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After Dutch Literary Prize winner says Suriname ‘needed’ former president Bouterse, organisers cancel her award ceremony

Surinamese author Astrid Heli Roemer in 2016. Photo by Raúl Neijhorst via Wikimedia Commons, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Noted Surinamese writer, Astrid Roemer, who this year became the first writer from her country to receive the prestigious Dutch Literary Prize (Prijs der Nederlandse Letteren), has made some now-infamous comments that seem set to be ingrained in her legacy.

The uproar concerns Roemer's description of former Suriname president Dési Bouterse as “unforgettably brave.” In 2019, Bouterse was sentenced to a 20-year jail term after a military court found him guilty of murder for the execution of 15 dissidents in 1982, an act that became known as the “December murders.” Bouterse first came to power in 1980 through a coup d'etat which ushered in an era of military rule, during which he was accused of numerous human rights violations.

Roemer's comments prompted both shock and outrage, both in Suriname and abroad. While she will still receive the coveted literary prize, worth about 55,000 United States dollars, the organisers have cancelled the formal award ceremony, which had been carded for October, explaining that it would not be appropriate given “Ms. Roemer’s recent views and statements.” On her Facebook page, Roemer described the cancellation as “een pak van mijn hart,” or “a load off my mind,” and had this to say about Bouterse:

Onze Surinaamse gemeenschap Desi Bouterse hard nodig heeft gehad om zelfbewuster te worden. Merci Man.

Our Surinamese community needed Desi Bouterse the most in order to become more self-aware. Thank you, man.

A series of murders

After Bouterse's 1980 coup came a series of killings that were confirmed by Amnesty International and other human rights organisations, including those that happened between December 7 and 8, 1982, when 15 men—journalists, scientists, and trade union leaders opposing Bouterse's military regime—were shot dead at Fort Zeelandia, a fortress located in the capital, Paramaribo. The lone survivor, who eventually testified at Bouterse's 2019 trial, described him as being in charge, “calm and cold-blooded”.

The interior courtyard of Fort Zeelandia, where the ‘December murders’ were carried out. Photo by Dan Lundberg on Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Tried in absentia, Bouterse protested his 20-year sentence, prompting demands that he should receive another 20 years in prison, an issue on which the court will rule come August 30, though Bouterse will be able to appeal.

Roemer's ‘unconventionality’

The judges of the Prijs der Nederlandse Letteren commended Roemer's “unconventional, poetic” writing. At 78, she has drawn on a lifetime of existing in a colonial space to produce her highly regarded work. Though she has not relegated herself to solely discussing slavery or the country's tumultuous political legacy, her literary representations of Surinamese history have won her other accolades. In 2016, she was the first Caribbean writer to win the P.C. Hooft-prijs Dutch literary award, at which time the jury noted, “political engagement and literary experiment go hand in hand with Roemer,” an observation which perhaps renders the author's bold statements about Bouterse not completely surprising.

She refused to label him a murderer, explaining:

Ik begrijp dat mensen dat niet prettig vinden, maar ik ben geneigd om Desi Bouterse te geloven als hij zegt: ik heb geen burgermoorden gewild. Ik geloof hem.

I understand that people do not like that, but I tend to believe Desi Bouterse when he says: ‘I didn't want civilian murders.’ I believe him.

Immediate backlash

The moment she said it, reactions came in left and right. Attorney Lilian Gonçalves-Ho Kang You, a member of the Commemoration Committee for Victims of Suriname and wife of one of the victims of the December murders, said she was “shocked and stunned by Roemer's statements”:

Ik wist eigenlijk niet wat ik zag en hoorde. Ik kijk er vooral van op dat ze zegt dat er geen bewijs is voor de uitspraak dat Bouterse een moordenaar zou zijn. Er is een vonnis, uitvoerig gemotiveerd. Ik was bij die zitting. Het is evident dat hij is veroordeeld voor medeplichtigheid aan moord.

I actually did not know what I saw and heard. I am especially surprised that she says that there is no evidence for the verdict that Bouterse was a murderer. There is a verdict, extensively motivated. I was at that hearing. It is evident that he has been convicted of complicity in murder.

Another lawyer, Gerard Spong, was clipped in his reaction:

Ze niet goed snik.

She is not good in the head.

In response to Spong's plea to deny her the prize entirely, Roemer—in a tweet that now appears to be deleted—quipped:

Well, well Spong…STORM IN A GLASS OF WATER.

This was closely followed by Jan Dijkgraaf writing a satirical letter to Astrid Roemer, questioning Spong:

Een advocaat die de Belgische koning oproept om uw literaire werk niet te belonen met die ereprijs omdat uw (bizarre) mening hem niet aanstaat, vertoont namelijk zelf onvervalst NSB-gedrag. Die uitspraken [prijzen van Bouterse] zíjn natuurlijk totaal gestoord.

A lawyer who calls on the Belgian king not to reward your literary work with that prize because he does not like your (bizarre) opinion, is showing genuine NSB [Nationaal-Socialistische Beweging, a Dutch fascist and Nazi-leaning political party] behavior himself. Those statements [praising Bouterse] are of course completely insane.

India's prime minister, Narendra Modi, meets then president of Suriname, Dési Bouterse, at the 6th BRICS Summit in Brasilia, in 2014. Photo by MEAphotogallery on Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Meanwhile, the shell-shocked Comité Herdenking Slachtoffers Suriname (Commemoration Committee for Victims of Suriname) has called upon the Nederlandse Taalunie (Dutch Language Association) to “openly take a stand” against what it calls the “anti-democratic and anti-rule of law statements” of the Surinamese writer.

Rita Rahman, current chair of the Werkgroep Caraïbische Letteren (Caribbean Letters Working Group), who lost both her husband and brother in the December murders, wrote:

In uw juryrapport wordt Astrid H. Roemer geprezen voor haar vermogen om thema’s uit de recente geschiedenis, zoals corruptie, schuld, kolonisatie en dekolonisatie, te verbinden met de kleine geschiedenis, het verhaal op de mensenmaat. Met haar verwarde geest, wonend in het door haar blijkbaar onbegrepen Suriname, heeft zij de dekolonisatie strijd vanaf de jaren dertig tot en met de jaren zeventig op grote  afstand meegemaakt en beseft blijkbaar niet dat juist die strijd in de jaren 80 door de militaire staatsgreep bloedig […] Zij slaat dus de plank dezer dagen goed mis, en kan daarvoor geen handreiking krijgen.

In your jury report, Astrid H. Roemer is praised for her ability to connect themes from recent history, such as corruption, guilt, colonization and decolonization, with small history, the story on a human scale. With her confused mind, living in Suriname apparently misunderstood by her, she experienced the decolonization struggle from the thirties to the seventies at a great distance and apparently does not realize that precisely that struggle in the eighties was bloody due to the military coup d'état […] So she misses the point badly these days, and can't get any help for that.

The storm gets bigger

Roemer's “storm in a glass” grew exponentially after she responded to columnist Harriet Duurvoort, who has Surinamese roots and had criticised Roemer's attitude towards Bouterse, tweeting on August 7:

In haar boek ‘Lijken op liefde’ wist ze op een gelaagde, literaire manier het grote trauma van de decembermoorden te verwerken. Maar dat ze zich nu zo lovend over Bouterse uitlaat,is echt een klap in het gezicht van Suriname, van Nederlandse en Surinaamse Surinamers.

In her book ‘Looks on Love’ she managed to process the great trauma of the December murders in a layered, literary way. But the fact that she now expresses herself so praising about Bouterse is really a slap in the face of Suriname, of Dutch and Surinamese.

Roemer clapped back on the thread, claiming that Bouterse did a lot for Suriname's awareness of the decolonisation process:

Roemer ended by calling Duurvoort “lultrut” or “an asshole bitch,” causing a flood of reactions that ranged from horror to assumptions about the author's mental health. Some social media users even wondered whether Roemer’s Twitter account had been hacked, but thus far, she has firmly stood firmly behind her words.

Surinamese netizens remain divided. While many took offence, not everyone is against Roemer’s statements or sees Bouterse as a villain. Politician Mohamed Amzad Abdoel, who is a member of Suriname's National Democratic Party, lauded Roemer's courage as a Black woman unafraid to use her voice:

[D]e wijze waarop Astrid Roemer is behandeld een duidelijk voorbeeld is hoe democratie in de wereld werkt. Zolang men het liedje niet zingt zoals Het Westen dat wil, wordt men gestraft. Het is deze heerschappij van Het Westen waartegen Bouterse altijd heeft gestreden. Het zal waarschijnlijk ook deze waarheid zijn die Astrid Roemer heeft ingezien.

[T]he way Astrid Roemer was treated is a clear example of how democracy works in the world. As long as people don't sing the song the way the West wants, they will be punished. It is this reign of the West that Bouterse has always fought against. It will probably also be this truth that Astrid Roemer has seen.

Roemer is not new to controversy. Prior to Suriname's elections in May 2020, she said on Facebook—the post appears to have since been taken down—that, as a modern woman, she felt uneasy about “administrative dominance” by Hindus and Muslims. The country's current president, Chan Santokhi, is Hindu. As then police commissioner, he led the investigation into the December murders, even as Bouterse claimed Santokhi wanted to “imprison and kill” him. Roemer has held tightly to her opinion, however, recently telling the Dutch daily, de Volkskrant, that although she is happy President Santokhi is talking about a multireligious and multiethnic society, she is still concerned.

As it stands, however, the lion's share of public concern still seems to be focused on Roemer.

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