Burnham does not deserve the Order of the Companions of O R Tambo

Dear Editor,

Reference is made to your very sympathetic editorial titled ‘Burnham Award’ (Sunday Stabroek, April 28) endorsing a planned South African Oliver Tambo honour for the struggle against apartheid (that was subsequently withdrawn) to the late oppressive dictator Forbes Burnham. Let me applaud the paper and those who engaged in the exchange on whether Burnham was deserving of the award. Contrary to Sunday Stabroek’s view, Burnham does not deserve the award. He was a bigot and a hypocrite in addition to being a colonialist and a supporter of imperialist forces disqualifying him for such a prestigious honour.

Accabre Nkosi, an African man, wrote a pamphlet during the 1970s in which he showed how Burnham was a rank colonialist, racist and an imperialist destroying the African spirit of freedom and independence.

The literature is replete with commentaries on how Burnham collaborated with imperialist forces and conspired against Guyanese during the freedom struggle delaying our independence. It was bigotry to oppose racism in South Africa but practise it in Guyana. As the US government State Department consistently reported and as Prof Arthur Schlesinger also wrote, Burnham was a racist. Many seem to forget that Guyana was also described in the international press (Washington Post, Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, London Mail, etc.) as a mini-apartheid state. During the early 1980s, Sir Shridath Ramphal as head of the Commonwealth Secretariat carried out an unrelenting struggle to isolate South Africa because of its racist policy of apartheid. In response, the London Times, Financial Times and Daily Sun carried scathing editorials criticizing Ramphal’s hypocrisy for  “condemning apartheid in South Africa but remaining silent on apartheid in Guyana” (the newspapers’ own words). The Wall Street Journal ‘Review Outlook’ and the Washington Post all had editorials condemning the Burnham government for practising racism. There was also an article in a prestigious journal (name eludes me) titled ‘Communism, racism and apartheid rule in Guyana’ that carried a criticism of Burnham’s racist rule. These articles were reproduced and distributed by myself and members of the Guyana freedom movement at the India Independence Day parades on Madison Avenue (Pandit Ramlall, Vishnu Bandhu, Dr Ravi Dev, Dr Ramharack, Vassan Ramracha, etc, took part in those parades.) An Indian diplomat came up to our group and shook our hands applauding us for our activism and telling us the headline of one of our handouts ‘Apartheid in Guyana’ was “most appropriate saying he was posted in Guyana and never experienced anywhere the kind of racial oppression as practised by the Burnham PNC regime.” He added: “You guys are right about apartheid being practised in Guyana.”  He quietly advised that we “put pressure on the Indian government and on the international community to take actions against Guyana.” And I never forgot the conversation that Dr Jagan had with Dr Thomas Abraham, head of GOPIO, describing Guyana as “a mini-apartheid state.” Dr Jagan implored Abraham and other executives of GOPIO, “You all have to do something about the struggle against the apartheid situation in Guyana.”

In light of the above, is it not hypocrisy and bigotry of Burnham to take up the cudgel against apartheid in South Africa while practising it as head of another nation? How then could Sunday Stabroek or anyone with some degree of morality justify an award to such a racist personality when the award is meant to honour those who fought against racism?

And the Sunday Stabroek editorial seems to have forgotten that Burnham was the illegal head of the state.  He anointed himself as leader through electoral fraud (denying ethnic groups the right to vote – not very dissimilar from how Africans and other ethnic groups were denied the ballot in South Africa) and therefore Burnham had no right to determine what assistance should be given to the freedom fighters in Southern Africa. Guyana was/is an ethnically divided state.  It was wrong for Burnham not to consult with over 60% of the population that rejected him in elections on the issue of opposing apartheid rule in South Africa. They may very well have supported his action of granting money to the liberation fighters. But Burnham’s action was controversial when over 60% of the population felt racially victimized in Guyana. And the mere fact that he ran an illegal government and denied Whites, Indians, Amerindians, Coloureds, etc, the right to their vote disqualified him for an award.

The editorial claimed that Burnham consistently fought against apartheid in South Africa. That is not accurate as during the 1960s we did not hear from Burnham against apartheid. His nemesis, Dr Jagan, on the other hand, was very consistent. Burnham did take an active interest against apartheid rule in South Africa during the 1980s, but not but not with much sincerity.  It was the fashionable thing to do at the time by all Third World Leaders and these actions came after he murdered (not before) Dr Walter Rodney and other revolutionary figures of the WPA as well as after he placed on trial some among the top leaders of the party. Burnham carried out anti-apartheid acts with the hope of shifting attention away from the heinous murder of the great Rodney who was so much admired by progressive African freedom fighters, including Oliver Tambo and others in the ANC.  In short, Burnham sought to hoodwink African revolutionaries after the assassination of Rodney, Father Bernard Darke and others who were involved in the freedom struggle in Guyana.

Several freedom fighters, Eusi Kwayana, Clive Thomas, David Hinds, Omowale, Ogunseye, Omowale, Maurice Odle, Nigel Westmaas, Fr Malcolm Rodrigues, Fr Bernard Darke, Wazir Mohammed and his brother Aleem demonstrated bravery and indomitable spirit in denouncing the PNC government that practised racism and political victimization. Side by side with those figures were some outstanding Indians, Moses Bhagwan, Nagamootoo, Paul Tennassee, fighting against racist oppressive rule. I was deeply involved in that struggle against apartheid racism in Guyana and I will forever respect and admire those involved in the anti-racism movement; none of them would endorse Burnham for the award.

Sunday Stabroek feels that being a dictator should not disqualify Burnham for the award because Sukarno of Indonesia and Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, both of whom were not dissimilar in their oppression of their people, were honoured by the South African government. There is a major difference: Sukarno and Nasser did not practise racism or ethnic prejudice (not to the extent to which Burnham did anyway).  I visited Indonesia several times and all religious faiths (including Hinduism, Christianity, and Buddhism) and ethnic groups (Chinese, Malays, Javanese, etc) were not persecuted in the same manner as groups in Guyana.  The Chinese and other minorities did not live with an abiding fear of official state persecution or denied food relating to their cultural diets as happened under the Burnham state.

On the point about Burnham’s contributions to the African liberation movement, no one was a greater liberation fighter against apartheid and minority rule than Robert Mugabe.  He was a hero to many of us young Turks studying revolutions (at CCNY) and looking to make revolutions or fight injustice. I helped organized a lecture for the Mugabe Education Minister at CCNY. Mugabe turned out to be an oppressive, racist dictator.  Would anyone in their right mind honour Mugabe for an award?

Burnham’s track record was worse than Mugabe. So why should Burnham qualify for an award? Idi Amin and Baby Doc Duvalier also opposed apartheid. Would anyone nominate them for the award?

Endorsing Burnham for an award disrespects the valour of those who fought against racism. It sends a wrong message that one positive act can erase a thousand negative deeds;  that it is okay to oppress your people and institutionalize racism if you follow up with a financial contribution from the state, not spending your own money as we did when we fought apartheid, to fight racism somewhere else.

Yours faithfully,
Vishnu Bisram

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