Twenty-six years after it occurred, the mass murder-suicide that took place in the jungle of Guyana continues to spawn movies, books and academic research.
The Jonestown tragedy in which more than 900 American citizens lost their lives is still considered one of history’s most catastrophic events.
Yet, onto this day the true story of Jonestown is not known, even though various theories have been advanced about the activities about this American commune located in the interior of Guyana, and which shocked the world on Nov. 18, 1978 when it was discovered that most of members of commune had either been murdered or had voluntarily drank a cyanide-laced drink.
The movies and the books on Jonestown have tended to concentrate on the cult‘s charismatic leader, Jim Jones. The documents released by the U.S. government have tried to give an indication of Jones’s fiery sermons and his views on a wide range of subjects. Very little work has been done, of course, on the relationship between the cult and the then government of Guyana that facilitated the virtual creation of a state within a state in our country.
Jim Jones, we know from his sermons, was a strong supporter of the ruling party and its socialist ideas. But apart from this, very little is known about Jones and his relationship to key figures of the ruling party whose support would have been absolutely critical to the continued activities of the cult in Guyana. Given the heavy hand that the ruling party exercised in the country in those days, it is difficult to imagine it not having a very close and intimate involvement with the sect.
When the news of the Jonestown tragedy broke, it shocked the world. But for Guyanese, the shock was a double blast because very few knew about Jonestown. The vast majority of Guyanese only learnt about this commune when the terrible news of the tragedy was unveiled, and even then the government of the day tried its utmost to limit the flow of information to the local population.
In a matter of days, however, Guyana was teeming with international journalists, and as time went by more and more information became available. At the time, Jonestown was considered one of history’s worst human tragedies. Yet the government of the day never instituted a commission of inquiry into this terrible tragedy, which stained Guyana’s name on the international age. Such a precedent of not holding a public inquiry is unknown in modern times.
Recently, the Minister of Foreign Trade and International Cooperation, Mr. Clement Rohee, called for those who have knowledge about the Jonestown tragedy, to come forward and say what they know. This call is, however, likely to fall on deaf ears because those who might have been intimately involved at the political level or would have had some knowledge about the goings on at Jonestown, are either dead or unwilling to speak.
But there is sufficient academic, human and political interest in the Jonestown tragedy to stir a renewed campaign to find out all facts of this terrible tragedy.
Jonestown remains one of the country’s darkest and most protected secrets.
The closet on Jonestown and the many other unanswered questions about that dark age in our country’s history needs to be opened to the revealing light of transparency.
When the PPP/C government took office in 1992, the Cabinet records could not be found. There were secrets to be hidden. These secrets need to be brought out into the open because Guyanese need to put behind them that awful period and to move on having drunk from the chalice of the truth.
It is not too late for an international commission to be established which will seek to work locally and within the United States to research what happened 26 years ago and how Jonestown came to be a relatively unknown state within a state in Guyana.
There is sufficient interest in the United States, which would allow for support and funding for this project and in the interest of knowing the truth about Guyana’s past, such a project should be immediately undertaken.