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Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham (20 February 1923 – 6 August 1985) was a Guyanese politician and the leader of the Co-operative Republic of Guyana from 1964 until his death. He served as Prime Minister from 1964 to 1980 and then as its first Executive President from 1980 to 1985. He is often regarded as a strongman[1] who embraced his own version of communism. 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 postcolonial Guyanese state, his presidency was nonetheless marred by repeated accusations of Afro-supremacy, state-sanctioned violence, economic collapse, electoral fraud, and corruption.

Personal life and education

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.[citation needed] His second marriage to Viola produced two daughters, Melanie and Ulele and later they adopted a son, Kamana.[citation needed]

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

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 with universal suffrage in Guyana, 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. Jagan supported a socialist domestic policy,[5][6] but Burnham believed that, given the geopolitical conditions of the era, communism would be a better alternative. The UK and United States were falsely informed that Burnham was somewhat more moderate than Jagan. This red scare tactic resulted in foreign support for Burnham, who went on to form the People's National Congress (PNC) in 1958 entering its first election under that name in 1961.[7] Guyana obtained massive debts during Burnham's tenure, experienced stagflation, and suffered a massive rise in crime. Burnham's tenure was also marked by elections rigged by the PNC. The UK and USA would later formally apologize for this destabilization, albeit years later in the 2000s.

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

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.[citation needed] On 26 May 1966, British Guiana became an independent country and was renamed "Guyana".[citation needed]

Due to the 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 supported by Western nations.[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 Guyanese. 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 (before this time, the post was held by Arthur Chung in a ceremonial head-of-state role). 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]

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. In 2014, Donald Ramotar launched an inquiry into the murder of Rodney despite resistance from the PNC. In 2016, the Commission of Inquiry released findings that state that President Forbes Burnham, aided by the Guyana Defence Force and Guyana Police Force, was part of the conspiracy to assassinate Dr. Walter Rodney. Rodney was the leader of the Working People's Alliance which posed a threat to Burnham, for the WPA was bridging the gap between East Indian and African populations of Guyana. Rodney was killed in his car on June 13, 1980 by Gregory Smith, an operative of the GDF, with an explosive communication device. Smith escaped to French Guiana with assistance from the Burnham government, changed his name and is thought to have died in 2002. Although most people believed Burnham had a hand in Rodney's death, the government claimed that Rodney died trying to blow up a prison. [10]

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


  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. ^ "'Only a disciplined people can build a nation': North Korean Mass Games and Third Worldism in Guyana, 1980-1992". The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus. Retrieved 13 April 2021.
  10. ^ Azikiwe, Abayomi (28 February 2016). "Guyana commission confirms Burnham gov't murdered Walter Rodney". Workers World. Retrieved 16 March 2021.
Political offices
Preceded by Prime Minister of Guyana
(until 1966: British Guiana)

Succeeded by
Preceded by President of Guyana
Succeeded by