Suriname: The National Army in Politics
- Dirk KruijtDirk KruijtDepartment of Cultural Anthropology, Utrecht University Research Fellow, Instituto Universitário Lisboa Centre for Military Studies, Stellenbosch University
Suriname is a multiethnic society (from African, Asian, and European countries, and smaller contingents of the original indigenous peoples) formed in colonial times. After 1863, a small colonial army detachment with conscript Dutch soldiers was stationed in Suriname. The colony was provided autonomy in 1954, except for defense and foreign affairs. The same army detachment was now open for Surinamese noncommissioned officers (NCOs). Independence was obtained in 1975; the Dutch transferred all infrastructure of the colonial detachment. Suriname’s political culture was (and partially still is) based on ethnic belonging and clientelism.
After independence, the government started spending big money and rumors of corruption arose. The NCOs, headed by Sergeant-Major Bouterse, staged a coup in 1980. They appointed a new civilian government but remained in control though a Military Council overseeing government. After two and a half years it generated a strong civilian opposition, supported by the students, the middle classes, and the trade unions. In December 1982, the military arrested the leaders and tortured and killed them. Between 1980 and 1987, Bouterse, now a colonel, was the de facto president as leader of the Military Council.
The generally leftist but zig-zagging military government disrupted the economy. “Colombian entrepreneurs” assisted with financial support. Economic and political bankruptcy prompted the government to organize elections. The “old ethnic parties” won the election in 1987, but the army leadership remained in power. A second coup, in December 1991, was settled by general elections six months thereafter; the same ethnic parties returned to power.
Armed opposition had emerged in the Maroon region. The Army, backed by paramilitary forces, organized a counterinsurgency campaign during several years of civil war. The civilian government brokered a preliminary peace agreement, but Army Chief Bouterse continued the war. Eventually the Organisation of American States mediated, resulting in a formal peace. Bouterse and his staff were discharged and became businessmen and politicians. Consecutive civilian government strongly curtailed military budgets, personnel, and equipment. Instead, they strengthened the police.
In 2005, Bouterse participated in the elections with a pluriethnic political platform. His party became the largest one in parliament. He won the presidential elections in 2010 and was reelected in 2015. A Military Tribunal initiated a process against the actors of the December 1982 murders. In November 2019, the Tribunal convicted him of murder and sentenced him to 20 years in prison, without ordering his immediate arrest.
The National Army, after decades of neglect, was reorganized. It is in fact an infantry battalion equipped with Brazilian armored vehicles. Brazil, Venezuela, and India supplied some assistance and training. The Coast Guard is part of the Army, as well as the Air Force which has a couple of Indian helicopters. Of the 137 countries ranked in military strength by Global Firepower (2019), Suriname is positioned at place 135. On the other hand, the country has no external enemies, although there exists a dormant frontier dispute with Guyana since the late 1960s.