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Information about political violence in Suriname

Background

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).

Amnesty

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:

  1. The government should formally acknowledge the victims and survivors of political violence as a group for which policy has to me made.
  2. The government should support a trajectory of truth finding into political violence in which all perspectives and experiences should be taken into account.
  3. The government should offer formal apologies for not being able to prevent it and participate in it.
  4. The government should offer reparations for material and immaterial damages.
  5. The government should offer trauma consultancy to the victims and survivors.
  6. The government should set up a commission to investigate the missing persons in the interior war (military, rebel fighters, civilians) and arrange proper reburials.
  7. The government should set up a commission that produce educational material for the educational system in which all perspectives of all participants are included.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

Future

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

Humphry Jeroe

President of the Committee of Victims and Bereaved of Political Violence in Suriname

Tel: 8744486

Email: comiteslachtoffer@gmail.com/jeroe.hu@live.nl

 


 

 

 

Correspondence between Sandew Hira and president Desi Bouterse

Open letter from Sandew Hira to president Bouterse

The Truth sets us free

Honorable President Bouterse,

You have been elected as president of Suriname in a democratic manner. At the end of your new term as president you will be 75 years of age; an age to reflect on your legacy on the history of Suriname.

We don’t know each other personally. We’ve never met before. We share a drama: the December murders of 1982. My brother, John Baboeram, was then tortured and killed in Fort Zeelandia under your responsibility. It has marked the life of my father and mother, and our entire family, for the rest of their existence. Their grief has always been an overwhelming burden to me. And not least because of the tension between my love for my parents and my political and moral views.

You view February 25th as a revolution. I view it as a military coup with contradictions from left and right. Shortly after the December murders I was called by a civil servant of the Dutch Ministry of Home Affairs. He invited me to a meeting with ex-president Chin A Sen. In that meeting Chin A Sen asked me to speak out in favor of a military operation that he would conduct with the CIA. He would organize a press conference with everyone who would support him at Schiphol airport before leaving for America. I refused to join him.

For my dear parents this was an incomprehensible decision. Their pain longed for justice. I know very well that my answer was completely unsatisfactory to them. I gave a political reason for my decision. I would never support any action of the CIA, because their actions have never served the interests of the oppressed in the world. I also gave a moral reason: the military actions of the CIA would lead to the deaths of innocent civilians in Suriname, who also have a father and mother. The political reason was misunderstood, the moral seemed to appeal a little bit more to them. To their question “What is the alternative” I replied: “Nonviolent Action”. Despite their admiration for Mahatma Gandhi, they attached little importance to that strategy. The tension between my love for my parents and my political and moral views coincided with another pain, the pain of principles.

In the following years I worked intensely with the late Fred Derby for the restoration of the constitutional state in Suriname. That came about thanks to the efforts of many forces in Suriname. In 1987 the first elections were held. In 2015 your party won the last election with a majority.

In the past 33 years the December murders remained hanging as a dark cloud over the Surinamese society in and outside Suriname. Much has changed in that period. Over time, former opponents of yours have become allies. Paul Somohardjo and Ronnie Brunswijk are just two striking examples. Attempts to hold you accountable for the December murders through legal means have gone nowhere. In that process the amnesty law has played an important role. There too I had to experience the pain of principles.

On one side there is a group of surviving relatives – supported by political forces in and outside the country – who advocate for a legal process. I understand their emotions. On the other side your government – where Somohardjo and Brunswijk were a part of – granted you amnesty in advance and established a truth commission afterwards. That commission has gone nowhere.

I advocated for a process of truth finding as an alternative for a legal process and against a law that granted amnesty in advance.  I did not receive praise for this. Both processes were not able to drive away the dark cloud. And that cloud places negative tensions upon our society. Relationships between people at all levels – politically, economically, culturally etc. – are still influenced by the position they take in relation to the December murders.

That division will remain as long as no process to work past these experiences takes place. Finding the truth is an important part of this process. The truth sets us free. It puts us in a position to tell each other: even if we do not agree about how we judge the past, the fact that this past will not be covered up, is sufficient to turn this black page in our history and jointly build a new future for our communities in and outside Suriname. It will do us good in many respects: politically, economically, culturally etc.

The key is in your hands in this process. In light of the failure of the truth commission, I therefore present you the following proposal. That proposal consists of five points.

You provide, in an extensive and comprehensive interview with me, a testimony about the events in which you were involved, and in which violence has been a determining factor. I explicitly do not limit those events to the December murders. It is not about processing my personal grief, but about processing the grief of many people who needed to deal with violence running up to 25th of February and afterwards, including the December murders, Moiwana and the civil war (on both sides). For me it is not about violence in the context of personal relationships, but to understand the social and political context of what happened, why decisions have been made as they were taken and how those decisions are assessed afterwards. The testimony is your story. It is not a discussion with me. It is not a court. It’s about finding the truth.If such an interview is not prepared well, you could tell me anything. The value of that interview is not very high. Therefore, I suggest that in preparing for this testimony, I will conduct an intensive research on this period with a team of people over some months to get the facts listed that will be the foundation for the questions of the interview. The research will be based on public sources, interviews with people and archival sources within the government apparatus. It is not limited to the December murders but covers the entire period, including the events leading up to February 25th. I suggest that your government cooperates in making the archives available within the public administration (archives of the ministry of justice, the army and home affairs). Based on the research I will prepare the questions for your testimony. I suggest that we take as much time as needed to go through the testimony, even though it may take several days. I realize that a president of a country will not be able to just take off a few days for an interview, but I believe that this issue is crucial to the future of the relations within our society, even long after you have changed temporary life with the eternal.

Based on the research and your testimony I will produce a report for the public with the research findings and your entire testimony. I will deliver the report to the Speaker of the House and will make it available for download via Internet so that everyone can review it. The sources (underlying documents and videos of our conversation) will be made available to the National Archives of Suriname so that future researchers are able to review them.

If this idea does not suit you, you don’t have to do anything. If it appeals to you, I propose that in reply to this letter you appoint someone from your administration to start up this process with me and that you announce this in a public statement. The entire process will be transparent. I will regularly report on the progress of the process via the media.

Such a process is costly. I don’t ask your government for money. If your government offers money, I will refuse it. I will ask our society for financial contributions. If these do not come, I will still continue. The research will need to be independent in all aspects.

I have thought long and hard about whether I want to do this. Emotionally this is a heavy burden. The idea that I will be sitting in the same room with you — man-to-man, face-to -face — is almost an unbearable thought. The idea to shake your hand at a meeting, like every civilized person ought to do, evokes strong emotions in me because that thought mixes with memories of my father and mother and their intense grief. I ‘m not sure if I would be able to do this if it had not been my brother, but my child.I’m not looking forward to it. After this process we will not be friends. We will not visit each other and share our feelings and thoughts about life. After this process both of us will go on with our own lives. I do not know what this will mean for you personally. I know it will mean a lot to me, and for large sections of the society of which you are president: it will free us from a mental knot where we have been stuck now for decades.

Sincerely,

Sandew Hira

Reply of president Bouterse to Sandew Hira

Dear Mr. Sandew Hira,

Last week I read your letter about truth finding regarding what you call “a drama which we share together; the 1982 December Murders “. Like you, I also call it a drama. I do say that there are many events, since 1980, and even before, which ultimately led to this drama. That’s why I call it the “December events.”

Like you, I have called this drama, on several occasions in the past the “Black page in our history”.

I do not know if you want to hear it at this moment, but do know that I understand your pain and grief and that of your parents, your family, as well as that of other relatives. We are all human and none of us would want to go through this pain and sorrow, none of us wish another this pain. Neither do I. And yet it did happen.

When the “Group of 16” took over state power in February 1980, I never imagined how dangerous it was to be in power. There were many entities in our country who saw their power, and therefore their influence, slip away in front of their face. At that time I was not aware of these (hidden) interests and far-reaching reactions that would follow.  The period of euphoria of the revolution and the change that it would bring about, had not even passed and these reactions already started shaping the events, often behind the scenes. Time after time evil plans, counter coups, interventions of foreign intelligence agencies, threatening scenarios of violence, planned attacks by assassins and infiltrators from outside, against me and my companions; some also have been implemented. However, not only from the outside, even within the “Group of 16”, some have been bribed by offering them visas and gifts, with the aim to interrupt the initiated process of revolutionary change. You yourself speak about Chin A Sen and his request to you at the Ministry of Home Affairs in the Netherlands, to express support about a military operation with the CIA to be undertaken in Suriname. You refused, because you do not cooperate with the CIA because of your political principles. You refused, because innocent people would die. You stand for non-violent action. I regard you as a patriot. Others during their turn have made other decisions. Surinamese got caught up in a struggle against Surinamese because of and with the assistance of foreign forces. Systematic destabilization. A more intensified power struggle. You could cut the tension. The feeling of fear in the country was everywhere. I knew that we needed to preserve and protect Suriname for the Surinamese. A black page did arise unintentionally. I managed to survive it. But the costs for Suriname were high.

I tell you honestly, I did not understand it, we did not understand it, less our wives, children and parents who knew that our plans were always in favor of Suriname. I never had other intentions than to create a better Suriname. I did not know how to do it. I did know that it was a must! We were all soldiers and did defend ourselves when needed and when we were force to do so, often with the same sources of those who wanted at any price to remove us from power. Already at a young age (34 years) my life had been radically changed. I lived constantly between dead and alive. Should I continue? Should I abandon my people? Should I choose for another life without worries? No, there was no return. As a soldier and leader of the people there is only one way and that is the defense of country and people, therefore I persisted in my struggle for a better future for the people of Suriname. This would be my life till dead with all the dangers involved.

I was able to acquire a lot of experience during the last 35 years and many insights about how inhuman and merciless the effect of power can be. And many times I had firsthand experienced of this. I have gone through the deepest valleys, and attacks to overthrow us continued, but I’ve also been successful because of the support of the people.

Now I am President; I need to be there for the entire society. I can barely imagine what it must be for the bereaved family to see me in this position. At the same time, I must as President, but also as fellow Surinamese, be there when my people or sections of them do have problems, and undergo pain and sorrow. I want to be there to help solve or lighten these problems and emotions. I too have made several mistakes in my life with different healing processes over time. Your proposal is balanced, focused on solutions to be able to move forwards as a people and geared towards the future. Such a proposal to work on truth finding did not come in this form before. Unfortunately, I never initiated it. Is it true that nothing comes before its time? Maybe then this is the moment.

Hereby, I want to tell you that I accept your proposal to turn this black page in our history through truth finding. For you and me this will be an emotional journey. But Suriname has the right to the truth, the right to closure and healing, so that we can move on as nation.

With respect and appreciation,

D.D. Bouterse

25 July 2015, Paramaribo