GEORGETOWN, Guyana (AP) — It has taken more than 30 years, but the government of Guyana has erected a memorial plaque at the site of the Jonestown cult massacre, a dark episode the South American country had long sought to downplay.
A simple, white stone plaque was unveiled with little fanfare Wednesday at the jungle clearing where more than 900 members of the cult led by the American preacher Jim Jones died in a night of mass murder and suicide on Nov. 18, 1978.
The government of Guyana had resisted creating a memorial, believing it would be a distasteful reminder of an incident that brought a grim fame to the impoverished and sparsely populated former British colony. But officials relented for this year’s anniversary of the event.
The plaque says only, “In memory of the victims of the Jonestown tragedy, November 18, 1978, Jonestown, Guyana.” It is about 25 minutes from Port Kaituna at the edge of the compound that the cult had officially named People’s Temple Agricultural Project.
The Government Information Agency (GINA) reported yesterday that Minister of Tourism, Industry and Commerce Manniram Prashad who unveiled the plaque with the assistance of Charge d’ Affaires of the United States Embassy, Karen Williams, described the tragedy as cruelty to the highest extent and urged that people remember this event so that it will not be repeated.
Jonestown was the informal name given to the People’s Temple Agricultural Project which was set up in the northwest of Guyana formed by an American cult led by Jim Jones.
It became internationally notorious when on November 18, 1978, 914 people died in the settlement as well as in a nearby airstrip. The Temple members died from cyanide poisoning in an event termed revolutionary suicide. The poisoning in Jonestown followed the murder of five others by Temple members at the Port Kaituma airstrip.
The minister said that during a previous visit to the Port Kaituma area, residents had requested assistance in clearing the area since many visitors go there to pay respects.
The Working People’s Alliance (WPA) says while the public continues to be baffled by the events that led to the Jonestown disaster, it was important to note that the tragedy could have been avoided if not for political interference in the judicial process.
The WPA said while questions continue to arise about the purpose of the Temple, what is clear is that Jim Jones and his group were allowed to establish a settlement by the PNC government in Guyana’s interior and there was little governmental oversight of the operations of that organisations. It is also clear that the Temple “had acquired considerable influence among certain political officials in the then government who among other things, attempted to influence the course of justice.”