THE 1965 INDEPENDENCE CONFERENCE
Close this window to return to the main menu
Previous Chapter Next Chapter
On 15 July 1965, Greenwood announced in the British Parliament that the conference to fix the date for independence would begin in London on 2 November. Ironically, Duncan Sandys, who vehemently opposed independence when he was Colonial Secretary, suddenly as a member of the opposition in the British Parliament, began to press the British government to grant independence to Guyana as early as possible.
The leaders of both the PNC and UF, erstwhile opponents of independence when they were in opposition, also now changed into strong proponents, and presented themselves to audiences at home and abroad as long-time freedom fighters. They even told their audiences that the PPP opposed independence, and this caused Jagan to issue a statement on 17 July that the PPP continued to be in complete support for Guyana's freedom from colonial rule. However, Jagan stated, the British government should resolve some outstanding problems before the beginning of the independence conference. These included the lifting of the state of emergency and the release of all political detainees. He explained that the state of emergency suspended all fundamental constitutional rights of the people, and that even members of the National Assembly were being held in detention. He also called for a political settlement involving the PPP which he said represented the views of the majority of the population.
At the beginning of October 1965, Burnham and Jagan met to discuss the agenda for the independence conference. Little progress was made at this meeting because Burnham refused Jagan's request to end the emergency and release the political detainees. As a result, Jagan issued a statement on 5 October 1965 announcing that the PPP could not attend the independence conference unless the emergency was lifted and the detainees released. He added that a Constituent Assembly should be set up to fashion a constitution for an independent Guyana. This, he said, would ensure the inclusion of fundamental rights of citizens in the independence constitution, and would also help in the achievement of a "broad political settlement."
Jagan also called upon the government to inform the Guyanese people as to what plans it had to protect the borders and the territorial integrity of Guyana. This crucial issue was one of the matters he felt should be settled even before the beginning of the independence conference.
The PNC-UF government as well as the British government refused to budge on any of Dr. Jagan's demands, with the latter in particular adamantly refusing to help resolve the differences between the Guyanese political parties. As a consequence, the PPP decided to boycott the independence conference. In a letter to Greenwood refusing his invitation to attend the conference, Dr. Jagan pointed out that agreements reached at the 1963 constitutional talks were not upheld, and that the British government had provided all assistance to the coalition government to oppress the majority of the Guyanese people.
In response, Greenwood appealed personally to Dr. Jagan to attend saying that he should not "throw away the chance of sharing in the vital decision affecting the future of the country."
Dr. Jagan again declined, and reminded Greenwood in a letter on 29 October that he was discharging his duty to the people of Guyana by not lending support "to the formal promulgation of decisions already taken and which are gravely inimical to the interests of the Guyanese people". Dr. Jagan in a prophetic statement warned Greenwood that the British government had "a grave responsibility in deciding whether this country moves towards a dictatorship of the Latin American type."
With the PPP not attending, Greenwood tried disparately to obtain some form of opposition participation. At the last minute, he invited the two PPP defectors in the legislature, Sheik Mohammed Saffee and Moses Bhagwan, to attend the conference, but they also declined.
Just a few days before the conference began, a draft constitution prepared by the coalition government without any input from the people, was published in Guyana. Absent from it were many of the reservations and safeguards Burnham had forcefully argued for at the 1962 independence conference when he was Leader of the Opposition.
The independence conference began on 2 November and by the 7 November agreed that independence would be granted on 26 May 1966. The British government quickly agreed to the draft constitution which was adopted after very little discussion. Independence was, thus, handed over to the PNC-UF government without any reservations by the British government, which only up to a year before had stubbornly resisted granting independence when the PPP was in power. In doing so, it complied with the wishes of the American government not to grand independence until a pro-western "friendly" administration was in power in Guyana.
Shortly after the conference ended, Burnham returned to Guyana and received a grand welcome by his supporters who, only a year before, had stoutly opposed independence.
The PPP immediately welcomed the granting of independence, and in a statement issued on 19 November, expressed concern over the British government's failure to work out a real and lasting solution to Guyana's political problems. While it greeted the announcement, the Party declared it had no misconceptions as to the type of independence being ushered in - independence subservient to American imperialism - and declared that it would intensify the struggle "for a political settlement and genuine independence of the country."