The Burnham Initiative
by Rakesh Rampertab

Prelude to The Review: Local Political Literature Tainted by Fear, Pride or Dishonesty

Dear Editor,

Despite the harsh review by Mr. Frederick Kissoon, I welcome the new book on Mr. Forbes Burnham by Mr. Halim Majeed, which is not free of flaws.

To say why I welcome it, I refer briefly to the cultures of writing and literature fostered in Guyana which have been centred on political writings. For decades there has not been a debate on the state of public writing, the general misuse of language, or the promotion of local literature, perhaps because we assume that literature (or language) has no responsibility in the shaping of our cultures.

We regretfully stifle our literary culture. For example, the guidelines under which the Guyana Prize for Literature is sanctioned includes one which is anti-democratic; it places undue burden on Guyanese residing outside the Caribbean who may wish to submit unpublished writings, and so promote diversity in writings. I addressed this issue but the Prize committee at UG refused, quite suspiciously, to this concern. Yet they continue with their farce of the Guyana Prize. With fewer submissions occurring, a handful of “winners” continue to win year after year.

Secondly, the Sunday literary reviews (or articles) at Stabroek News (SN) highly protected from legitimate criticism; Mr. Al Creighton especially is saved from criticism because SN censors such criticism of its beloved. The recent "Ramleela" article is a case in point. On a personal note, I cannot stop SN from its biased editorial policies, or the shoddy “literary” articles it sometimes publishes, but I can stop a writer who earns a living from misinforming the public about East Indian culture. I know all too well the hard work it takes to promote this very culture in a hostile environment.

I can go on, but let me just say that “writers” are very unclean in Guyana ; maybe because they are imbued with fear, pride, or have been nursed on a writing culture of dishonesty. Our abundance of political writings, half fractured at their writers' racial or partisan wits, and half sullied out of a lack of basic writing skills, has allowed for our butchered book culture which involves a certain level of pretense amongst editors, politicians and publishers of newspapers. As much as one may insist that writers be honest, it is arguably wrong to expect politicians to write from a tradition to which they never belonged.

There are many rules to doing a book review, which I will not elaborate on because no one is listening, learning. However, let me say that some claim that because one is “not” schooled in a study of literature, one can only assess a book based on one's training in the social sciences. If this is true, the politician who writes will and must argue that because one is not a novelist or historian, one can only write along the line of politics.

I am not a Burnham fanatic. I have written before of a need for someone, preferably one schooled in literature or a historian, to write an impartial biography of the man. Mr. Majeed's book is not such a work, because such was not Mr. Majeed's goal. When the press release by Mr. Elvin McDavid in Guyana says, “the biographical sketch of Forbes Burnham is well put together,” it is not exactly so. However, a book review should never be a trampling of the failings of an author's life or his book.

In Guyana , everything is a controversy. In general, it seems to me that we have to still learn how to read without prejudice, learn to separate fact from fiction, and learn to construct the future on the difference between the two - not only because of the book culture I have mentioned, but because those who have held important political posts and are still among us (e.g., Mr. Hamilton Green), continue to play dumb, deaf, and mute.

Too many of us have been ripped and ragged by the barb-wired history fed by our famous former presidents, including Mrs. Jagan. And we encourage books like Mr. Majeed's for we learn of small details, such as Burnham's comment that: “Had Cheddi married a Guyanese, the history of Guyana would certainly have been different.” I always believed this and recently, with the reading of the excellent book on Mr. Balram Singh Rai, I am more convinced that we were all used as an experiment by Mrs. Jagan for the ideas she imported from the radical Jewish community of the pre-WW II United States .

It is time to end the experiment. In fact, it has ended, only its rotting relics remain.

Those who have lived our “history,” have failed in their writings to demystify the riddles that still hang over Guyana . It is so perhaps because writers, especially in the newspapers, have refused to conduct detailed researches; perhaps they were forced to settle for gossip and slander. With a few exceptions, an entire generation of writers, an entire culture, has failed Guyana .

I have grown tired of waiting for “truths” from writers. I am tired of seeing my generation handicapped by its ignorance of our history, and waiting on them to wake up. Who can blame them? We have been pushed so far into a corner that young Guyanese spend most of their lives trying to escape this corner, but without knowing it. Maybe all that seems appropriate now is that this generation reads extensively and thinks critically so as to upturn a political history built on murder, mayhem, and manipulation.

I suppose if we can begin here, perhaps we'll be on the way to creating a culture of an improved political literature.

Rakesh Rampertab (Kaieteur News, 12/17/2005)


The Burnham Initiative

Any work on or relating to Forbes Burnham is going to be controversial. The recent book by Mr. Halim Majeed, former deputy (and later chief) chief political advisor to Mr. Burnham, aptly titled, Forbes Burnham: National Reconciliation and National Unity 1984-1985, is no exception. At 119 pages if we exclude its end notes and bibliography, it is a modest work that centers not on Mr. Forbes Burnham, but on “Unity” talks between the PNC and the PPP during 1984 and 1985. The book is a detailed repeat of a series of articles done by the author a few years ago for Kaieteur News.

The author as “scribe” in the talks gives us an insight into meetings between the PPP (represented by Mr. Feroze Mohammed and Mr. Clement Rohee) and the PNC (represented by Mr. Ranji Chandisingh and Mr. Elvin McDavid). The scribe, a former PPP member, is entrusted by all. But scribes are powerful people; they may adjust a sentence, alter an opinion—an idea which surfaced in Salman Rushdie’s controversial novel, the “Satanic Verses.” In it, the scribe of Prophet Mohammed is made to alter what the prophet says, to test the credibility of the prophet’s revelations.

And so, be it scribe or prophet, we question either for it is not possible to write about history, if one will “not” write about it. What this book lacks is a mention of the darker side of Mr. Burnham in the author’s “bibliographical note,” which portrays Mr. Burnham as a “legendary” figure. One may even question why the author mentioned that on an on-line poll, Burnham was voted as the “Caribbean Man of the Century.” An Internet poll is not a manner by which a man’s greatness is to be measured, especially in a region yet to experience the modernity of the Internet.

Yet, this “note” does not distract from the “talk” chapters, which is what the book is primarily about, and which are written in a precise tailored manner; paragraphs are constructed as if by machine instead of by hand, and assorted carefully in six rapid chapters, the first taking one back to the genesis of Guyanese power-sharing dialogues,

Halim Majeed launching his book in NYC, 2005.
to the 1961 Joint Premiership proposal by Mr. Eusi Kwayana. But the focus really begins in early 1984, and the reader sees a “Working Group” within the PNC, headed by Mr. McDavid (chief political advisor; who would initiate the talks by writing to Dr. Jagan) emerged. Dr. Jagan agreed, formalities began, and with help from friendly diplomats, the union assumed shape. Meanwhile, Burnham passes a few new rules; e.g., stop all attacks on the PPP in the PNC’s publication, New Nation.

But by February 1985, some PPP members including Mrs. Jagan complained that the Burnham Initiative was mere “cosmetic.” Majeed noted that Mrs. Jagan instead harped on the “idea of punishing the PNC,” and wanting to remove Burnham by more “revolutionary” means. Nevertheless, one gets this brief hope that something good may happen. Perhaps on reflection, given the eighties’ despair, the reader develops a false anticipation of a Burnham-Jagan unity, the noose on Guyana’s neck coming loose.

But one’s hope is absorbed by one’s knowledge of the outcome, history. The cracks under the dialogue developed over decades widened with Burnham’s death. Hoyte disfavored the talks and Dr. Jagan disfavored Hoyte. Finally, the dialogue crumbled exactly where it began, with McDavid. He is the only PNC member at the final meeting. Goodbye. By the final chapter, the author can only assess Burnham’s roadmap to reconciliation in light of post-Burnham Guyana. He seemed to believe in it, thought not blindly.

Forbes Burnham...would have to be assessed by the public more than politicians, especially in light of power-sharing talks. It should force many to ask questions about surrounding details extending as far back as 1976; why did the PPP (not only Dr. Jagan) give “critical support” knowing its supporters disagreed? Did Burnham really want to work with Dr. Jagan; if so, was the domineering Mrs. Jagan the difference, as is almost always the case in PPP’s tarnished history? Why, after Teekah was murdered because, amongst other reasons, he was to be leader of PNC, did Burnham respond to the murderers by making Hoyte his successor? What did this mean? Did it symbolize Burnham upturning his socialist past by adopting a capitalist-oriented future?

And what of the “unity” blueprint his Working Group drafted? Burnham was too wearied be bothered by it, titled, “Some Tentative Proposals for the Formation of a United Fatherland Front of Guyana.” It makes one numb not because it defined the PNC as a party that had “been successful in winning” state power, but because it was filled with words imported from pre-WWII European socialist literature such as “vanguard” and “Front.” There is no mention of “democracy,” and one is easily reminded of the terrifying societies depicted in George Orwell’s novels, “Animal Farm” and “1984.” In Guyana, the “Front” is Big Brother and the “Fatherland” Oceania, a dystopian or stifling society.

Mr. Hoyte rightfully dismissed it, asserting himself as party leader. He ended the talks, which would have failed inevitably, for there was no role for Mrs. Jagan to occupy under the PNC. Mutual disrespect cannot replace mutual respect, and a government of

Col.Roberts during speech at book launch, NYC.

personalities simply cannot govern. But Burnham, having read E. M. Forster, would have known that he was at his “fag’s end”; and the reader sees this by Burnham’s absence in these chapters. And while Mr. Majeed is careful about this, we do get one important sighting.

On the evening of his operation, Burnham, arguably disturbed by the face of death, is anxious; and his anxiousness is disguised as anxiety over the Unity talks. Like all leaders, he is troubled best by the question of legacy. He insists that the talks succeed; after all, he worked hard at this once the Americans landed in Grenada. With death waiting, Burnham did what aged, dying people do—he hung on to the past—using the colonial argument that the “imperialist” was bad for the natives, so as to save his legacy. Or so it reads.

In the end, both colonials, Burnham and Dr. Jagan failed to see that their socialist vision was really our nightmare; and that in 1984-1985, many Guyanese would have welcomed the Americans without need for any invasion. Mr. Hoyte, Burnham’s successor did.



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