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.
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,
25 July 2015, Paramaribo