Researching Jonestown

Last week Minister of Foreign Trade Clement Rohee called on the PNC to disclose all they knew on the Jonestown tragedy. It was, of course, a political call made in a political context, and was intended to contrast the current transparency of the PPP/C in relation to the death squad issue, with the secrecy of the PNC in 1977-78. He is reported to have said that prior to the mass murder-suicide, only the government of the day and a few others knew that Jonestown existed, while the whole deal behind the settlement was shrouded in mystery.

Leaving aside entirely the matter of the current administration’s “transparency” in relation to the death squad, the Minister is generally correct in saying that the complete details behind the arrangements setting up the commune here have never been made available to the Guyanese public. It might be added, that neither has the full nature of the continuing relationship between Mr Burnham’s government and Jim Jones prior to November 18, 1978 been revealed. Mr Rohee is also correct in arguing that this information needs to be put in the public domain in a conscious way.

Having said that, however, it must be recognized that reams and reams of primary material, both documentary and audio/visual in character, was generated by the People’s Temple during its sojourn here (as well as before it arrived). And those myriad sources have sustained a minor industry in the United States, producing a host of secondary works of one kind or another, and keeping an unknown number of graduate students in thesis subjects. There is perhaps some reason for believing that the vast majority of those works hardly deal with the Guyana government angle at all, but since they are not available locally, one cannot be absolutely sure.

As far as sources relevant to the links between the Guyana administration and the People’s Temple are concerned, as is well known, the three critical men in the drama were first and foremost, Dr Ptolemy Reid whose project it was, then Mr Forbes Burnham who must have given it clearance, etc, and lastly, presumably, Sir Lionel Luckhoo. All of them are now dead, although whether any of them spoke in confidence to third parties about Jonestown is not known. However, it is not clear if any members of the current party have information which has not already been made public.

There will, of course, be individuals still around at a second-tier level, who either visited Jonestown for some reason, or who were sent in there after the tragedy, and their evidence will be important; how-ever, whether they will be able to throw much light on the issues mentioned above is doubtful. In any case, what would be required in the first instance is for a researcher to speak to everyone who ever had contact with the People’s Temple, direct or indirect, to see what details they could throw up which could supply leads.

Whether documents not yet made public have survived here is unknown, but at least it can be said that Jim Jones was obsessive about recording every detail connected to his cult. Any dealings with the Guyana Government committed to paper, or recordings made about conversations with officials, will surely be located among the Temple records in the United States.

As stated above, however, those records are voluminous; they can be found in various locations, including the California Historical Society and the San Diego State University Library. Recently, a private individual requested the State Department for copies of the relevant documents under its control, which included the cables sent by the US Embassy here to the department, and these were released.

There has been a campaign in the last few years in the United States for the 5,000 secret pages belonging to the House Foreign Affairs Committee report of 1979 to be made public. That committee published a 782-page report after the tragedy including material relating to Temple dealings with the local administration – which some Guyanese may well have seen – but withheld the larger part of their findings. The chief consultant to the committee later explained that this was done in order to protect sources.

The interest of Americans in the 5,000 pages centres on the question of whether there was any CIA link to Jim Jones, although this was denied as far back as 1980 by the House Select Committee on Intelligence. The interest of this country naturally has a rather different perspective. One must presume that the report in its entirety will be declassified eventually, but clearly that will be done in accordance with an American time-table, not a Guyanese one.

There is every likelihood, however, that even without the classified portion of the House report, a thorough researcher with a dispassionate approach could make some headway with the sources which are currently available. It would involve painstakingly coaxing testimony from oral sources locally and possibly outside, and in particular, it would necessitate combing through the documents and tapes in the United States.

What is, perhaps, unfortunate, is that Minister Rohee should have given his comments on the Jonestown issue such a political cast. As stated above, the PNC as currently constituted may or may not have much new data to offer. If any of the members do know something, however, they are surely not going to want to volunteer it after this. Contrary to what the Minister appears to think, the point of any research exercise on this topic should not be to demonstrate that the PNC government was not transparent; we all know it was not. The point of the exercise should be to find out what really transpired between the then administration and the People’s Temple. And that is best achieved by a low-key, professional approach, not by political polemics.


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Stabroeknews, Guyana
Nov. 25, 2004

Religion News Blog posted this on Friday November 26, 2004.
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