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Wednesday, February 08, 2006
The Burnham initiative for shared government
In the recently published book entitled Forbes Burnham, National Reconciliation and National Unity 1984-1985 (Global Communications, NY 2005) Halim Majeed former Deputy Chief Political Adviser to President Burnham has described in great detail what he calls the Burnham initiative, namely the series of carefully conceived measures through which Burnham sought eventually to share government with the PPP. The Initiative came to nothing as it petered out after Burnham's sudden death.

Proposed National Unity government, in its latest incarnation of shared governance, is, so to speak, only fitfully on the agenda. Yet it is useful to study the earlier efforts. And let it be said at once that Majeed's short book (143 pages, lavishly annotated and with a comprehensive bibliography) is a path breaking and useful contribution to the study of the recent, so often tortuous political history of Guyana.

Thucydides, one of the greatest of historians, contended that the only true observer is the participant. Majeed indeed writes as an insider, one who was actually helping in the process. But he also achieves a measure of objectivity as since he left active politics he has been in academic life in New York and has had the time to reflect in tranquillity on events. He is now a senior Research Fellow at City University of New York. It should also be recalled that he was, like so many others in the PNC top brass at that time, a former member of the PPP.

In a foreword Professor Bonnett, also of City University of New York, draws a parallel between an initiative of President Kennedy "in holding backdoor discussions for a rapprochement with President Castro of Cuba which ended when Kennedy was assassinated and Burnham's initiative on power sharing which failed when the latter died." Burnham, like Kennedy, Bonnett writes, "died before it could be accomplished and his successor on my view neither had the inclination nor political gravitas to continue this formidable venture."

It will be recalled that Majeed's book has already been noticed editorially in a Guest Editorial, SN January 17, in which the writer quotes a book on the IMF and Guyana which argues that Burnham's motive in seeking 'national unity' was "To force the IMF into modifying the conditionality demands." It argues that Burnham initiated "negotiations with the PPP to create a coalition government for the purpose of demonstrating 'national unity' in the face of the proposed Reagan-IMF austerity measures."

Aware that the IMF is dedicated to the establishment of capitalist and market economy it would be surprising if Burnham seriously considered that joining with the even further left PPP could influence the IMF to his advantage. Indeed Majeed records that Burnham viewed the IMF "as an unrestrained tool of imperialism trying to dismantle the socialist state which he was pioneering..." (page 14).

Yet it is the case that the late Dr Tyrone Ferguson, also writing as something of an insider, notes "The fact is that, in appointing a new Finance Minister in 1983, Burnham's primary charge to him was that he should work towards the normalisation of relations with the Bretton Woods institutions" (Ferguson-Structural Adjustment and Good Governance, the Case of Guyana, Pg 25).

The situation is puzzling. As in many spheres of political action the motivation may be at several levels, levels which may be in contradiction with each other.

This writer believes that the main motive for the initiative was the preservation of the security of the state to protect against invasion and intervention. The invasion of Grenada the previous year left a sense of ever present threat and foreboding. It is moreover known that even before that the US measures to remove the dead bodies from Jonestown had caused alarm as it was felt that it could easily topple over into intervention. After all, numerous US citizens and a congressman had been killed while to quote Majeed it was realised that "given the existing national milieu shaped by the historical realities of ethnic cleavages, political differentiation, cultural affinity and occupational preferences, the People's National Congress all by itself would find it difficult to truly build the Guyanese nation and mould its destiny." It is considered, then, that the overarching motivation was security. This is borne out by the argument which was outlined in a letter reprinted in the book which Dr Ptolemy Reid, Chairman of the PNC, wrote to the PPP to initiate the discussions. The letter argues inter alia: "In our analysis we noted that imperialism has intensified its world wide offensive. President Reagan's promise to `roll back the forces of communism' has precipitated a certain course of action ... With regard to the Caribbean and Central America our analysis concedes that imperialism has carved out an aggressive policy which includes military options... Above all in blatant disregard of the norms of international behaviour and in direct challenge to the principles of the United Nations Charter and the Non-Aligned Movement, there took place a military intervention in the sovereign state of Grenada. With reference to Guyana we believe - as all empirical evidence shows - that imperialism has operationalised more devious and subtle strategies. These range from terrorist tactics (e.g. the Cubana murders, the bombing of the Guyana Consulate in Trinidad, the arming of mercenaries etc) to economic aggression and propaganda warfare." It was on the basis of the foregoing analysis highlighting security problems that the PNC extended the invitation to the PPP for some form of political cooperation and unity.

It was considered that national unity could provide a shield against intervention. Moreover, the cooperation of the two socialist parties was more likely to ensure that the socialist bloc countries would provide strong diplomatic support. Majeed records that the Ambassadors in Georgetown of the Soviet Union, the German Democratic Republic and Cuba were briefed from time on the progress of the talks.

More importantly than bringing influence to bear on the IMF, even far more importantly than building the nation, the overarching motive for the initiative was clearly the security of the state.

Majeed describes in great detail the proposed consultative mechanisms to implement the coalition as no constitutional amendment was involved; the careful preparation for and the location of talks and for the keeping of records. He notes an important difference in the approach of the two parties; while the PNC entrusted negotiations to a small group of close advisers, the PPP preferred to put the matter in the first instance to party groups.

Majeed notes in passing that Burnham had "extraordinary human intelligence at all levels of the PPP and its various arms and agencies". At another juncture he notes that the Police Special Branch Intelligence Reports had disclosed that there had apparently emerged in the PPP two factions, a pro-unity and anti-unity group.

At the same time to ensure an atmosphere suitable for dialogue the PNC's official organ, the New Nation, was instructed to cease publication of attacks on the PPP while the Office of the President took steps to ensure that PPP affiliates including the Mirror were facilitated in their operations.

There is no doubting the deep sense of commitment in the endeavour. Majeed himself was deeply involved. After President Hoyte decided to abandon the initiative he writes movingly of "how a silent, subdued pessimism overshadowed the last meeting and of how after the official discussions, Mc David, Feroze and himself stood in the balcony of Parliament Building and spent some time talking about more personal matters and of course the future of Guyana."

Majeed does not say much of why President Hoyte abandoned the initiative. He writes, "On his accession to the Presidency he clearly acknowledged the changing temper of the times and sought to down play the ideological and political imperative which had transformed Guyana into a flash point of tension".

But was it a sudden change; after all Hoyte was Prime Minister and had been closely associated with all the policies of the government. In Ferguson's invaluable book already quoted he records on the basis of interviews with key cabinet figures who were relatively close to Hoyte at the time that "crucially though during the last phase of Burnham's rule it was apparent that Hoyte had held a different position from the one being pursued, regarding the solution of the economic crisis. This was not a publicly expressed view, and it was evident to some of his Cabinet colleagues at the time" (p.57).

The unity talks, Burnham's sudden death and its aftermath are a period of crucial importance in understanding Guyana current history. Halim Majeed has put scholars and thoughtful citizens in his debt by writing this important memoir. But one urgently needs to hear the other side of the story. One hopes that the PPP participants in the dialogue will now follow suit.

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