Guyanese remember Jonestown
--- on 25th anniversary of world infamous murder-suicide debacle
A GINA article
November 18, 2003
Twenty-five years ago today, in a jungle clearing in Guyana's northwest, the noxious postule that was Jonestown erupted.
Its excrescence spread across Guyana and the entire world. For the Co-operative Republic, it brought a notoriety our country could have done without. And for the then People's National Congress administration, it set a new high of duplicity and opaque government.
It was on the evening of November 18, 1978 that 909 people died in a frenzy of suicide and murder at the People's Temple enclave.
The Guyana Government was seemingly so stunned by the Jonestown horror, that while news wires around the world hummed with the tragic drama in the Guyana jungle, Guyanese were not officially informed about the nightmare until days later.
A special issue of the Chronicle newspapers on December 6, 1978 detailed the horror of the Jonestown mass suicide.
In his report, Neville Annibourne wrote," It was the most nightmarish experience of my life... the scenario played out on a remote blood-spattered airstrip, amidst whistling bullets, shrieking voices and falling bodies, as twilight engulfed the surrounding jungle".
From the beginning, there were strong indications that the Guyana Government and the People's Temple had a strong working relationship.
Six months after the tragedy, the findings of a U.S. House of Representatives report on Jonestown confirmed this relationship, and stated that this was particularly so in the areas of Customs and Immigration.
The Report read: It is obvious that a special privileged status allowed the People's Temple to bring items into Guyana outside of the usual Customs procedures, often with cursory inspection at best. Many shipments were inspected perfunctorily or not at all. It is likely that People's Temple brought large shipments of money and guns into Guyana. As a matter of fact, some of these concerns were expressed by Guyanese officials.
Immigration procedures were also compromised, to the advantage of People's Temple, chiefly in two areas.
Firstly, People's Temple members were able to facilitate entry of their own members, or inhibit the exit of defectors by having access to Customs areas at Timehri Airport closed to all other citizens. Secondly, clearly arbitrary decisions were made to curtail the visas and expedite the exit of individuals regarded as opponents of People's Temple.
In the matter of a custody case involving John Stoen, whom Jones was charged with abducting from his parents, the House of representatives report said inconclusive evidence showed that unknown officials of the Guyana Government may have taken action to influence the outcome of the case proceedings in the Guyanese court system.
The Report also referred to testimony from some witnesses that suggested the support extended to People's Temple by then Prime Minister and Minister of Development Dr. Ptolemy Reid was born of an ideological compatibility with an endorsement of the Temple's socialist philosophy. While such support was exploited in the sense that it had the ultimate effect of furthering People's Temple's objectives, it did not appear to be generated for illegal reasons.
The House of Representative Report stated finally that the refusal of the Guyana Government to meet and talk with its Staff Investigative Group precluded the confirming or dispelling of various allegations with regard to the Jonestown and the Guyana Government.
"There is no doubt in our mind that our inability to interview Guyanese Government officials leaves this report with a conspicuous void," the Report concludes.
Now, from the Opposition benches, the Opposition People's National Congress is making a song and dance about the need for transparency in the Government.
This could be considered laughable, were in not for the deep human tragedy, which the non-transparency of the former PNC Government led to on that night in November 1978.
It could be that if Jonestown and what it really stood for, and what was being played out in that jungle clearing, had all come out in the open, that the tragedy might not have taken place.
We tend to defend ourselves by saying it was an American tragedy played out in the Guyana jungle. But we cannot escape the fact that the whole tragedy was facilitated by a government so bent on taking care of itself that it pulled a veil of secrecy tight around Jonestown, and allowed the cancer to fester until the eruption.