Forbes Burnham

Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham (20 February 1923 – 6 August 1985) was a Guyanese politician and the leader of Cooperative Republic of Guyana from 1964 until his death in 1985, originally serving as Prime Minister from 1964 to 1980 then as its first Executive President from 1980 to 1985. He is often regarded as a strongman[1] who embraced his own version of socialism. Throughout his presidency, he encouraged Guyanese to produce and export more local goods, especially through the use of state-run corporations and agricultural cooperatives. Despite being widely-regarded as one of the principal architects of the post-colonial Guyanese state, his presidency was nonetheless marred by repeated accusations of Afro-supremacy, authoritarian rule, state-sanctioned violence, electoral fraud, and corruption.

Forbes Burnham

Forbes Burnham (1966).jpg
Burnham in 1966.
2nd President of Guyana
In office
6 October 1980 – 6 August 1985
Prime MinisterPtolemy Reid
Vice PresidentPtolemy Reid
Shiw Sahai Naraine
Hugh Desmond Hoyte
Hamilton Green
Bishwaishwar Ramsaroop
Mohamed Shahabuddeen
Ranji Chandisingh
Preceded byArthur Chung
Succeeded byHugh Desmond Hoyte
1st Prime Minister of Guyana
(British Guiana until 1966)
In office
14 December 1964 – 6 October 1980
MonarchElizabeth II
PresidentEdward Victor Luckhoo (Acting)
Arthur Chung
Preceded byCheddi Jagan
Succeeded byPtolemy Reid
Personal details
Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham

(1923-02-20)20 February 1923
Kitty, Georgetown, East Coast Demerara, British Guiana
Died6 August 1985(1985-08-06) (aged 62)
Georgetown, East Coast Demerara, Guyana
Resting placethe Botanical Gardens
Political partyPPP (1950–1958)
PNC (1958–1985)
Spouse(s)Bernice Lataste (1951-1966)
Viola Burnham (1967-his death)
Kamana (adopted)
Larry Lumsden
Alma materLondon School of Economics

Personal life and educationEdit

Burnham, an Afro-Guyanese man, was born in Kitty, a suburb of Georgetown, East Demerara in Guyana, as one of three children. He attended the prestigious secondary school, Queen's College. In 1942, he won the Guiana Scholarship as the colony's top student. Burnham received a law degree from the London School of Economics in 1948. Burnham met many African and Caribbean students – including Abubakar Tafawa Balewa of Nigeria, Seretse Khama of Botswana and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana as well as Michael Manley of Jamaica and Errol Barrow of Barbados – during his studies in London.[2] He was married to Viola Burnham, who was also involved in politics. He has three children, Roxane, Annabelle, and Francesca from his first marriage to Bernice Lataste. His second marriage to Viola produced two daughters, Melanie and Ulele and later they adopted a son, Kamana.

Early years: The People's Progressive Party (PPP)Edit

Burnham was one of the founders of the People's Progressive Party (PPP), which was launched on 1 January 1950. The Indo-Guyanese labour leader Cheddi Jagan became Leader of the PPP and Burnham became its chairman.[3] In 1952, Burnham became the president of the party's affiliated trade union, the British Guiana Labour Union. In 1953, the PPP won 18 of 24 seats in the first election by universal suffrage permitted by the British colonial government, with both Burnham and his sister Jessie elected to the House of Assembly. In the short-lived PPP government that followed, Burnham served as Minister of Education.[4]

In 1955, there was a split in the PPP between Burnham and Jagan (the result of differences in ideological perspectives between the two leaders, and the USA/Britain's desire – and support towards Burnham – to topple the PPP government). Jagan supported a socialist path,[5][6] but Burnham believed that, given the geopolitical conditions of the era, communism would be a better alternative. American and British officials were unaware of this, and mistakenly believed Burnham to be somewhat more moderate than Jagan. As a result of foreign support, Burnham went on to form the People's National Congress (PNC) in 1958 entering its first election under that name in 1961.[7]

Leader of Guyana: The People's National Congress (PNC)Edit

Forbes Burnham Presidential Standard

In the 1964 election Jagan's PPP won the highest percentage of the vote (46% to the PNC's 41%), but it did not win a majority. Burnham succeeded in forming a coalition with the United Force (TUF) (which had won the remaining 12% of the votes) and became premier of British Guiana on 14 December. On 26 May 1966, British Guiana became an independent country and was renamed "Guyana".

Due to the (at the time) radical views of Cheddi Jagan (who leaned towards communism – both due to his socialist economic views, and his alliances with the Soviet Union and Cuba), Burnham was propped up by both the American and British Governments to assure the propagation of US/British control within the region[8] At first, Burhnam pursued moderate policies, but in one of his first acts upon independence, he had passed a sweeping "National Security Act" giving the police the power to search, seize and arrest anyone virtually at will.[citation needed]

He won full power in 1968, although many[quantify] condemned the elections as fraudulent because of a large number of irregularities (such as questionable numbers of overseas voters on the rolls).[citation needed] In 1970, he veered sharply to the left and established strong relations with Cuba, the Soviet Union, North Korea and other communist countries.[citation needed] On 23 February of that year, he declared Guyana a "co-operative republic".[citation needed] Adopting a policy of autarky, he banned all forms of imports into the country, including flour and varieties of rice that had been integral to the diet of ethnic Indian citizens. Burnham also nationalised the major industries that were foreign-owned and -controlled, reducing the private sector's share of the economy to 10 percent by 1979.[citation needed]

Burnham, after attending the 1970 summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in Lusaka, Zambia, paid official visits to several African countries—Zambia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia—over the period 12–30 September 1970.[citation needed] The Guyanese government remained fully involved in the African liberation movement throughout the 1970s.[2] Interestingly, although Guyana provided much-needed aid to African nations in their time of need - when Guyana was in its most dire times of need (the early 1990s and late 2010s), none of these African nations offered aid to Guyana.[citation needed]

Burnham sent more than a hundred Guyanese public servants to various departments of the Zambian Government. Many Guyanese doctors, engineers, lawyers and secretaries worked in Southern African states throughout the 1970s.[2] Current census data indicates that the majority of doctors, engineers, lawyers and secretaries currently working in Guyana originate from India, Sri Lanka, Cuba and China.[citation needed]

In 1974 Burnham declared the PNC to be paramount and socialist.) citation needed) He won a 1978 referendum which made it much easier for the government to change the constitution. Anecdotal evidence from hundreds of Indo-Guyanese (and Afro-Guyanese who were PPP supporters) claims that PNC enforcers aggressively (and often violently) denied PPP supporters of the opportunity to vote.[citation needed] Most notably, official figures showed the referendum passing with an implausible 97 percent of the vote.[citation needed] In 1980 the constitution was changed to make the presidency an executive post. Burnham won election as president that year.[citation needed]

Burnham introduced mass games to Guyana. They were first held in February 1980 to commemorate the founding of the Co-operative Republic of Guyana.[9]

Burnham remained President of Guyana until his death. He died on 6 August 1985 after undergoing throat surgery in Georgetown Hospital.[4]

Burnham remained President of Guyana through the process of rigging elections, and squirreling ballot boxes at the Army headquarters, after which they were destroyed, without the votes being counted.[citation needed] According to Dr. Walter Rodney, Burnham's "style of rule has many similarities with that of the late Nicaraguan dictator, Anastasio Somoza" - who not only oppressed the working class, but those in the upper echelons of the society who refused to go along with his domination.[citation needed] Walter Rodney was later assassinated, many believe because he stridently opposed Forbes Burnham and the PNC, who had a hand in his demise.[citation needed]


  1. ^ George K. Danns (1 January 1982). Domination and Power in Guyana: A Study of the Police in a Third World Context. Transaction Publishers. pp. 141–. ISBN 978-1-4128-2190-2.
  2. ^ a b c David A. Granger. "Forbes Burnham and the Liberation of Southern Africa" (PDF). Retrieved 1 August 2015.
  3. ^ History of the PPP, PPP website.
  4. ^ a b Biographies of former presidents Archived 28 August 2008 at the Wayback Machine, GINA.
  5. ^ The Guyana story, from prehistory to independence
  6. ^ Cheddi Jagan's 'the West on trial
  7. ^ (see also: Forbidden Freedom by Cheddi Jagan)
  8. ^ Jagan, C. 1994. Forgotten Freedom. Hansib Publications Limited. Guyana. 3rd edition.
  9. ^
Political offices
Preceded by
Cheddi Jagan
Prime Minister of Guyana
(until 1966: British Guiana)

Succeeded by
Ptolemy Reid
Preceded by
Arthur Chung
President of Guyana
Succeeded by
Desmond Hoyte