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Surinam: Not Another You-Know-What

Donald Trump would undoubtedly include Surinam in his category of ‘shithole* countries’ if he knew where it was, but it is definitely getting better. In fact, the man who is the symbol and in large part the cause of its poor reputation, Dési Bouterse, is about to be ousted from the presidency after a free election and sent to jail for the rest of his life.

Surinam, on the Caribbean coast of South America, was a Dutch colony for more than three centuries, but there were never many Dutch people there. It had a plantation economy and the workers were always imported from elsewhere: African slaves at first, and later indentured workers from Indonesia and India.

Divided by both ethnicity and religion (Christians, Muslims and Hindus), the society that grew up there was dysfunctional from the start. When the wave of decolonisation finally reached Surinam in the 1970s, its people distrusted their own fellow citizens so much that more than one-third of them moved to the Netherlands while the going was good.

Those left behind – there are now 350,000 people of Surinamese descent in the Netherlands, and only 600,000 in Surinam – must all have had moments when they regretted their choice, because what they got was not freedom but Dési Bouterse. In 1980 he and fifteen other sergeants in the new Surinam army carried out a military coup, and Bouterse has dominated the country ever since.

There were four attempted counter-coups in 1981 – everybody understood by then that political power was the only road to riches – and eventually Bourterse shut the game down by sheer terror. In 1982 he ordered his soldiers to round up, torture and execute 15 dissident officers, union leaders, journalists and businessmen.

The ‘December murders’ silenced his critics and stabilised his rule, which was at first a brazen dictatorship. But then he discovered populism, and began his exploiting his unusually mixed ancestry in an ethnically divided country – his family is of African, Dutch, Amerindian, French, and Chinese descent – to win elections as a truly ‘national’ candidate.

Bouterse remained thuggish and corrupt – in 1999 a Dutch court convicted him in absentia on drug smuggling charges – but he had learned to win the support of the poor by spreading government money around at the right time. He also cozied up with fellow populist Hugo Chávez in nearby Venezuela, and whether he was formally in power or not, he was the man who really mattered in Surinam.

Only once was he successfully challenged, when chief commissioner of police Chandrikapersad ‘Chan’ Santokhi brought him to court in 2007 over the ‘December murders’ and got a conviction. However, Bouterse appealed the conviction, got himself elected as president again in 2010, and kicked that problem down the road for another decade.

Only recently did his prospects darken. First the aluminum company that had mined bauxite in Surinam for a century pulled out and the price of oil (of which Surinam exports a limited amount) collapsed.

As government revenue fell and unemployment rose, Bouterse raided the banks for funds to keep his traditional supporters happy, but that just created a wave of inflation that damaged everybody’s income.

Then in 2019 Surinam’s Court of Appeal confirmed Bouterse’s conviction for murder and the 20-year jail sentence that went with it. The only way he could avoid arrest and imprisonment was to win the next election and remain in the presidency.

On 25 May Bouterse lost that election. The opposition leader who will replace him is the same person who brought the murder charges against him thirteen years ago, Chan Santokhi.

Bouterse immediately alleged fraud and demanded a recount, but on Monday election observers sent by both the Caribbean Community and the Organisation of American States declared that the election had been “free, fair, transparent, and credible”.

So unless Bouterse can launch another coup (which seems unlikely, since he is now 74), he will shortly be off to spend the rest of his life in prison. And the people whose lives he has dominated for the past forty years have another chance at making something of their country.

In fact, they have already made a fair start at it. The younger generation have moved beyond the ethnic confines of their heritage and are becoming what in Mauritius, another ex-colonial country with a similar history and ethnic make-up, is known as the ‘general population’.

Many would still leave if they could, for the country is still poor, but they are starting to think and act as Surinamese. The courts work, the elections are now fair, and there’s a good chance that the next government will not be corrupt. If the country can stay on this course for a generation, it could become a place where people actually want to live.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 9, 10 and 15. (“Only…income”; and “In fact…population”)

Perfidious Albion

11 July 2004

Perfidious Albion and Diego Garcia

By Gwynne Dyer

“In accordance with current regulations, no type of attire with degrading or obscene comments may be worn on or brought to Diego Garcia. This includes pictures, phrases or slogans depicting drug paraphernalia, anti-war slogans….” It’s not clear from the website whether the British customs officials who check American troops arriving on the Indian Ocean island regard T-shirts with anti-war slogans as just degrading or downright obscene, but they definitely don’t want them on the island. They don’t want the inhabitants back, either.

Britain’s capacity for mean and underhanded behaviour towards its former colonial subjects has never been in doubt, but last week saw an especially ugly example. Four years ago, the High Court in London ruled that the former inhabitants of Diego Garcia and the other Chagos Islands, removed from their homeland between 1967 and 1973 to make way for a huge US air base, had been evicted illegally. It looked like an old injustice was finally on the way to being rectified — but that depended on the British government obeying its own courts. Fat chance.

Last month, the British government changed the law to overrule the High Court decision and deny the Chagotians the right to go home after over three decades of exile. It would cost too much, explained the Foreign Office minister, Bill Rammell, and besides several thousand Chagotians returning to the islands would endanger their delicate ecology. (Whereas the Stealth and B-52 bombers on Diego Garcia and the 1,500 American military personnel and 2,000 mostly Filipino civilians who maintain them are as environmentally sound as the 15,000-foot runways they fly from.)

The story didn’t end there, because the government of Mauritius, which has a legal claim to the Chagos Islands that even Britain acknowledges, announced that it might take the British government to the International Court of Justice to get justice for the exiled islanders. Since a colonial-era British law prevents Commonwealth members from suing the British government, this would require Mauritius to leave the Commonwealth, which it certainly did not wish to do. But, said Prime Minister Paul Berenger, it would do it if necessary: “We will do it broken-heartedly, but we will do it.”

Nothing daunted, the British Foreign Office changed the rules again. On 7 July, Mr Rammell announced that “these changes…prevent any Commonwealth country from circumventing the present limitations by withdrawing from the Commonwealth and then instituting proceedings against the United Kingdom in respect of an existing dispute.” No wonder the French used to call Britain ‘perfidious Albion.’ They are probably using somewhat stronger language in Mauritius this week.

It would be too simplistic to think that British Foreign Office simply betrays and cheats the poor and the powerless without a second thought. It does do that, of course — ask all the people in British colonies who suddenly discovered that being born British subjects no longer gave them the right to live in Britain — but it also has a well developed instinct for toadying to the powerful. It took both reflexes acting in concert to deliver the people of the Chagos archipelago into exile.

The US government asked Britain to lease the Chagos archipelago to it for an airbase in the early 1960s, at the height of the Cold War but it didn’t want the inconvenience of the 1,500 inhabitants, so could they please be removed? London, ever eager to please Washington, agreed to the deal in return for a price cut on the Polaris missiles it was buying from the US. It then separated the Chagos Islands from Mauritius, which was due to gain its independence soon, and set them up as the British Indian Ocean Territory.

Then it got rid of the Chagotians. Some were tricked into leaving for medical treatment or on other false pretenses and then forbidden to return; the last hold-outs were evicted by force and simply dumped on the docks of Mauritius. Years later Britain grudgingly gave them a paltry amount of cash as compensation: the equivalent in today’s money of about $15,000 per person for the loss of their homes and a lifetime of exile. Most never really settled in elsewhere, and live in poverty today.

The breakthrough came four years ago, when the High Court in London ruled that they had a right of return. Initially, the British Foreign Office accepted the ruling, and announced a study of the feasibility of resettling the exiles not on Diego Garcia, among the bombers and the nuclear weapons, but on some of the other islands.

As recently as February, Bill Rammell told parliament he was talking to the US authorities about chartering a ship to take Chagotians back on a visit — and then, presumably, the US government said no. So the British government saluted, did a smart about-face, and said no too, changing the law twice in two months to make it stick.

When Paul Berenger flew to London last week, Prime Minister Tony Blair and Foreign Secretary Jack Straw could not even find the time to see him. Don McKinnon, secretary-general of the Commonwealth, did see him, and was clearly incensed. After meeting Berenger, the usually mild-mannered New Zealander said: “People do not like being lifted up and taken away from their homes. It is not the kind of thing you could get away with today.” But the British government IS getting away with it today.

Britain may not be powerful any more, but it still knows how to be perfidious.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 11. (“It would…exile”;and “When…today”)