Suriname's ethnic `crazy quilt'. Rebel insurgency revives nation's traditional focus on ethnic politics
Paramaribo, Suriname — Muslim mosques, Hindu temples, and Roman Catholic churches share the tree-lined streets of this capital city, where people of half a dozen ethnic groups and all skin colors talk to each other in Dutch. The Dutch colonized this northeastern edge of South America some 300 years ago and brought in workers from other lands, creating an ethnic jumble of European settlers, African slaves, native Amerindians, and contract laborers from India and Java.
Now, 11 years after gaining independence from the Dutch in 1975, Suriname faces a determined guerrilla insurgency that threatens to unravel the country's ethnic ``crazy quilt.''
The guerrillas are led by Ronny Brunswijk, one of Suriname's 40,000 ``Bush Negroes.'' Mr. Brunswijk wants to overthrow the six-year-old military dictatorship of Lt. Col. Desi Bouterse, who is an Afro-European, or ``Creole.'' Suriname, a nation of 400,000 people, is 37 percent East Indian, 31 percent Creole, 15 percent Javanese, and 10 percent Bush Negro. The remainder are Amerindians and Europeans.
Bush Negroes - English for the Dutch word ``boschnegers'' - are the descendants of escaped slaves whose armed attacks forced the Dutch colonists to grant them autonomy in the forest region 200 years ago. Since then, Bush Negroes have isolated themselves from national life, building a unique society with its own language, religious rituals, and political structure.
Anthropologist Richard Price, the Johns Hopkins University authority on Bush Negroes, considers their culture the most highly developed Afro-American culture in the hemisphere, with the possible exception of Haiti.
Although Colonel Bouterse has almost no popular support and Brunswijk promises to restore democracy, residents of the capital city haven't been sure what a guerrilla victory would bring. Little is known about the rebel leader, a former Bouterse bodyguard who was fired from the Army in a pay dispute.
Adding to his mystery is the fact that in a nation where the three major political parties are based on ethnicity, not ideology, Brunswijk comes from an ethnic group that has played no part in Suriname's politics in the modern era. (During the five years of parliamentary democracy following independence, Creole and East Indian parties battled it out, with the Javanese looking on and acting as the swing vote.)
Those behind Brunswijk are said to be wealthy, anti-Bouterse exiles, most of them part of the community of 250,000 Surinamese 'emigr'es in the Netherlands. Recently it became known that a major exiled political leader, former President Henk Chin-A-Sen, had visited Suriname and met with Brunswijk. He claimed last week he had seen evidence of massacres of villagers by government troops attempting to retake vital bauxite-mining areas in the rebel-dominated eastern region.
Henk Heidweiller, the former ambassador to the United States who now serves as secretary to Bouterse, said it was fear of ethnic reprisals that caused one-third of the population to leave the country. The first wave left following independence in 1975; the second after Bouterse's coup in 1980; and the third following his murder of 15 opposition leaders in 1982.
Bouterse did away with ethnic bickering in parliament by suspending parliament. But in an effort to give legitimacy to his government, he has recently revived the old East Indian, Creole, and Javanese parties. Now there is a new ethnic factor in Suriname's political formula - the Bush Negroes.
As for what Brunswijk might demand for his people should he triumph, it is suggested that he himself probably doesn't know. One foreign analyst, who asked not to be identified, said the best summary of Brunswijk's present position is a saying in the Bush Negro language, called Taki-Taki.
Liberally translated, the saying is, ``Don't look at what you're getting, look at what you're getting rid of.''