Category Archives: Suriname

Wouter Veenendaal – Suriname’s Desi Bouterse: A Leopard Who Doesn’t Change His Spots?

This is a guest post by Wouter Veenendaal of Leiden University

After the watershed parliamentary elections of 2010, Suriname’s former military dictator Desi Bouterse was installed as the country’s president. While his rise to power in 1980 occurred by means of a military coup, this time Bouterse was democratically elected, receiving the two-thirds parliamentary supermajority required to indirectly elect a president. Upon the termination of his military regime in 1987, when multiparty elections were reintroduced in the small South American country, Bouterse established the National Democratic Party (NDP) to maintain his power base in the democratic system. While the NDP lingered in opposition for most of the subsequent decades, Bouterse gradually constructed a professional political movement that ultimately was able to defeat the traditional Surinamese parties.

As a result of the colonial legacy marked by (forced) migration, Suriname is a profoundly multicultural society, composed of four or five cultural segments, none of which constitutes a majority. Upon the extension of the suffrage in 1948, the first political parties were formed on the basis of ethnic identification and mobilization, with the aim to emancipate, represent, and cater to specific ethnic groups. While the 1980 coup and subsequent military regime aimed to bring an end to ethnic politics, after the return of democracy the old ethnically-based parties reemerged, and won elections in a coalition named New Front. In contrast to the New Front-parties, Bouterse’s NDP was established as an avowedly multi- or pan-ethnic party, claiming to be the only ‘national’ party of Suriname because it seeks to represent all different groups living in the country.

Bouterse’s election to the presidency in 2010 cannot be seen separately from the legal process relating to the so-called December Murders, in which he is the main suspect. During Bouterse’s military regime, on 8 December 1982, fifteen prominent Surinamese men who criticized the dictatorship were murdered by the military. After a lengthy legal investigation by the Surinamese judiciary, in November 2007 – twenty-five years after the crimes were committed – a criminal proceeding against Bouterse and twenty-four other suspects was initiated by Suriname’s military court. According to many observers, this murder trial actually constituted the main motivation for Bouterse to run for president in 2010, anticipating that the presidential office would bring him legal protection and the power to influence the judicial process. Since his election to power in 2010, Bouterse’s NDP has repeatedly attempted to frustrate or bring a halt to the murder trial, most prominently by the adoption of an amnesty law in 2012 and an instruction to the public prosecutor to stop the prosecution in the interest of state security in 2016. Both challenges were dismissed by the military court, which considered these as illegitimate interventions in an ongoing legal process.

Concomitantly to its attempts to undermine the December Murders process, the ruling NDP has in various ways endeavored to weaken the position of Suriname’s judiciary as well as other (semi-) public institutions. High-ranking politicians within the party have argued that unelected judges should not have such wide-ranging powers, and that more mechanisms to control the judiciary should be embedded in the constitution. Moreover, the Surinamese judiciary suffers from a severe lack of government funding, and Bouterse has so far refused to appoint a new President to Suriname’s High Court of Justice. The administration has also sought to challenge the position of the Surinamese media, most recently by the foundation of a well-funded National Information Institute (NII), which officially communicates government information to the public, but largely functions as a propaganda machine that allows politicians to ignore other media outlets. And while corruption has always been a problem in Surinamese politics, under this administration numerous corruption scandals have unfolded and have gone by unpunished. The government’s connections to transnational criminal organizations and drug trafficking networks have in fact led some observers to consider the country as a “criminalized state” in which such groups use the international sovereignty of Suriname as a cover for their criminal activities.

In short, therefore, while Bouterse’s current administration operates under the veneer of a nominally democratic system, its ruling style has been decidedly authoritarian in character, and in several ways disturbingly comparable to the military regime he spearheaded in the 1980s.

Suriname – Defying the President, Suriname’s Military Court Decides to Continue Murder Trial Against Bouterse

Last Monday (30 January), Suriname’s military court – the Krijgsraad – decided to continue with the murder trial against President Bouterse. The President of Suriname faces criminal charges for his involvement in the 1982 ‘December murders’, as part of which fifteen political opponents of his military regime were killed in Fort Zeelandia, Bouterse’s headquarters. The trial against Bouterse, who between 1980 and 1988 ruled Suriname as a military dictator, started already in 2007. However, in the 2010 elections Bouterse and his NDP party claimed a resounding victory at the polls, after which the former dictator was once again installed as Suriname’s president. Since then, there has been a continuous tug of war between the president and the courts. Bouterse’s party first modified the amnesty law in an attempt to adjourn the trial, but the court considered this to be illegitimate interference in an ongoing process. Subsequently, Bouterse instructed the public prosecutor to halt the process in the interest of state security. After first postponing the trial, judge Cynthia Valstein-Montnor this week decided to continue with the trial, thereby not complying with the public prosecutor’s request. The judge summoned the prosecutor to start his address and propose a punishment straightaway, but his request for adjournment until Thursday 9 February was approved.

The relatives of the victims of 1982 are relieved about the court’s decision, and are optimistic about the likelihood that Bouterse will be convicted. However, many people in Suriname fear that the president will not quietly undergo the court’s verdict, and the lawyer of the victims’ families warned that he might now declare a state of emergency in order to sideline the military court. While praising the perseverance of the Krijgsraad and cherishing the court’s decision as a victory for the rule of law in Suriname, the lawyer expressed deep worries about the tensions surrounding the process and the political pressure on the judiciary, which was accused of compromising state security and conspiring with the president’s foreign enemies. Bouterse’s lawyer, on the other hand, argued that nobody in Suriname cares about these murders anymore, since they occurred thirty-five years ago. He claimed that a continuation of the trial would needlessly upset Suriname’s society and undermine the country’s fragile stability, and emphasized that the government’s order to adjourn the trial was fully in line with the Surinamese constitution, and should therefore be respected by the court.

The new developments in the murder trial against Bouterse cannot be regarded in isolation from broader developments in Surinamese society. While the country’s economic prospects appeared to be excellent not more than five years ago, at present Suriname faces a severe economic crisis, and according to the IMF the country’s economy contracted by a staggering 9 per cent in 2016. This economic downturn unquestionably damages Bouterse’s popularity: while the president enjoyed widespread support when he was voted into office in 2010, the deep recession has made him increasingly unpopular, especially because most of the NDP’s lavish campaign promises remain unfulfilled. In turn, while it may be accurate that most younger people do not care much about the 1982 murders, their increasing dissatisfaction with the president now appears to reinforce popular support for the murder trial.