A Unique Form of Truth and Reconciliation – The case of Suriname


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.

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 aligning himself with leftish forces in the Caribbean (Grenada, Cuba). He was criticized by adversaries from left and right for his wavering positions. Attempts at counter coups and political polarization created an explosive situation in 1982. Under the responsibility of Bouterse 15 members of the opposition (left and right) were arrested, tortured and killed. Between 1980 and 1987 the military ruled the country. In 1987 the first parliamentary election was held and was won by the opposition. Bouterse had set up a political party – the National Democratic Party (NDP) – but gained only 3 of the 51 seats.

In 1986 a civil war started in the interior of Suriname led by a group called the Jungle Commando under the leadership of Ronny Brunswijk against Bouterse and his army and condoned by the elected government. In 1991 a peace treaty was conducted by the conservative government. An amnesty law was adopted that absolved the participants from war crimes that were committed during the war. Some 426 persons were killed in the civil war, among them 72 soldiers. A specific case was the massacre in the village of Moiwana in 1986 where 39 persons were killed, among them women and children. The December killings of 1982 were left out from a general amnesty. The same goes for the Moiwana killings where the military personnel (representing the official government) were left out he Amnesty law from 1991.

In successive elections Bouterse’s NDP influence increased steadily to the extent that in the last two elections his party won state power by democratic means. In the last election of 2015 the NDP got the absolute majority of the parliamentary seats on an anti-colonial platform. They passed an amnesty law that pardoned Bouterse.

The bereaved from the victims of the December killings strived to bring Bouterse to justice through the judicial system. A law case was countered by an amnesty law. Further judicial procedures are pending.

The burning question

Now the Surinamese community is faced with a dilemma: how to deal with human rights abuses (torture, murder) as a result of social and political antagonism since February 25th 1980 (including the murders committed in the civil war)? 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?

Different trajectories have been proposed by politicians. Some parties are in favour of bringing Bouterse to justice through the judicial system and at the end take the risk of a  new violent explosion when he would be arrested. In that case USA and Holland would be asked to intervene militarily.

Others favour going through the judicial system but at the end give Bouterse amnesty. The NDP favours an amnesty law followed by a truth commission.

Sandew Hira, pen-name of independent scholar Dew Baboeram and brother of the executed John Baboeram in the December killings, proposed the concept of a truth commission with the power to give amnesty. Hira resides in Holland, where a large community of Surinamese live.

See CV Sandew Hira: https://iisr.nl/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/CVSandewHira.pdf.

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 have created deep divisions in the Surinamese society. Politicians could not come up with a solution for this problem.

Testimony of the president

When Bouterse again won the elections in 2015, Sandew Hira, in a open letter to the new president, made an appeal to come clean with the December killings and all cases of violence in the period from 1980 in a personal testimony.

The testimony would be conducted in an interview with the president by Sandew Hira. In preparation of the interviews Hira would conduct a thorough historical investigation of the period 1980-2015 based on several sources: archives, public sources and oral testimonies of victims, visits of the locations of executions in 1982 and during the civil war, and interviews with victims, their families and perpetrators.

Open letter from Sandew Hira to president Bouterse, July 20, 2015

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.


Sandew Hira


Reply of president Bouterse to Sandew Hira, July 25 2015

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

Developments 2015-2016

Political reactions

Since the independence of Suriname in 1975 the political struggle in Suriname took place in a complex panorama of colonial and anti-colonial forces, ethnic mobilization, pro- and anti-imperialist forces and the threat of coups and foreign invasion. In dealing with the legacy of political violence a pressure group in Suriname and Holland was organized speaking in the name of families of victims of the December 8th murders. Another organization spoke on behalf of the victims of the massacre at Moiwana. Families of the other victims of the civil wars had not established an organized voice when the project started.

Immediately after the publication of the reply of the president political forces from different sides started mobilizing against this initiative. Some supporters of the president argued that the project was a way to undermine his political position. His adversaries argued that a conversation is not needed, because it should be done in the court of law.

Transparency, discussion, debates and education

In order to facilitate the public debate an information infrastructure was set up:

The interview with the president

The interview with the president took place on Saturday 28th and Sunday 28th of November 2015. The six-hour interview was broadcasted on national television without editing and is available on YouTube.

During the interview differences of opinion between Hira and the president led to a heated conversation during which Hira argued that the president knew more than he was willing to recount. The president replied by giving Hira the assurance that he would the security services and the army to cooperate with the investigation and after that he was willing to grant a second interview based on the result of this investigation.

A second interview is planned in October 2016.

The voices from the civil war

During his first visit in August 2015 Hira went into the interior with a group of soldiers from the army to visit the locations where fighting took place during the civil war. During three days he went into the Amazon rain forest to get a view of what the civil war was like. There he heard the stories about the horrors of the war from the perspectives of the soldiers.

He wanted to do the same trip with a group of the former Jungle Commando. They refused.

He had a meeting with the bereaved of the soldiers who were killed during the civil war. Initially they accused Hira of being preoccupied with the December Killings. Later on they proclaimed their willingness to work together on a trajectory of reconciliation. When he published his findings civilian victims from the civil war contacted him to provide information and offered help in the project.

The Committee of Victims and Bereaved of Political Violence

This all led to the formation of a Committee of Victims and Bereaved of Political Violence with representatives of different sections of society that were involved in political violence. The committee aims to united people from different sides of the struggle and set up a trajectory for truth and reconciliation. The Committee has set up a series of demands to the government:

  1. The government should acknowledge the victims and survivors of political violence as a group for which policy has to me made and establish that in law.
  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, guerrilla fighters, civilians) and offer proper burials.
  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 the 30th to commemorate all the people who were killed during the year as a result of political violence. The first Day of National Mourning was organized in 2016 by the Committee with the support of the government.

30 June 2016: National Day of Mourning

On June 2016 the Committee with the help of the government organized the first National Day of Mourning. At 12.00 the state radio stations called for one minute or silence. The flags on public buildings were lowered down.

The program was between 17.00-19.00 hour and consisted of prayers, stories told by families of the victims, reading a list of the names of all the people killed as a result of political violence, speeches by the organizer and the president and music of mourning.

Around 1,500 people attended the event.


More information

Sandew Hira: sandew.hira@iisr.nl