Don’t turn our backs on Surinam

1 December 2010

Don’t turn our backs on Surinam

This week Surinam celebrates thirty-five years of independence from the Netherlands. The development relationship which once existed between the two countries has come to an end, but the election of Bouterse as president stands in the way of transition towards a normal relationship of friendship between nations. Nevertheless, the Netherlands must not turn its back on the Surinamese people.

Harry van Bommel, Member of Parliament for the SP

Henck Arron, who was at the time prime minister, had, on its independence in 1975, big plans for Surinam. In his independence address on 25th November he said resolutely that he would no longer allow the wealth from the Surinamese ground to bring prosperity to others while the Surinamese people were left in poverty. “Our raw materials, but also our human energy and available capital, will be used exclusively,” he swore, “for the economic growth of the nation.”

This Surinamese dream did not, alas, come true. Right up to the present day profits from oil, gold, wood and bauxite flow, in large part, out of the country, and human capital seeped away in the years immediately following 1975. Almost half of Surinamese people live in the Netherlands.

Political relations between the Netherlands and Surinam have, since independence, come to depend completely on Bouterse’s position. When he was in reality pulling the strings, the Netherlands kept its distance, promised aid was suspended, and our prime minister stayed at home. Neither Lubbers nor Kok, who between them held the premiership for twenty years from 1982, ever visited Surinam. Though Queen Beatrix did receive the country’s President Venetiaan in 1992, she never, despite pressure, returned the visit.

n a diplomatic level such a thing, certainly in the case of a former colony, is unheard of. Immediately after Bouterse’s election to the office of president several Dutch local authorities announced that they would call a halt to work visits and aid projects. In that development cooperation isn’t a task for local authorities and work visits are often no more than jollies, I don’t in itself lament this, but it does give confirmation of the old knee-jerk reaction to Bouterse.

The Netherlands is so fixated on Bouterse because interference in Surinamese internal affairs did not come to an end with independence. Disappointment with the work of Surinamese politicians meant that our country played a role in Bouterse’s 1980 coup which has never been clarified. The December murders of 1982, in which fifteen prominent opponents were killed by the regime, were a bloody consequence of this coup, as was the civil war which lasted from 1986 to 1992.

Sooner or later in the trial concerning the December murders the role of the Netherlands in the early 1980s will come up, and hopefully Dutch witnesses, including the ambassador at the time and the military attaché, will be open about the matter. In Saturday’s Volkskrant, plans were described to have Bouterse arrested by Dutch soldiers in 1986, which looks very much like an attempt to right earlier wrongs. On this too complete clarification must be supplied by the Dutch side.

In relations between our two countries the Netherlands must put not Bouterse, but the Surinamese people in the centre. Given the presence of so many Surinamese Dutch people and the frequent traffic between our countries, that should be a matter of logic. Suriname, moreover, no longer receives general budgetary support and the country no longer belongs to the very poorest group.

Let the Dutch government therefore lay the emphasis on easier and cheaper travel between the Netherlands and Surinam, broader acceptance of each others’ students, researchers and scientists and the further development of cultural bonds, as suggested by the former editor-in-chief of this newspaper, Pieter Broertjes. Twinning projects between non-governmental institutions in the two countries should also progress. Governments can have troubled relationships with each other, but that is not to say that we should turn our backs on the Surinamese people. We have a shared history, a shared present and a shared future.

This article was first published, in Dutch, on the website of the daily newspaper De Volkskrant, on 24th November 2010

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