Suriname, a former colony of Holland in South America, near Guyana, became politically independent in 1975. On February 25th 1980 amidst political turmoil a group of 16 non-commissioned officers staged a coup d’état that overthrew the elected government that was accused of corruption. The coup left three persons dead. Suriname entered a phase in her history in which the use of violence became part of political conflicts.
Subsequently a process took shape in which forces from the left and the right were involved in a struggle for power both within the military as well as in society. The process became more complicated with the involvement of international forces (USA, Holland, Cuba, Brazil). Desi Bouterse emerged as the main leader of the revolting military.
Between 1980 until 2017 there have been twelve cases of political violence with coups, attempted countercoups and other efforts to engage in political violence.
The most important cases with the biggest impact are the actual coup led by lieutenant Surindre Rambocus that almost succeeded in taking over the country in March 1982, the attempted coup in December 1982 that led to the arrest and the killing of 15 members of the opposition (left and right) and the Interior War between 1986 and 1992. The Interior war was a full scale guerrilla war supported by the Dutch government with 31 million guilders (US$ 27 million) that left almost 450 people dead. The war was supported by the families of the victims of the December 1982 killings. In 1992 a peace accord was reached between the government and the guerrilla forces.
Meanwhile in 1987, after seven years of military rule, parliamentary democracy was restored and the first elections took place that brought the old regime back in power. Bouterse had set up a political party – the National Democratic Party (NDP) – but gained only 3 of the 51 seats. In successive elections the influence of the NDP increased steadily to the extent that in the last two elections the party won state power by democratic means with Bouterse as the president. In the last election of 2015 the NDP got the absolute majority of the parliamentary seats (26 out of 51).
The successive governments tried to deal with political violence through amnesty. In 1980 a civilian government was installed a few weeks after the coup, that gave amnesty to those involved in the coup which lead three people dead in the first amnesty law.
In 1992 after the peace accord in the Interior War the government adopted a second extended amnesty law that gave amnesty to the guerrilla fighter, but not the military. The amnesty did not include the December killings. The amnesty law also provided in the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission, but this never took off.
In 2000 the families of the December killings started a judicial process against those responsible for the December killings. In 2012 the government led by Bouterse adopted a third amnesty law based on the second amnesty law and included the December killing. But the judiciary discarded the amnesty law and went ahead with a trial.
Dialogue and reconciliation
In 1993 Henk Herrenberg, who was affiliated to Bouterse, started with the first efforts to get a process of dialog, reconciliation and truth finding under way, but it failed.
In 1998 the Organization for Justice and Peace in cooperation with the Inter American Institute for Human Rights organized a conference with the title “Truth and Justice: in search for reconciliation in Suriname”. It did not lead to anything concrete.
From July 22 to 28, 2012 an OAS fact finding mission met with representatives of the Government of Suriname and different sectors of the Surinamese society to look into this matter. In 2014 the Government of Suriname, in collaboration with the National Assembly and with technical assistance from the Organization of American States, organized a Conference on “International Experiences on National Dialogue,” on March 5 and 6, 2014 in Paramaribo, Suriname.
The Surinamese community is faced with a dilemma: how to deal with human rights abuses as a result of social and political antagonism since February 25th 1980? Is the judicial system an instrument of justice and peace or does it add to the tensions in society and possible result in social explosion with much more violence and death? Is truth and reconciliation another path to achieve justice? What are the mechanisms of dealing with violence as a result of social and political pressure?
The families of the 8 December Killings and their supporters, including the Dutch government, have been very vocal, nationally and internationally, in rejecting a process of dialog, reconciliation and truth finding.
A new initiative
When the NDP won the elections in 2010, the parliament passed an amnesty law with the provision to install a truth commission after amnesty has been given. The truth commission never took off, because the opposition did not cooperate with the government.
The December killings and the civil war has created deep divisions in the Surinamese society. Politicians could not come up with a solution for this problem.
The result of political violence
Since 1980 at least 450 were killed in these conflicts. Internationally the most well known cases are the 15 persons executed in December 8 1982 and the 39 civilian victims of the village of Moiwana in November 1986 during the Interior War that lasted from 1986-1992.
However, a minimum of 450 persons have died as a result of political violence, among them 72 army members. The overwhelming majority were civilians. Some of the most horrific killings took place during the interior war and included beheading, burning and chopping to death by rebel groups and atrocities committed by the army.
For many decades the voice of the majority of victims and bereaved were never heard. Most of them kept their grievance, anger and hate amongst themselves. Many of the victims of the interior war held the families of the December 1982 killings responsible for their sorrow. The families organized the logistic, military and financial support for the interior war. Recent archival research showed their involvement and the role of the Dutch government that financed the war with NF 31 million.
Project testimony of president Desi Bouterse
In 2015 Sandew Hira, pen-name of Dew Baboeram, a columnist and public intellectual and a brother of one of the lawyers who was executed in the December killings, called upon the current president of Suriname, Desi Bouterse to cooperate in a trajectory of truth finding regarding the December killings. The president reacted positively to this call.
See the correspondence between Sandew Hira and president Desi Bouterse here.
In November 2015 Hira had an eight hour interview with him that dealt with all cases of violence, including the December killings and his role in those killing. The interview was recorded on video and broadcasted by national television. It is still available on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1312h6s6REU&t=8s.
The president also gave Hira unlimited access to sources of the government including the army and the intelligence services to conduct his research into political violence. In his research he saw the link between the December Killings and the Interior War. Hira visited the sites of military confrontation and talked to many victims of the War.
In Holland Hira got permission from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs to conduct research in the archives of the Ministry regarding Suriname. Hira also studied the proceedings of the court case on the December killing.
The result of his investigations was published in January 2017 in Dutch in a 416-page book (in Dutch, the official language of Suriname). It was the first systematic attempt at truth finding in Suriname regarding political violence.
It was also the first time that the voices of the majority of victims of political violence in Suriname was heard.
Committee of Victims and Bereaved of Political Violence
Some victims and bereaved took the initiative of contacting Hira and starting a dialogue. Hira was considered to be part of the families they held accountable for their suffering. That dialogue resulted in the establishment in February 1st 2016 of a NGO foundation – the Committee of Victims and Bereaved of Political Violence in Suriname. The committee consist of victims and bereaved of political violence. Hira is also a member of the Committee.
The Committee started with a series of activities.
First they wanted to organize a National Day of Mourning. The idea came from the experience in 1995, where the current president of the Committee, was personally involved. The village of Pokigron, where he was born and lived, was burned down in 1989 by the rebel army. The people involved in the burning came from surrounding villages who had joined the rebel army. The war ended in 1992, but the division, antagonism and resentments were clearly there, especially at Atjoni, a central place where villagers met each other in the harbour. Fear for escalation that might end in new violence led to the initiative of a regional day of mourning and commemoration. The village could have chosen for the option of a court case to bring the perpetrators to justice. But they felt that this would only add fuel to a situation of potential conflict. Dialogue would be the only way to get a sustainable peace. The day was organized on June 30 1995 and led to a considerable alleviation of the tension.
When the Committee was established they took the initiative in organizing a national day of mourning on June 30 2016. It was attended by 1.500 people. They want to institutionalize it as a permanent annual event. In 2017 they organized the second edition with the same attendance.
Second, they try to develop a relationship with organizations in other countries that have dealt with political violence. In November 2016 they invited Stanley Henkeman, director of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in South Africa for a visit in Suriname. Henkeman met different people, went to visit villages in the interior, gave a lecture and concluded an agreement with the Committee on establishing mutual relations. Henkeman observed that there are two venues in Suriname that commemorated political violence and they are hardly 300 meters of each other. One is the Fort Zeelandia where the December killings took place and the other is the monument for the victims of the Interior War. Henkeman pointed to a similar situation in South Africa where the government decided to build a bridge to connect the monuments. They took that idea and are now calling upon the government to connect our locations with a path of reconciliation. On December the 8th 2016 they walked from the Monument of the Interior War and ended at Fort Zeelandia to reflect and pray. At the National of Mourning in June 2017 they walked from Fort Zeelandia to the Monument of the Interior War.
Third, they argue for a formal recognition in law of the victims of political violence. To that end they have drafted a law that would stipulate the following:
- The government should formally acknowledge the victims and survivors of political violence as a group for which policy has to me made.
- The government should support a trajectory of truth finding into political violence in which all perspectives and experiences should be taken into account.
- The government should offer formal apologies for not being able to prevent it and participate in it.
- The government should offer reparations for material and immaterial damages.
- The government should offer trauma consultancy to the victims and survivors.
- The government should set up a commission to investigate the missing persons in the interior war (military, rebel fighters, civilians) and arrange proper reburials.
- The government should set up a commission that produce educational material for the educational system in which all perspectives of all participants are included.
- The government should support a national day of mourning on June to commemorate all the people who were killed during the year as a result of political violence.
- The government should facilitate the collection of stories of victims and perpetrators of political violence. They should provide a name and a face for those who never had a name and face in the national memory.
- The government should facilitate dialogue and meetings between victims one the one hand and between victims and perpetrators as part of memory building and healing.
Fourth, in order to get the law passed they wanted to show that there is popular support for our work. They have started a campaign to gather 10,000 signatures among the population in support of the law; 10,000 is a lot in a small population of 500,000. Besides, never before has anyone tried such a campaign. They started on January 23, 2017. Our goal is to present 10,000 signatures at the Day of National Mourning on June 27th. They ended with 70% (7,030 signatures).
Fifth, they want to set up a trajectory of meetings and dialogue. Political violence have impacted different groups: Sandew Hira has documented 12 cases of political. The biggest number of casualties was in the case of the Interior War. Several groups have been involved in political violence, among others the military, the different rebel groups, the civilians from different villages, the family of the December killing, Holland, European mercenaries who where contracted to fight in the interior ware and who died in Suriname.
On several occasions the Committee has invited the families of the December killings to sit together to start a dialogue, but to no avail. On February 8, 2017 the Roman Catholic Church, who operates in close cooperation with the 15 families of the December killings announced that they would like to initiate a process of dialogue. On February 10, 2017 our Committee sent a letter to the bishop extending a hand for dialogue. The bishop has invited Hira for personal talks and the committee for organization talks in the week of August 1-7th 2017. The Committee and the bishop have decided to stay in conversation despite the disagreements they have.
At the National Day of Mourning the former leader of the Jungle Commando, the main rebel group, accepted our invitation to attend the day of mourning. He even made a financial contribution in covering the costs of transportation for groups from the interior who wanted to attend the ceremony in the capital.
In November 2017, the Moiwana Foundation, a group that is fighting for the interests of the victims of the village of Moiwana, where the army killed 39 civilians, invited our Committee to attend their commemoration. In January 2017 the board of the committee had a long meeting with the board of the Moiwana Foundation. They discussed our differences and common interest. The Moiwana Foundation is in favour of using the court to get justice. Despite our differences they are still in dialogue.
Family members of another rebel group, Tucajanas, started a conversation with us on how to move forward with the difficult process of dialogue and peace.
The unique aspect of the process of truth finding, dialogue and reconciliation in Suriname is, that the whole process is not state-driven as in many other countries. The whole process started from below, from the victims themselves.
Contact information of the Committee
President of the Committee of Victims and Bereaved of Political Violence in Suriname