often beat the businessmen, seized their goods and threatened to throw them overboard. Nevertheless, because of the high profits attached to contraband items, the men continued to ply the trade at the risk of their life and limb – and do whatever they could to pacify the “law enforcement officers.”

The soldiers and police would also show up at the houses of the businessmen who traded contraband items and terrorize them, extracting huge sums in bribe from them.

Linden Forbes Burnham never won an election in Guyana. He consistently rigged the elections and disposed of every mechanism in place to depose him from power. He was infamously quoted as saying, “no government in power should lose an election.”

The supporters of Mr. Burnham often argue that he was doing the right thing, and that true patriots detest foreign imports. Yet, when Mr. Burnham was diagnosed with cancer, he went to Cuba for “foreign” treatment. On his death bed, he requested imported condensed milk.

Despite all the horrors that Burnham brought upon the Guyanese people, upon taking office in 2015, Mr. David Granger said that Mr. Burnham was a great leader to be emulated. And like Burnham, Mr. Granger attempted to rig the March 2, 2020 elections. But, due to strong international intervention, the APNU/AFC’s attempt to right the March 2020 elections was thwarted, and Mr. Granger was deposed from power.

In Guyana, there is a local saying that goes, “you can’t put dankey fa blow mout argan.” That translates to: “you can’t put a donkey to blow a mouth organ.” That means that you have to find people cut out for a particular job to do the job. In other words, you don’t put a construction worker to fly an airplane anymore than you put a maths teacher to teach English.

In this context, Burnham was a man unfit for government and unable to rule who brought an entire nation to ruins. Putting Mr. Burnham in the seat of government was akin to putting a donkey to blow a mouth organ or putting a square peg in a round hole.