Monday, January 16, 2012


My latest trip took me to Suriname...

Many people outside The Netherlands don't know where Suriname is, so If you're also scratching your head wondering 'Suriname???' know this:

It's an ex colony of England and then The Netherlands (since 1667), gained independence in 1975 (peacefully, with consent), about 20 times the size of The Netherlands, but with only some 500.000 people living there (compared to 16.7 million in The Netherlands) and it's located in South America.

Basically it's one big city (Paramaribo), - which is also the capital - two smaller cities, and a lot of jungle. It sits more or less on the top of Brazil, with the Atlantic Ocean on the other side. Its neighbour countries are French Guiana on the right and regular Guyana on the left (I believe that's former British Guiana), next to which you can find Venezuela and then Colombia...

Suriname was formerly known as Dutch Guiana, but I don't know when the name change took place (quite a while back I suppose).

Their current president is Desi Bouterse.

The relationship with The Netherlands I'd describe as troublesome.

Throughout history the Dutch weren't very pleasant when they invaded countries. Slaves in Suriname were being treated notoriously cruel on the plantations and Suriname was low on the attention scale of the 'home' country.

The Netherlands was more busy with Indonesia and the east.

Some of the slaves fled into the jungle, where they were helped by the indigenous people (native South Americans). Collectively they became known as 'Maroons' (or 'Marrons' in Dutch), a term still being used in Suriname today. The now very politically incorrect term 'bosneger' or 'forest negroe' was used in earlier days for the Maroons.

The Maroons established their own culture and they fought back, and the Dutch were forced to negotiate peace treaties with them. Because when the Maroons raided a plantation, sometimes the family running it would not survive such an attack.

The Netherlands never formerly apologised for their actions and history regarding slavery, and that's just one of the sore points still being felt in Suriname.

Maroons (Saamaka) performing a traditional dance, with drums and singing in the background...
Berg en Dal, Suriname, 4 January 2012

Click on photo for the full version...

After independence in 1975, The Netherlands still tried to control the situation in Suriname with a big bag of money (3.5 billion Dutch guilders - 1.5 billion US dollars - spread out over 10 to 15 years), which was used to set up big projects, amongst others being run by Dutch companies. Part of that money floated back into Dutch society through these Dutch companies or vaporised into thin air by failed investments.

The then Surinamese government wanted to spend the money elsewhere, but five years into the independence, in 1980, with the conflict about the money rising, there was a military coup, led by sergeant Desi Bouterse.

Rumours have it that The Netherlands actually supported Bouterse - or even suggested the idea of a coup to him - because they were unhappy with the Surinamese government taking control over the money.

A report has been made by the Dutch government, about the Dutch role in the events of 1980, but the report is classified 'top secret' and it will not be published before 2060.

Obviously security measures like these do not inspire confidence that The Netherlands is guilt free. Bouterse has never confirmed (nor denied as far as I know) a role of The Netherlands in his military intervention of 1980.

After the coup, things got progressively worse, culminating in the murder of 15 opposition members (lawyers, politicians, union leaders) in 1982 by the military (also known as 'the December murders') in Fort Zeelandia.

Fort Zeelandia on the right, quite idyllic until you know what happened inside in December 1982, when 15 opposition members were murdered behind those walls, under the rule of the military junta (1980 til 1987)...
Paramaribo, Suriname, 2 January 2012

Click on photo for the full version...

Desi Bouterse now stands trial for these murders. He took responsibility as then military leader, but he always denied giving the order, claiming subordinates took matters into their own hands without orders from him. The trial is still ongoing and opinions in Suriname differ about the role of Desi Bouterse in these murders.

Bouterse (then not president yet) was also convicted in absentia (he wasn't present) in a drug trial in The Netherlands, and sentenced to 11 years jail. A lot of people felt it was a politically motivated trial. As a consequence, president Bouterse has to be careful when travelling, because if he enters a country with an extradition treaty with The Netherlands, he might be arrested.

An official visit to The Netherlands as president of Suriname is unthinkable, and obviously that's not a very fruitful situation, causing a lot of diplomatic tension once more between the two countries.

The military junta reinstated democracy in 1987 and Bouterse was elected president in 2010.

Well, that's just a few issues in the history between The Netherlands and Suriname on which these countries don't see eye to eye. Issues which influence present day and the way the people of Suriname look at their white Dutch visitors.

The countries are also bound by the Surinamese themselves. A lot of them left Suriname before it became independent and settled in The Netherlands, which inspired a lot of flying up and down to visit relatives on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Some younger Surinamese still divert to The Netherlands for its universities.

Surinamese are friendly and courteous, but you also sense a suspicion, a reservation, a sort of wary 'let's wait and see if this bakra knows how to behave and how long it takes before he puts his foot in it'...

Seeing our entangled history and the sometimes arrogant Dutch attitude, I can't blame them, although I have to add that it's never pleasant to be stereotyped in advance.

If it were up to me, official apologies would have been made years ago by the Dutch government. But as with Indonesia, the Dutch are too afraid it will cost them money. The Dutch war crimes in Indonesia in Rawagede required a Dutch judge to force the government to pay compensation to the now handful survivors. The Dutch don't like to be reminded that part of their wealth was gathered by plundering, enslaving, warfare and that other parts of the world payed the price...

I do think however that showing awareness in countries like Suriname and Indonesia, being aware of the sensitivities, accepting their ways and reacting accordingly, goes a long way and is appreciated. It's especially the typical arrogant attitude - we Dutch know better - they are fed up with in Suriname, after 300 years of being enslaved and dominated... something which should not be too hard to understand...

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