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. In 1991 a peace treaty was conducted by conservative government. An amnesty law was adopted that absolved the participants from war crimes that were committed. 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 holds good 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. The 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 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.
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.
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 a three-days interview of the president by Sandew Hira. In preparation of the interviews a research team will conduct a thorough historical investigation of the period 1980-2015. The investigation takes several sources into account: archive, public sources and oral testimonies of victims, participants and bereaved of the victims.
The results of the investigation and the testimony of the president will be published as part of the process of finding justice in getting the truth.
The president has accepted Hira’s proposal.
Hira’s appeal and the president’s reply are in the appendix of this press kit.
Hira resides in Holland, where a large community of Surinamese live. From August 3-15 we was in Suriname to set up a team to conduct the research on processes of violence since 1979.
The investigation is now in full swing. Private donors are making it possible.
The president has agreed to a three-day long interview with Hira in his vacation residence in the interior of Suriname from November Friday 27 – Sunday 29th 2015 of November. The end report will be presented on December 8th 2015.
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 have not established an organized voice.
In launching his initiative Hira tried to reach out to all victims of political violence in order to get them involved in truth and reconciliation. The organizations regarding December 8th refused. Hira is in the process of reaching out to the others.
His initiative has received mixed reactions of support and rejection. Among those that have rejected are also some who openly threatened to kill Hira.
In different countries governments have tried to overcome the legacy of murder through political violence by way of establishing truth commissions and amnesty laws. Suriname is a unique case.
Opposition and coalition in parliament could not get the truth commission off the ground yet. The fact that a president of a country agrees to a three-day interview with a private citizen whose family member was killed under his responsibility, is unique in the world. The fact that this process is based a private research not supported by the state but to be presented to the parliament is also unique.