Harry van Bommel, Friend of the Surinamese people

16 July 2012

Harry van Bommel, Friend of the Surinamese people

At almost every important Surinamese activity in the Netherlands, he is present. In clear and straightforward language he gives his opinion about Surinam and about Surinamers in the Netherlands. In Parliament, he has fought for years for improvements to the social and economic position of the Dutch Surinamese. On sensitive subjects, such as the making public of dossiers from the troubled 1980s, he speaks out in powerful tones against the Dutch government. He is now widely known as ‘de Suriname-vriend’ – the friend of the Surinamese people.

Harry van BommelFifty-year-old Harry van Bommel is the son of a teacher and a nurse, one of five children. ‘I was born in the Catholic south of the country where I passed a carefree youth. After my military service I originally chose the same profession as my father, becoming an English teacher in vocational education.’ He combined this with local activities for the Socialist Party (SP) in Amsterdam. 'My hunger to know more about politics led during this period to a course in political science, which I successfully completed in 1994 with a thesis on Surinamers in the Netherlands. In that same year I became the first SP member to be elected to Amsterdam council, and went to work as a policy advisor to the SP’s Parliamentary group.’ He has been a full-time politician ever since, though he has never lost his love for education, and regularly gives talks in secondary schools and universities.

'After several years of being active for the SP on the local level, I was elected in 1990 to the district council of Amsterdam East. Four years later I was voted on to the City council itself, and Jan Marijnissen, SP leader at the time, asked me to become an adviser to the Parliamentary group, the party having just entered Parliament for the first time, winning two seats. That proved outstanding training when four years later in 1998, I became an MP. I’ve now been in Parliament for fourteen years and after the election on 12th September I will even become the longest-serving Member. In the past it was perfectly normal for people to remain in Parliament for longer than ten years. Now it’s an exception. That’s not good for parties’ parliamentary memory. The risk exists that they will become inconsequential.'

First contact with Surinamers
'At primary school I already had friends of Surinamese origin. During the 1980s I followed events in Surinam avidly, without, I would add, having any political ambitions of my own. The Netherlands and Surinam were then and will always remain closely linked to each other through our common history and by dint of the fact that people of Surinamese origin live in the Netherlands. My political involvement with Suriname as an MP began with my interest in its history of slavery and my anger over the high air fares between Amsterdam and the Surinamese capital, Paramaribo. As the SP’s spokesman on transport issues I put this question on to the political agenda and the SP won’t rest until tariffs are reduced to what is normal. Passengers are still paying far too much for these flights.’

Friend of the Surinamese people
'I see it an honour that I have been named a Friend of the Surinamese People. In 1995 I went to Surinam for the first time and stayed five weeks. I travelled to the interior and also visited Galibi. Since then I have returned to Surinam on numerous occasions. Aside from my political work, I have always also felt an attraction to Surinam in a cultural sense. There are a lot of Surinamese writers on my bookshelves and I have put together some nice photo albums of my trips through Surinam. As far as nature and landscape are concerned it is of course a paradise on earth. It’s my dream to take one more time a long ride through Surinam by bicycle. After I retire I’d love to go and live there but unfortunately as things stand my retirement isn’t getting nearer but further away. According to some parties the pensionable retirement age must be raised as quickly as possible to sixty-seven and after that be increased along with life expectancy. I’m completely opposed to this. It’s almost impossible now for people over sixty to find work.'

Enjoyable cooperation
'Just like Dutch people Surinamers come in all shapes and sizes. Those with whom I work in the Netherlands and in Surinam are all socially involved. Some are in politics, others try to influence politics from without. What strikes me about most Surinamers is that they are often have outspoken opinions and they’re happy to tell you what they are. In addition, of course, with most you can have a real laugh. Perhaps humour is more comfortable in the tropics than in a maritime climate such as we have here in the Netherlands.’

The Surinamers’ Position
'Things aren’t too bad for Surinamers in the Netherlands, at least they’re much better than they were in the 1980s. You can see Surinamers in all sorts of positions and that certainly hasn’t always been the case. What concerns me, however, are older Surinamers who don’t qualify for a full pension. They often live in poverty and can’t make ends meet. Old people should not have to live in poverty – they helped to build the country in their younger years. One way or another that shortfall in the pension must be addressed. Surinamers are in a different position from guest workers from Morocco and Turkey. Most Dutch Surinamers have, after all, always lived in the Kingdom of the Netherlands (which until 1975 included Surinam). 25,000 live in Amsterdam South-East, where teenage pregnancies and school dropouts are still a problem. More attention must be paid to this, a task for the local authorities. I’d also like to see the divisions in the Surinamese community reduced. Together you are always stronger and this gets results.’

Van Bommel says that he feels close ties to Surinam and to Dutch Surinamers. ‘I am of course often in the Surinamese community. Two years ago the SP organised a whole series of Surinamese gatherings in six major cities. We did this in Surinamese style, with speakers, music, snacks and drinks. These were very successful and greatly strengthened our bond with the Surinamese community.'

Van Bommel is No 4 on the SP candidate list for the parliamentary elections on 12th September. He has, also, a message for the Surinamese community. 'Dutch Surinamese people traditionally vote Labour. The coming elections are, however, becoming a two-sided contest between the SP and the centre-right liberals of the VVD. Both of these parties have led in the polls for months. What we want is to govern with the Labour Party, with the majority completed by a third party. If voters go for the SP this would give the greatest chance of there being a left coalition and we could therefore attack the crisis in a social manner. If the VVD is the biggest, the Netherlands will become a bit less social. The VVD even wants you to have to pay €350 euros for a house call from a doctor, and raise the ‘own risk’ element of any medical costs from €220 to €350. You won’t find the SP making such proposals.’

Surinamers in the Netherlands could, he argues, expect a great deal from the SP in government, including on matters which relate directly to their community. ‘We will certainly ensure that there is more competition on the Amsterdam-Paramaribo route, bringing down fares. For people with inadequate pension payments we will make sure that these are topped up to minimum income level without the stiff rules governing a minimum income being applied, such as limitations on the amount of time which may be spent abroad, or first having to use up the value of your dwelling. In some local government areas this has already been instigated, but this should be guaranteed on a national level. These have become extremely important elections, truly a choice between social and liberal. It’s precisely in times of crisis that you must ensure that people on low incomes are not expected to pay the bill for this crisis.’

Development in Surinam
The MP still plans to spend his retirement in Suriname. 'I have still, however, to work fifteen years so who is president there then we shall have to see. I’m of the opinion,anyway, that Surinam’s progress cannot be held back, no matter who the president is or who is in the government. Development in Surinam can best be judged from Surinam itself. In the Netherlands we have too ready an inclination to take one aspect and subject it to close scrutiny. Of course there is a lot of debate here regarding the Amnesty Law but the Netherlands is in no position to sound off about this. In Parliament I have brought pressure to bear for many years regarding the amnesty granted to Dutch soliders who carried out massacres of civilians in Indonesia. To this day cases are being brought against the Dutch state, whose response is to call on the Statute of Limitations. More generally we can see that Surinam is directing itself more towards integration in the region and cooperation with surrounding countries, which for me is a development to be celebrated.'

Government post
If the SP gains governmental power, Van Bommel is tipped for ministerial office, specifically for the post of Minister of Foreign Affairs. 'Whatever position I may take after the elections, I’ll always direct my effeorts towards a warm relationship between our two countries. The special relationship which we have deserves to be better maintained. Cooperation in the form of twinning projects must in the SP’s view continue. There should be more initiatives taken in health care so that older Dutch Surinamese people can go back and remain insured. I’d also like to look with Surinam at how more use could be made of the talents present in the diaspora. That would be good for Surinam and strengthen the relationship between our two peoples. I am also a keen supporter of promoting Surinam as a holiday destination. Further development of tourism could offer Surinam a great deal.'

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