Mass murder, secret plots and
political assassinations in Guyana (1978-1980)

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The Jonestown tragedy

In the early 1970s when there were intermittent military manoeuvres by Venezuela along the border with Guyana, the PNC administration of Forbes Burnham moved quietly to strategically strengthen the western border. Apparently, the regime had been thinking of using the western Essequibo, particularly the North West District, as a buffer zone to halt any military aggression from Venezuela. It, therefore, without much information revealed to the public, arranged for the American preacher, Jim Jones, and members of his cult, the People's Temple, to settle in the North West District near the Barima River from August 1974. Jim Jones' settlement, called Jonestown, located not far from Port Kaituma, was secretly given autonomy by the Guyana Government, and it became, according to the Mirror editorial of the 21 November 1978, "a state within a state".

Leading members of the PNC government were closely associated with the People's Temple in Guyana which also publicly rendered political support to the activities organised by the ruling party. Members of the cult participated in PNC political functions and were also involved in breaking up a number of public meetings held by the PPP and other opposition groups.

On the 18 November 1978, three days before the Mirror editorial was written, 914 Jonestown settlers, including Jim Jones himself and a US Congressman, Leo Ryan, who was visiting the settlement to listen to the grievances of the cult members, perished in a shocking, bizarre murder-suicide operation. Apparently, Jones ordered the murder-suicide operation after a number of cultists decided to leave the settlement and return to the USA with Ryan. In the days that followed, Guyana Defence Force soldiers who were sent to Jonestown to assist in the removal of the bodies, discovered huge arsenals of highly sophisticated automatic weapons in the settlement.

According to the PPP and other opposition groups in Guyana, it was the intention of the PNC, not only to allow Jim Jones to carry out his shady deals in order to obtain strongly armed cultists to assist the regime in putting down any popular uprising, but also to use the settlement and the cult of causing Venezuela to think twice before it could invade Guyana. The reasoning behind this contention was the fact that the Jonestown settlers were in the overwhelming majority American citizens, and Venezuela would be cautious not to attack them or to occupy their settlement. In case of a Venezuelan invasion, the USA would be forced to support Guyana since American citizens would also be under attack. Venezuela itself would not want any military confrontation with the USA.

Shortly before the Jonestown murder-suicide, President Carlos Andrez Perez of Venezuela in October 1978 paid a two-day visit to Guyana, at a period when relations between Guyana and Brazil were becoming more and more friendly. His itinerary included a visit to Jonestown, but this was cancelled at the last moment. No reason was given by the Guyana Government for the cancellation of Perez' visit to Jonestown, but some media reports indicated that Venezuela was against the settlement of the People's Temple in that area. An editorial in the 30 January 1979 issue of the Mirror also expressed a similar view when it stated: "Another reason may be that Guyana did not fare so well during the last high-level meeting with Venezuelan President Perez, and failed to reach an agreement. The Jonestown affair had not made relations any better, particularly with the strong suggestions that Jonestown was set up with the consent of the Guyana Government as a buffer in the disputed territory."

In May 1979, the Caribbean Contact printed an extract of a lecture on the Jonestown tragedy, delivered at the University of the West Indies (UWI) Cave Hill Campus in Barbados by the UWI historian, Professor Gordon Lewis. Professor Lewis made the claim that the Jonestown commune could be seen as a deliberate attempt by the PNC regime to have the settlement act to firmly establish Guyana's ownership to the territory claimed by Venezuela, with similar motives as the Israeli's establishment of settlements on the so-called disputed West Bank of the Jordan River.

However, the PNC denied that there was any such strategy and maintained that the Jonestown settlers were agriculturalists intent on developing the interior. Two days after the tragedy - on the 20 November 1978 - the Guyana Minister of Information, Shirley Field-Ridley, admitted at a press conference that the followers of the People's Temple subscribed to some of the objectives of the PNC. The Government, she said, had no problems with the Temple whose members had "established a reputation for themselves as being good farmers, industrious and hard working".

A complete denial of the involvement of the PNC regime in the Jonestown affair was made by Christopher Nascimento, the Guyana Minister of State in the Office of the Prime Minister, in a letter published in the Caribbean Contact of June 1979. The letter was actually a reply to the extract of the lecture of Professor Gordon Lewis which had been published the previous month in that newspaper. Nascimento asked in his letter if "in historical terms, a legitimate parallel might not be drawn between the settlement of the Pilgrims in Massachusetts in 1620 and the People's Temple of Guyana in 1974".

The House of Israel

A fugitive from the US, David Hill, was given asylum in Guyana in 1972. He had fled Cleveland in 1972, while he was appealing conviction of corporate blackmail. Under a new name, Rabbi Edward Emmanuel Washington, he established a cult following of hundreds of members under a so-called religious organisation called the House of Israel. This cult, made up of Afro-Guyanese, bore striking similarities with that of Jim Jones' People's Temple. The House of Israel expressed its loyalty to the PNC and its members were involved in numerous violent acts against political opponents of the regime. Their actions included the violent breaking up of opposition public meetings, attacking anti-government demonstrations and working as strike-breakers whenever government workers went on strike for improved wages and better working conditions.

Murder of Father Darke

The year before, in May 1979, the Working People's Alliance (WPA), a small anti-PNC political pressure group, which was making inroads into the PNC Afro-Guyanese support, declared itself a political party with the primary aim of removing the PNC from power. The WPA, of which Dr. Walter Rodney, a renowned Third World scholar and historian, was recognised as leader, worked very closely with the PPP in organising the referendum boycott and in agitating against the PNC, even though it expressed tactical differences with the PPP in carrying out the struggle against the regime.

On the morning of July 11, 1979, the building housing the Ministry of National Development and the Office of the General Secretary of the PNC and the GUYSUCO building next to it were destroyed by fire. The government claimed that the fire was deliberately set and that the watchmen had been tied up and transported across Georgetown to a suburb on the East Coast, by men dressed in army uniforms.

Subsequently, Dr. Rodney and other leading WPA members, Bonita Harris, Kwame Apata, Maurice Odle, Omawale, Rupert Roopnaraine, Karen, de Souza, Walter Rodney and Davo Nandlall, were questioned by the police and subsequently charged with arson.

On the morning of 14 July 1979, the WPA leaders charged with arson appeared at the Georgetown Magistrate Court on Brickdam to answer the charge. A WPA-organised protest demonstration was mounted outside the court and numerous press photographers were observing and snapping pictures. Among them was Father Bernard Darke, a Roman Catholic priest, who also took photos for the weekly Catholic Standard, was also a high school teacher at the St. Stanislaus College located just across the street from the Magistrate Court.

Fr. Darke, taking his cameras with him, had gone to the college that morning and he took some shots of the WPA demonstration outside the Magistrates' Court and returned to the college. Shortly after, the WPA leaders, after being granted bail, were transported in a police van to the Camp Street prison where the police planned to release them away from the crowds.

The WPA demonstrators marched with their pickets along Brickdam behind the van, and as they passed the college, Fr. Darke came out on the street to snap more photographs. Suddenly, as the demonstrators passed the Brickdam Police Station, they were attacked by a group of young men, carrying staves, cutlasses and knives. The assailants were all members of the House of Israel. To escape the brutal attack, the demonstrators ran in all directions with many running into yards opposite the Police Station.

As people were attacked by the House of Israel thugs, Fr. Darke took photographs of what was happening. Then three of the gang turned on him and beat him with staves. As he ran towards the street corner, one of them then stabbed him with a bayonet in the back. Mike James, a journalist, and Jomo Yearwood, a bauxite worker, were also seriously wounded in separate attacks. Plainclothes policeman appearing on the scene fired two shots in the air to scatter the thugs and quickly made some arrests.

The police took Fr. Darke to the Georgetown Public Hospital, where he was given immediate attention. He was later transferred to the St. Joseph's Mercy Hospital and operated on by two surgeons to repair his damaged lung. However, at around 6:00 p.m. he died.

Subsequently, five men, all members of the House of Israel, were convicted in court for carrying dangerous weapons during their attack. However, they were given barely minimum fines. On of them, Bilal Ato, who stabbed Fr. Darke was charged with murder. His trial came up three years later and he pleaded "not guilty of murder" but "guilty of manslaughter." He was eventually sentenced by Justice Pompey to eight years in prison.

Murder of Vincent Teekah

One of the biggest cover-ups occurred when Vincent Teekah, the Minister of Education, was killed on the night of 24 October 1979. He died of a bullet wound and it was apparent that the shot was fired at very close range. Teekah was in the company of an American dentist, Dr. Oswaldene Walker, who lived in Maryland, USA and worked at Howard University in Washington DC. She was visiting Guyana as the private dentist for Prime Minister Burnham. Around midnight on October 24 she had arrived with the already cold body of Teekah at the St Joseph's Mercy Hospital in Teekah's car. There he was pronounced dead on arrival.

According to Dr Walker's story, two men had attacked them as Teekah was showing her the sights, and he had been shot while they parked on the East Bank Demerara roadside, just south of Georgetown. After calling for help, she reported that an Indo-Guyanese man had helped her to shift the body over from the driver's seat and he had accompanied her as she to the hospital. On Teekah being pronounced dead, she tried unsuccessfully to contact Prime Minister Burnham by phone. She then drove the car with the corpse to the Prime Minister's residence where she stayed the night.

Early the next morning, Dr. Walker was taken to the airport by Shirley Field-Ridley, wife of Minister Hamilton Green. There she was put on the flight which left for the United States.

Dr. Walker was the only known witness to the shooting, but her hasty removal from Guyana meant that she could not be questioned by the police. According to Fr. Andrew Morrison, writing in his book Justice, "the police should certainly have wanted to know how a shot fired from outside the car could have entered Teekah's right hip and travelled horizontally across his body and how the body could have been cold on arrival at the hospital if it had been brought there in about fifteen minutes after the shooting."

Morrison added: "Watchmen in the area where the shooting was supposed to have taken place reported that they heard two shots fired in rapid succession at about 11.30 p.m. that night, that a car had been parked in that area for some time and it started and moved off in great haste after the shots were fired. The hustling out of the country of the only reported witness and the silence of the police, apart from ruling out death by accident, drew widespread charges of yet another deliberate cover-up by the authorities."

The police ruled out accidental death by his own gun since the bullet that killed him was not from his personal the pistol which was found on him.

The plan to settle Cambodian refugees in Guyana

The murder-suicide of the 914 Jonestown settlers foiled any plan to use the settlement as a "buffer". However, the PNC regime, from December 1979, again secretly arranged with organizations closely allied with US political policies, to settle members of the Hmong tribe from south-east Asia in the Waini-Yarakita district north-west of Jonestown. The fiercely anti-communist Hmong tribesmen (also called Meos), had become "refugees" from Kampuchea (Cambodia) after they joined American, and later Chinese and other anti-nationalist forces, in fighting against the patriotic forces and their Vietnamese allies who were batting against the genocidal Pol Pot regime in Kampuchea (Cambodia). Apparently, here again, the plan was for the USA to offer assistance to the Hmong tribesmen and their PNC sponsors in resisting armed Venezuelan encroachment on Guyanese territory.

Lengthy protest articles on the proposed Hmong settlement issue appeared during April 1980 in a number of leading newspapers in Britain, Canada and the USA. The Mirror of 18 May 1980 stated that British journalist, Greg Chamberlain, in an article under the caption "Guyana Alert on Refugees" in the British Guardian stated that Venezuela had warned the Guyana Government not to go ahead with the settlement plan in what Venezuela said was a disputed frontier region.

However, the Hmong settlement plan backfired after the PPP discovered and exposed the secret agreement, and public outcry caused the Government to officially abort the scheme on the 6 May 1980. In exposing the scheme, the PPP pointed to the possibility that the Hmong could also be used to assist the regime in battling any popular uprising in Guyana.

Assassination of Walter Rodney

Meanwhile, the WPA continued to face severe pressure from the PNC regime. On 18 November 1979, one of its activists Ohene Koama, was shot dead by the police in South Georgetown. The WPA said he was unarmed and accused the police of murder. Then three months later, on 25 February 1980, Edward Dublin, another unarmed WPA member, was shot to death by the police in Linden.

This persecution against WPA leaders came to a head on the evening of 13 June 1980 when Dr. Rodney was assassinated by a bomb blast while sitting in his car with his brother Donald a few blocs from the Georgetown prison. Donald survived with minor injuries. The bomb was planted in an apparatus said to be a walkie-talkie set given to him by Gregory Smith, a sergeant in the Guyana Defence Force (GDF). Smith had befriended Dr. Rodney who apparently trusted him and, according to a statement by Donald Rodney, Smith had told them to test the apparatus outside the Georgetown prison. However, the Rodney brothers departed from this plan and parked their vehicle some distance away from the prison before Walter pressed the "walkie-talkie" switch which activated the hidden bomb. Interestingly, shortly after the explosion, the state-controlled radio gave a news flash that Dr. Rodney died in an explosion outside the Georgetown prison!

It was apparent that Smith was an agent of the PNC regime and had revealed the information that Dr. Rodney would "test" the equipment outside the prison. After Dr. Rodney's assassination, the GDF stoutly denied the existence of any Sergeant Gregory Smith in its ranks, and numerous statements issued by the Ministry of Information suggested that Dr. Rodney died accidentally when a bomb he had in his possession went off prematurely. And some PNC spokespersons, still believing that the explosion occurred near to the prison, even claimed that Rodney was attempting to destroy the prison walls to allow certain prisoners to escape.

Meanwhile, Gregory Smith was flown out of Guyana in an army helicopter on 16 June 1980 and several years later he was located by journalist Rickey Singh in French Guiana where he was working with a fishing company.

More than 35,000 people joined the funeral procession along the East Coast Demerara highway to Georgetown where his body was interred.

Protests over Dr. Rodney's assassination also came from all over the world, even from a number of governments including those of Michael Manley of Jamaica and Maurice Bishop of Grenada, as well as from the Communist Party of Cuba. Many statements from international bodies and even governments implicated the PNC in the assassination, but to these accusations, the ruling party issued strong denials of any responsibility.

30 September 2006