On Civil Courage, Civil Strength and Amnesty in Suriname

Posted on | april 20, 2012 | No Comments

What is the role of a civil society, and why is this role so important. Civil societies are important because of their aggregative qualities, the fact that can help kindle leadership, help build and strengthen institutions and function as watchdog in the political arena, to ensure that mandate is not abused and the interests of the public are served.

The jarring silence of the Surinamese civility speaks volumes, and predicates the disequilibrium between the different arenas in Suriname. Linz and Stepan (1996) among others demonstrate that all arenas must work in tandem-like structure to make democracy work. Before going into to detail, to explain the reasons behind the dysfunctioning of the Surinamese civility. I want to address the current situation, the events leading up to the calling of an amnesty law to expunge crimes committed against humanity. There are several scenarios here that spring to mind, but one stands foreground, the fact that the incumbent government took its time to groom the people for the enactment of this amnesty law; The president from the beginning worked toward nullification of the proceedings, using religion and his spiritual guru to do his dirty laundry. His silence, his absence from public life, while all kinds of political allies were locked in bitter arguments, could occur because some of civil society turned their backs, while other continued to give government the benefit of the doubt. Many people simply wanted nothing to do with politics, arguing that the people had chosen, and there was nothing they could do.

Many people also felt that for them a repetition of 2000 was not an option, toppling the government to bring back the old nomenclature. In Februari 2012, the Surinamese society looked forward to a reshuffle in government. This was not announced by the president, but leaked to the press by undisclosed sources. Some ministers went as far as clearing out their offices, but nothing happened. All these events coincided with the damning testimony of Mr. Ruben Rozendaal, the fact that his (second) testimony placed Mr Bouterse smack in the middle of the 8 December 1982 massacres.

The proposal of the amnesty law only stirred public opinion, its enactment brought the civil society in Suriname to the streets. Many observers ask if its not a day late and a dollar short. To answer this question one needs to go back to the genesis of Surinamese civil society.

The origins of Civility in Suriname

The Surinamese civil society is very diverse, affable and preemptive. These qualities stem from their genesis, their original rooting in religious organisations, churches, temples and mosques. This type of civil organisation is the oldest and the most stable form of organization in the country; at one point in history, the only type of organization allowed. Through religious organization, membership of workers organization became kindled, with the stipulation that people had to operate within the confines of the doctrine always serving the good of the umbrella organization, the higher order.

The role of specifically the churches, became less relevant during the middle of the 1900s, when political parties incorporated workers unions into their organization, to ensure a steady cash-flow from dues paying members. The ethnification of the political landscape in the 1950s brought on a shift in the civility, rather its subordination to first the ethnic and second to the political. A large segments of the civility, specifically the segment that catered to the upper middle classes, drew a stark line between their activities, being active in charities, social functions and networking, and the political, shunning the political arena because of its quagmire qualities and its folksy appeal.

The lacuna left by the notable absence of the civility, rather the fact that it declined to become a watchdog, and credible sparing partner to help push democracy forward, has negatively impacted society. The silence of the civility and their adversity and denial of the political arena bled through the younger generations. The younger generations too shunned politics, based on the contention that not getting involved in politics, in the dirty games, infighting and cronyism would keep them out of trouble.

The vicious circle that manifested itself because lack of civil courage to demand change from the political arena, to go out and vote and punish political parties for their (in)action at the ballot. During the 1950s and early 1960s ethnic political parties indeed benefited from this absence of this specific type of civility, but as the late 1960s downed, a new type of civility emerged, one that came to life to challenge the status quo.

This new of civility, consisted primarily of intellectuals and workers, tied together by a common goal, to change or transform government, to demand more social equality and economic justice. This specific civility was in part closely connected to the nationalist party, PNR. This party acquired its raison d’etre from the fact that it could preemptively take action, and keep government for ransom. The traditional civility felt that this type of social action too fell out of their realm and again they distanced themselves from the working classes, the nationalists and the trade union.

All of that changed when in the fall of 1981 the military recanted on their promise to retreat from civilian life. Also problematic was the fact that extreme leftist parties entered the political arena, setting out to transform the Surinamese society into a Cuban style socialist Nirvana. Repression proliferated to all spheres of society, fueling distrust up to the point of paranoia and hysteria as society became inundated by spies and snitchers. The shift to the left by the military, transformed the Surinamese social landscape, making class as a cleavage more prominent than ethnicity. From that point on the conflict changed, together with the part of the civil society, where the middle classes had been over-represented. The culture of fear that manifested itself, however did deter the middle classes, lawyers and other intellectuals (zie earlier postings on their stance) and students all took the street protesting against the military and the decay of democracy.

What rekindled civil courage? The fact that the conflict in society no longer became determined by race, but by class. Relevant is that the military appealed to specific social categories instead of racial categories, which in a sense objectified the conflict. The middle classes staunchly opposed ideas of a Socialist Nirvana, and the military and their allies fought back, calling this specific social categories not only ‘rich’ but also adepts of colonialism, the Netherlands (and later the CIA).

Civility and Civil Courage 1987-1999

The return of democracy and consecutive, the old nomenclature, the traditional ethnic parties, again brought on a watershed. As Donald Horowitz (1985) writes, in ethnic societies all actions have an ethnic consequence. The middle classes recalibrated, mimicking the ethnic fissures of the Surinamese society. I argue, also based on Horowitz (ibid) that ethnification in Suriname, in fact marginalized the civil society, by subjecting it to the ethnic (political) cartel. This explains the retreat, back to obscurity and silence. This pattern repeats itself, when in 1996, the party led by the former military comes to power, winning the elections with the support of the disenfranchised and the victims of austerity.

The weak foundation of the ethnic party system now becomes more pronounced, because they lost the elections due to lack of communication with the public. For example, Nieuw Front failed to mention to the general public that without austerity, bankruptcy would have been eminent. “People want some light in their lives and president is a gloomy, silent figure” remarked one observer. Other observers attributed the regime change to the fact that certain Hindustani hardliners challenged the preponderance of the Creoles the fact that they had delivered the president and had occupied some key-posts. “No more” said Mrs Marijke Jawalapersad, “we want what is ours and we will not back down”, a stance that led to a split in the coalition, giving the party of the military the upper hand in parliament.

The absence of the civil society in the previous described situation, reverberates the divorce from the civility from political life, specifically from what they call the dirty side of politics. The fight over position and status, is viewed with disdain and disgust. People argue that many politicians use politics and the state resources to acquire personal wealth and divorce themselves from the political. The adverse effect of their reaction, is that politicians feel that they can do everything, constantly pushing the envelope, betting on the public silence rather public docility.

But as long as their existence is not threatened, the civil society continues to function behind the scenes. In 2000 again they came to the streets demanding the resignation of President Wijdenbos, after it became clear that a huge sell-out of Surinamese companies, the tropical rain forest was ensuing, all in the name of economic reform and restructuring. I will not go into details about this conflict, because there is a lot that needs to be researched first. What I do argue in this instance is that the traditional parties in Suriname, used the civil society to send government home, and then resorted to snatch away their power, by taking the fight to parliament.

Civil Strength and Civil Courage Today

The disillusionment over the events of 2000, the fact that the traditional parties used the middle classes to get the power fueled the notions in the middle classes that ‘politics is a dirty game’. The fact that the ethnic parties operate as closed bulwarks feeds into the aforementioned image. The civil society between 2000-2010 although dissatisfied with government, did not demand reform or change. Instead they tried to resolve the lacuna left open by weak government themselves. For example increasing criminality led to a deluge in private security agencies; shop owners hired armed security guards to protect their shops; private charities and NGO’s took care of the sick, the orphaned, the elderly and the needy. The civil society again abstained from the balloting in 2010, helping in fact the incumbency to gain a majority in the city and coastal districts except for one where Salim Somohardjo’s Javanese Pertjayah Luhur controls the ballots.


Did the civil society acted after the fact? Probably, but there are extenuating circumstances, such as the fact that many people feel divorced from the political arena, and the fact that many people fear possible repression, violence and possible run inns with the secret services. But like in Tunis and Syria where repression was more massive and wide-spread, people will get over that fear, shedding the burdens of the past culture of fear and building courage to continue this struggle to save democracy. Mr Bouterse has not threatened anybody and many people who came to the streets and to social media to bully the protesters did so on a personal title.

AUTHOR: Natascha Adama
URL: http://natascha23.blogspot.com
E-MAIL: nataliapestova23 [@] yahoo.com


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