Graphic by Asyrique Thevendran/TheGazelle
Suriname is a constitutional democracy located on the northeast coast of South America. A relatively small country of around half a million people, it receives much less attention than its neighbors, possibly because of its status as a non-Latino country in a continent dominated by Lusophones and Hispanophones. Suriname has a rich history with some of the highest levels of ethnic and religious diversity and a strange political situation.
Suriname was home to groups of indigenous peoples, but in the 17th century the English and Dutch began settling on the fertile coastal plains in the north of the country. Disputes soon arose. In the 1667 Treaty of Breda, the Dutch essentially traded New Amsterdam for Suriname. The colony’s plantations relied heavily on the labor of African slaves, who frequently escaped and formed alliances with indigenous tribes, creating a unique ethnic group, the Maroons. When slavery was abolished by the Netherlands in 1863, indentured servants were brought from India and Java, which explains the high number of people of South Asian and Southeast Asian descent in Suriname. This history has created one of the most diverse countries in the Americas
with an ethnic breakdown
of 37 percent “East Indian” (a local term used to refer to people of South Asian ancestry), 31 percent Creole, 15 percent Javanese, 10 percent Maroons, 2 percent Amerindian, 2 percent Chinese, 1 percent European and 2 percent classified as other.
Hinduism is the largest religion, but there are almost equal numbers of Protestants, Catholics and Muslims in addition to a minority group that follows indigenous religions. Dutch is the official language, but an English-based creole language, Sranang, serves as a lingua franca.
Suriname gained independence from the Netherlands in 1975. Fearing that the country would collapse, a mass migration to the Netherlands began. A new democratic government was put in place, but in 1980 it was overthrown in a military coup led by Dési Bouterse, who then established a military dictatorship. Bourterse led the dictatorship until the early 1990s, when a democratic government returned after increased public resentment. The demise of the dictatorship was also hastened by a small guerrilla war. This began as a conflict between the state and the Maroons, led by Ronnie Brunswijk, who was supposedly Bouterse’s former personal bodyguard.
Nevertheless, Bouterse was elected president in 2010. He has remained a controversial figure because of allegations of human rights abuses during his time as dictator and alleged criminal activity. He has an arrest warrant from Europol for cocaine trafficking and was sentenced in absentia to prison in the Netherlands. Cables released by Wikileaks
reveal his connections to larger drug trafficking organizations and a drugs-for-arms enterprise with the Colombian organization FARC. Initially, Suriname’s economy relied heavily on aid from the Netherlands, but today it has a mostly resource-based economy stemming from large amounts of bauxite and smaller reserves of gold and oil.