Frontiers: Suriname’s seismic moment
Désiré Bouterse’s success in Suriname’s elections was a history-making moment. The event, however, will open concerns about regional security and Suriname’s relations with Guyana.
As Désiré Delano Bouterse and Ronnie Brunswijk toasted each other with champagne during a signing ceremony to celebrate their political coalition earlier in June, sober heads pondered the future of inter-state relations on the northern coast of the continent of South America. Mr Bouterse, on the other hand, bubbled “An invisible hand has led this process to this point…and we can trust that this hand will lead us into making the right decisions for this country.”
It will take more than an invisible hand to erase the memories of the dangerous decade of the 1980s when Mr Bouterse was Suriname’s unelected dictator. Desi Bouterse and Badri Sein Sital led a group of young military non-commissioned officers in a coup d’état. They then seized power and proceeded to impose a harsh, pseudo-socialist authoritarian rule on their people. A civilian administration was in office for two years but it was the Nationale Leger – the National Army – that wielded real power.
Bouterse made himself Chairman of the Policy Centre in 1981 and effectively ruled the country from 1982 when he created and directed the powerful Nationale Militaire Raad (National Military Council). He was then formally appointed Head of Government in 1985 and governed Suriname with an iron hand until 1988. Calling himself a socialist, Mr. Bouterse sought links with Cuba, Libya and the then Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, attracting the ire of the US administration.
Among the numerous allegations levelled against Bouterse was that he authorized the murders of 15 political opponents at Fort Zeelandia on the Suriname River. Bouterse later tried to justify the massacre arguing preposterously that “…people fail to realize the different coup attempts that took place under those 15 people who were killed…If the central Government hadn’t taken action, we would have had not 15 deaths but 1,500.” He was later blamed for atrocities committed against the Maroon ethnic group in 1986 when 35 people, mostly women and children, were slaughtered during the ‘Bush War’ waged by Ronnie Brunswijk’s Surinamese Liberation Army.
US officials seemed to have considered joint military operation with The Netherlands to effect a Grenada-style ‘regime change’ within a few weeks of the killings. The Netherlands, however, balked at using force against its former colony but did cut diplomatic relations and freeze economic assistance however. Protests and pressure from the Netherlands, the USA and the Organization of American States forced Bouterse to install an interim administration and schedule new elections to be monitored by the OAS. A new civilian administration led by President Ramsewak Shankar took office following the 1987 elections.
Bouterse continued to function as Commander of the National Army and Chairman of the Military Authority under nominally civilian rule, however. It was at this time that Suriname’s main political parties agreed to new constitutional articles which gave the Nationale Leger – described as the vanguard of the people – licence to intervene in domestic politics. Shankar’s brief presidency crashed when he was driven from office by a Bouterse-directed ‘telephone coup’ in December 1990.
President Ronald Venetiaan took office after the 1991 elections when his party, the Nieuwe Front voor Democratie en Ontwikkeling (New Front for Democracy and Development) won effective control of the National Assembly. Shortly after, in 1992, Bouterse resigned as Commander of the National Army amid corruption charges. Jules Wijdenbosch, one of Bouterse’s aides, won the presidency in 1996 and appointed Bouterse as ‘Adviser of State.’ Three months after resigning this presidential position in April 1999, Bouterse was convicted in absentia by a Dutch court of drug-trafficking and money-laundering.
Now in 2010, the Nationale Democratische Partij-led Mega-Combinatie (or Mega Combination) Alliance has emerged from the 25th May general elections in control of 23 of 51 seats in Suriname’s National Assembly. Brunswijk’s coalition controls seven seats. The two have agreed to coalesce to form a viable administration.
The new coalition will have a working governmental majority of 30 of the 51 seats but will fall well short of the 34 required to elect a new president and vice-president. Suriname’s president has to be elected by a two-thirds vote. The two parties can use their majority in the 919 member People’s Assembly to elect a new president and vice-president if it cannot muster sufficient support in the National Assembly. The Mega Combination has 57 per cent of the vote in the People’s Assembly and the A-Combination has 15 per cent. There is, therefore, every likelihood that Bouterse will be elected Suriname’s next president.
Dési Bouterse is viewed with suspicion by the international community and the prospect of another bout of Bouterse-style administration is alarming. Foreign Minister of The Netherlands Maxime Verhagen said that her country respected the will of the electorate but added that “the past cannot be forgotten…Mr. Bouterse has been sentenced to an 11-year prison term in the Netherlands for drug dealing and, in Suriname, a case about the murders of December 1982 is still proceeding. We cannot brush all that away.”
The United States would find it difficult to have normal relations with Suriname if the president was a convicted drug-trafficker. The US Department of State’s Inter-national Narcotics Control Strategy Report for 2010 defined Suriname “as a transit zone for South American cocaine en route to Europe, Africa and, to a lesser extent, the United States.” The 2003 Report noted that in June 2003, the former dictator’s son Dino Bouterse was convicted on charges of weapons theft from a police armoury, but was subsequently freed for ‘lack of evidence’ when several witnesses refused to testify.
The protestations of the United States and The Netherlands cannot erase the fact that Bouterse not only leads the single most popular political party in Suriname but also controls nearly half of the seats in the National Assembly. Bouterse is still perceived as a charismatic and pragmatic man of action. His alliance does appeal to the young and poor with a populist programme that is laden with promises of easy jobs and cheap housing. The young have no recollection of Bouterse’s record of governance under the Military Authority or when his party was part of President Jules Wijdenbosch’s 1996 coalition administration which embarked on policies which practically bankrupted the country.
Désiré Bouterse has never been a friend of Guyana and, should he become president in the near future, relations between Guyana and Suriname will also suffer. The Nationale Leger, with which the former Commander retains strong ties, has been increasingly assertive in pursuit of that country’s territorial claim against Guyana. Bouterse’s administration in the 1980s expelled 5,000 Guyanese and Haitian workers. Guyanese will remember, also, that Wijdenbosch’s administration inflicted humiliating conditions on Guyana over the Canawaima ferry project which now flies the Suriname national flag and is subject to the jurisdiction only of Suriname’s courts.
Guyana was the victim of aggression when Suriname deployed its gunboats to expel the Canadian CGX petroleum platform and dominate Guyana’s maritime zone in June 2000. Minister of Foreign Affairs Carolyn Rodrigues-Birkett earlier this year protested about Wijdenbosch’s wild plan to invade Guyana’s New River territory during the crisis in 2000.
Official visits by President Cheddi Jagan (June 1994), President Janet Jagan (October 1998) and President Bharrat Jagdeo (January 2002) to Paramaribo have all failed to improve inter-state relations. Their efforts to advance functional cooperation or resolve territorial problems were smothered by Suriname’s stonewalling tactics and its insistence on making its spurious claim to sovereignty over New River Zone the beginning and end of all discussions.
Guyana’s own diplomatic credibility, too, has been continuously undermined by its proclivity to appoint weak ambassadors and inadequate staff to its Embassy in Paramaribo, its practice of cobbling together amateurish border teams a few days before official visits and border talks take place, its encouragement of the Ministry of Agricul-ture for Guyanese fishermen to purchase licences from Suriname to fish in a river which has not been legally demarcated and the impotence of the Ministry of Home Affairs and Ministry of Finance to extirpate the illegal ‘backtrack’ traffic across the Corentyne River.
Delivering a presentation at the Guyana Defence Force’s annual officers’ conference earlier this year, President Jagdeo explained that the traditional function of the military and the design of its structure have been “to maintain peace and territorial integrity of Guyana.” Given his belief that “it is not anticipated that there will be a military conflict to which the country would be a party…the sole focus of the traditional concept of the military has to shift to one that is wider in its understanding and with a better use of our resources.”
Now that Bouterse is back, President Jagdeo should think again about training and equipping the Defence Force to ensure the territorial integrity of the eastern border.