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  • Writer's pictureDanique Looymans

The Rise, Fall, and Trials of Desi Bouterse

Political assassinations have been in our society since the emergence of social structures such as tribes, villages and other types of communities. These assassinations took place to defend their own power, and to defend their own status. In modern-day society, political assassinations continue to play an important role for the perseverance of power. One of these political assassinations took place in a small country in South America: Suriname.

The History of Suriname

Suriname has a long history that can be traced back to 3000 B.C. However, for this article there will be focused on the part after gaining independence from the Dutch, and the period after this. Suriname became a colony of the Dutch in 1667, after a trade-deal with the British Empire and the then-called New Amsterdam. After the Second World War, Suriname became a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, which lasted until the 25th of November, 1975. However, economic ties were still strong between the Netherlands and the newly independent Suriname. This freedom did not last long, as a military coup d’état was performed on the 25th of February, 1980. This coup is also known as the Sergeants' Coup (Dutch: De Sergeantencoup).

Desi Bouterse

One man played a big role in this military coup, and the dictatorship of almost 10 years that followed: Desiré Delano (Desi) Bouterse. He was born on the 13th of October, 1945 in Domburg, Suriname. Bouterse has had a controversial past, and has been involved in many cases. He is most well-known for the December murders in 1982. However, this is not where his influence and controversy started.

Desi Bouterse moved to the Netherlands in 1968. Here he was conscripted to the armed forces of the Netherlands, and after completing this he trained as a non-commissioned officer. In 1975, after Suriname gained his independence, Bouterse returned to help establish a Surinamese army. When in 1979, Bouterse accepted a request by Roy Horb, he became chairman of a new Surinamese military union. During this time, Henck Arron was President of Suriname, and the economy of Suriname was slipping. This was due to the fast negotiations regarding independence, which led to an increase in unemployment rates and turmoil across Suriname. All this turmoil led to one of the most turbulent events in the recent history of Suriname.

The Rise of Desi Bouterse

It is the 25th of February, 1980. Sixteen officers, under command of Bouterse and Horb, led a coup d’état - the aforementioned Sergeantencoup - and secured Bouterse as the head of the army - through the National Military Council - and was made de facto leader of Suriname. This marks the start of a dictatorship that will last until 1988. This period was characterised by:

  • Heavy censorship and lack of press freedom, there is a ban on the appearance of a number of newspapers

  • A ban on broadcasting from different radio and television stations

  • The presence of a curfew, restriction of the right of assembly

  • A ban on political parties

  • Regular violation of human rights.

Over these years, many killings were performed under the regime of Bouterse that have been confirmed by Amnesty International and other human rights organisations. One of these main cases are the December murders that took place on the 7th, 8th and 9th of December, 1982.

The December Murders

The December murders are the most well known human rights violations under the rule of Bouterse. In the beginning of December, 15 prominent Surinamese men who had criticized Bouterse's military dictatorship or were connected with the coup d'état attempt on 11 March 1982, were brought to Fort Zeelandia, where they were tortured and shot to death. These 15 men were: John Baboeram (lawyer), Bram Behr (journalist), Cyrill Daal (union leader), Kenneth Gonçalves (lawyer), Eddy Hoost (lawyer), André Kamperveen (journalist), Gerard Leckie (university teacher), Sugrim Oemrawsingh (scientist), Lesley Rahman (journalist), Surendre Rambocus (soldier), Harold Riedewald (lawyer), Jiwansingh Sheombar (soldier), Jozef Slagveer (journalist), Robby Sohansingh (businessman), and Frank Wijngaarde (journalist).

Bouterse claimed on the 10th of December on national television that "When the transport of the suspects from Fort Zeelandia to the barracks encountered technical problems on Wednesday afternoon, it was decided to have this transport take place in the evening hours. During this transport, a number of the arrested, probably at the instigation of two of the arrested soldiers, made a wild attempt to flee. After shots in the air could not stop them from their escape attempt, targeted shooting had to be carried out in which some of the arrested conspirators lost their lives." However, a report in 1983 stated that these victims had been tortured and murdered, and the story of Bouterse did not line up with the conclusions of the report. For example, the report states that at least one source claims that Cyrill Daal was castrated, that Surindre Rambocus was riddled with bullets from left foot to neck, and that a pattern of a cross was made with bullets in the chest and abdominal area of Jiwansingh Sheombar. According to the report, virtually all of the corpses showed signs of severe facial assault, bone fractures, scars from discarded cigarette butts and other injuries that the report explicitly states that experts in the field have stated that such injuries cannot have come from gunshots. Amnesty International called these murders extrajudicial executions.

When the news of the December murders reached the Netherlands, funding from the government was put on hold immediately, and thus Bouterse had to find his money someplace else. All this led to more tensions within the country, as some wanted an investigation, and others wanted to look into the future and leave it behind them. These tensions divided the people of Suriname, and with Ronnie Brunswijk, a former bodyguard of Bouterse, leading the opposition, tensions for Bouterse and his military started to rise.

The Suriname Guerilla War (De Binnenlandse Oorlog)

It is important to know that Suriname is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in South America. One of these ethnic groups is the Maroons. These are of African ancestry, and were former slaves who fled into the jungle. The war in Suriname started as a feud between Bouterse and Brunswijk, as Brunswijk, a Maroon himself, demanded democratic reforms, civil rights, and economic development for the country's Maroon minority.

Stolkertsijver, 22 July 1986 at around 03:00. Twelve soldiers guarding a checkpoint were captured and later an armed group opened fire in Albina. Both these attacks were done by the Jungle Commando, led by Brunswijk. Bouterse and his army responded by destroying a temple in Moengotapoe, this was the current living area of Brunswijk.

The war revolved around the power over East Suriname and the control over the cocaine trade. When Brunswijk’s men caused damage to the Surinamese army somewhere in the region, revenge was often taken on the civilian population in the area. When Brunswijk’s men attacked a certain region to gain control, Bouterse and his army counter-attacked the civilians living in the region. The period with the most fighting was from 1986 to 1989.

The Moiwana Massacre

On the 29th of November, 1986, the military forces of Bouterse attacked Moiwana, the home village of Brunswijk. They tortured and massacred around 35 people in the village, mostly women and children, and burned down and destroyed most of the village. Survivors of the attack fled to French Guyana, together with other inhabitants of the inlands. Police chief inspector Herman Gooding was murdered in August 1990 while investigating the massacre. Reportedly he was forced out of his car near Fort Zeelandia and shot in the head, with his body left outside Bouterse's office. Other police investigators fled the country, stalling the investigation.

On 19 March 1991, a meeting between representatives took place in the eastern mining town of Moengo. The government offered integration of Jungle Commando into the Suriname Army, and jobs for Maroons in gold prospecting and forestry in return for complete disarmament. On 27 March 1991, final talks were held in the town of Drietabbetje, effectively putting an end to the conflict. Despite the agreement, a number of Jungle Commando officials residing in the Netherlands denounced the conditions and vowed to continue their armed struggle. On 8 August 1992, a peace treaty was signed between the National Army, the Jungle Commando, and the Tucayana Amazonas.

Cocaine, Weapons, and the Suri-Kartel

The drug trade is an important source of income for Bouterse and his colleagues. The rumours about Suriname as a transit country for Colombian cocaine to Europe and the United States became increasingly persistent among intelligence services after 1982. Soldiers and civilians who fled the country out of fear of Bouterse, told the Dutch immigration services about the activities of the Surinamese army command.

During Operation Grasshopper (Operatie Sprinkhaan), seven air strips were constructed in the jungle in South and South-West Suriname. The coup plotters have now posted military police at these airports. Border control at Zanderij National Airport and in the seaports was also in the hands of the military.

Humphrey Tjin Liep Shie, head of the Surinamese narcotics brigade said that about 26,000 kilos of cocaine are shipped to the Netherlands every year. The cocaine trade made as much money as the bauxite export, the national export product of Suriname.

Bouterse was convicted in the Netherlands in 1999 for cocaine smuggling, however he was already linked to drug smuggling 15 years earlier. In 1986, he was the main target of an undercover operation in Miami. The American Justice then arrested Etienne Boerenveen, Bouterse's right-hand man. However, Bouterse was the main target for the operation.

Next to the cocaine trade in Suriname, Bouterse was also involved in weapon trade with other drug cartels in South America. One of his associates, Rozendaal, confessed that weapons were imported from Libya and traded with the Colombian rebels from FARC. He was in this deal together with Kahn, known as the “Pablo Escobar of Guyana”.

The Fall of Desi Bouterse

In 1987, Bouterse created the political party NDP (National Democratic Party), and elections were held. The people of Suriname were angry, and Bouterse lost with an enormous amount. This led to the “fall” of Desi Bouterse. Shankar won the elections, and became the first chosen President of Suriname since the coup in 1980. Bouterse however had a feud with Shankar about a censorship in the Netherlands that happened by the Dutch authorities, and he committed a second coup, this time called the “telephone coup”, since it was done with a phone call. Dutch authorities again stopped humanitarian aid, until a new President was put in place, in 1991.

The Trials

On November 30, 2007, the trials for the December murders finally started. The trials continued until 2019, when Bouterse was convicted for the December murders, and sentenced to 20 years in prison. The process of the trials, however, was a messy one.

One of the most important confessions came from Rozendaal, one of the 25 suspects in the trial. In 2012, he believed it was “time to tell the truth about what happened in 1982”. Rozendaal stated under oath before the court on 23 March 2012 that Bouterse had personally shot Cyrill Daal and Surendre Rambocus, two victims of the December murders.

In the meantime, the Surinamese parliament had accepted a new law: the amnesty law. This meant that suspects of the December murders could not be convicted of murder, since it was too long ago. After approval of the law, Bouterse said that the amnesty law was necessary for a "new beginning of Suriname". According to him, the amnesty law was intended "to bring the whole country back together".It is important to realise that by this time, Bouterse was President again of Suriname, and had thus made this law to protect himself.

On November 29, 2019, he was sentenced in absentia by the Surinamese court-martial to a prison sentence of twenty years for complicity in murder for his part in the December murders. On 30 August 2021, his sentence to 20 years in prison was upheld in opposition, after which he appealed. In both cases, there has been no detention, which raises concerns that this cannot be carried out without a violent confrontation.

A New Rise for Bouterse

During the trials, new elections were held. Bouterse won these with an impressive win. He became the new President of Suriname on the 12th of August 2010. Once sworn in his new office, Bouterse was given a virtually free hand to rule the country as he saw fit. After all, in the Presidential Republic of Suriname, the office of President is held with a lot of power: it not only unites the functions of head of state and head of government in one person. Article 99 of the Surinamese Constitution states that the executive power rests with the President. The President of Suriname is also the commander-in-chief of the National Army. Bouterse stayed President until 2020.

The Appeals

As previously mentioned, Bouterse was convicted, and appealed the decision. These appeals are still ongoing, as they officially started in the summer of 2022. Bouterse was present for the first time himself. The former President and main suspect claimed during the hearing that there was no premeditation in the execution of 15 of his political opponents. Since these appeals are still ongoing, it is difficult to say what will happen. Rozendaal has passed away, and Bouterse is trying to contradict the statements made by him.

People underestimate the influence Bouterse has, since Suriname is seen as a country with little influence. However Bouterse has had much power, and still does. He is still the leader of his political party, and will stay the leader until 2027. He had ties with big drug criminals in South America. Bouterse has also, during his Presidential era - from 2010 to 2020 - led Suriname to one of its biggest economic crises the country has known, with almost 3 billion US dollars in debt. We must not underestimate him, because his power might lead to the acceptance of his appeal, and this will mean that all these victims during his regime will not have their justice.

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