Flag of Suriname (224107)
Flag of Suriname Credit: Wikipedia

Late last month, the main opposition party in Suriname staged a huge city rally, primarily aimed at reminding Surinamese that it is attempting to rebuild and reclaim its political base in time for the next general elections in the Dutch-speaking Caribbean Community nation in 2025.

But even as thousands turned out to fellowship and commiserate with former president and military strongman Desi Bouterse, civil society groups are signalling that they will do everything in their power to ensure that the former two-time coup maker, now 76, does not return to office, blaming him for mass murders, economic chaos and the migration of thousands of professionals to The Netherlands and other countries.

On Feb. 25, 1980, then-army sergeant Bouterse and dozens of fellow soldiers staged a bloody military coup against the then Henck Arron led government, kicking it out of office, taking military power and setting the stage of one of the longest periods of economic decline and political instability in decades.

The Netherlands, Suriname’s former colonizer, the French, which controls neighboring French Guiana, and the U.S. decided to undermine the military administration by funding local guerilla groups. The ensuing war, staged mainly in the country’s Amazonian jungles, led to the murders of more than 500 people, many of them Maroons. In one southeastern village near French Guiana, soldiers wiped out more than 50 residents, accusing them of collaborating with resistance groups in one of the worst single day executions of the so-called bush war.

Now, more than 40 years after the 1980 coup, civil society groups are trying to muster the level of energy required to keep atrocities of the 1980s on the frontburner of society and to press the incumbent administration of President Chan Santokhi into staging official probes into some incidents which have been shunted to the backburner at the expense of more significant ones.

This week, the December 8th Foundation, named in remembrance of 15 opponents to military rule who were executed by firing squad in 1982, staged a memorial service to commemorate the deaths of three policemen who were ambushed at an outpost just east of the capital city, Paramaribo, back in March 1987.

The lightly reported event was deliberately organized to keep the pressure both on Bouterse as well as his NDP party and on government to stage probes that would trigger reportage and debate in society, thereby undermining any resurgence of the multiracial NDP. The men were ambushed at the outpost by men dressed in army fatigues, meaning that most believed they were government soldiers. For the Foundation and Chairman Sunil Oemrawsingh,

Suriname society will not get closure if official enquiries are not held and healing is achieved.

“No progress can be made as long as a climate of impunity persists. We are gathered here to remember but also to denounce the cowardly murders of these sons. Policemen who were lifted from their beds in undergarments by a murder squad and taken to the police station. Two policemen managed to escape. Fortunately the death toll was not higher,” Star News online newspaper quoted him as saying.

The Foundation also wants a full inventory of all human rights violations between 1980 and at the end of the war at the turn of the ’90s to be fully documented, the chairman said, as relatives laid wreaths at a small commemorative monument to the slain policemen.

For his part, two-time democratically elected President Bouterse was last year sentenced to 20 years in prison for ordering the 1982 mass murders. The 15 had included four journalists, clergymen, academics and labor leaders, all accused of plotting with the West to reverse the military coup.

Bouterse’s NDP lost to a Hindustani-dominated coalition in mid 2020 but it has been regrouping by taking political advantage of government struggles to right an ailing economy, pay better wages, deal with higher fuel and food prices and pressures to keep campaign promises for a better life. Early indications are that the governing coalition might spring a snap election around mid term to catch the NDP and other opposition outfits off guard but the NDP appears to be doing its homework now rather than wait for 2025 when the current electoral term ends.

The current administration has also canceled February 25 as a national holiday in respect of the coup.The second was staged in December 1990.

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