Historic election for Suriname’s underserved Maroons

Ronnie Brunswijk speaks during a news conference after being elected as Suriname's new Vice-President, at the National Assembly, in Paramaribo, Suriname July 13, 2020.
REUTERS / Ranu Abhelakh

A new government will take control of the Dutch-speaking, finance-starved, Caribbean Community nation of Suriname from this week, but for the country’s 23 percent Maroon population, the May 25 general elections have thrown up some major historic firsts for the nation’s largely underserved people.

For the first time since independence from The Netherlands in late 1975, a Maroon, descendants of fierce runaway slaves who had escaped brutal Dutch slavery and colonialism, has been elected to the second most powerful political office in the country and another to head the 51-seat national assembly.

Former guerilla fighter, turned gold and timber magnate and now in the seat of the vice presidency in the 17-person cabinet, Ronnie Brunswijk was sworn in this week to serve under President Chandra Santokhi as the new multiparty, coalition government takes office after winning a combined 33 of the 51 parliamentary seats in elections held nearly two months ago.

Brunswijk, 59, also made history by becoming the first Maroon to be elected as speaker of the assembly on June 29, but who relinquished the gavel to become the first Maroon VP this week, passing it on to fellow ABOP Party big wig, Marinus Bee after only three weeks.

Maroons who live mostly in the southeastern regions near French Guiana and in the interior, consider themselves and are listed as a separate ethnic grouping from urban Blacks. For Brunswijk and Bee, their push to become VP and house speaker respectively was a no brainer as both see it as a political and developmental door opener for younger Maroons to follow. The ABOP party won nine seats, almost doubling its share in the previous parliament. It is the second largest and most powerful outfit in the administration after President Santokhi’s Indo-dominated VHP Party with 20.

“There is nothing else in your mind than to go for the highest office in the country. And I have fought for that and I have given that the Almighty has assisted me that today I was president of the highest college of state a few weeks ago, “Brunswijk said after his photo was mounted in the halls of parliament earlier in the week.

Brunswijk, a former bodyguard to 1980s military strongman Desi Bouterse, broke away from Bouterse and became a guerilla fighter against the military dictatorship, helping to end a near decades-long dictatorship and bush war that claimed more than 500 lives including the army massacres of dozens of Maroons. He was funded and supported by The Dutch and the French in efforts to oust Bouterese.

But once civilian rule was restored, The Dutch no longer had any use for him and slapped him with an international drug conviction that still stands today. He was also convicted of armed bank robbery in 1984 in the height of the civil war. Bouterse, who was just dumped by the electorate as president, also carries a 1999 drug conviction at the hands of The Dutch.

Despite Brunswijk’s record, Maroons have nevertheless voted overwhelmingly for ABOP. Party Vice President Joel Martinus told Star News online service this week that the aim is for an ABOP president in 2025. The new VP said a week ago that he did detect some racial and ethnic hostility to a Maroon becoming the VP, noting that it appears that it” is difficult to accept a Maroon. The people have spoken and we must respect that. In 2010 it was also felt that Desi Bouterse (former military dictator and civilian president sentenced to 20 years for mass murder) could not become president. But it has been 10 years. And everyone was silent. So the acceptance of a Maroon is difficult in this community. I see that. That is it but we must respect the will of the people.”

The new administration takes office with the country of about 500,000 people in dire economic straits with the currency in a free fall against the US dollar, a credit rating downgrade by Fitch Rating over defaulted loans, the need to trim a bloated public service and an underperforming bauxite sector that once had accounted for up to 70 percent of exports. Production has slowed to a crawl with the departure of Alcoa of the US.

Repairing damaged relations with The Netherlands and improving those with the US are also top agenda items in addition to the ongoing battle with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Every day, as president, I will ask the question: What do we do to improve Suriname? Does it contribute to unity and connectedness and does it contribute to a more just life for our countrymen? That will be a new standard,” Santokhi said this week.

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