Racial tensions rise in Suriname amidst economic instability, but citizens still hope for unity

Feature image created using Canva Pro elements.

As a member of CARICOM, Suriname is widely considered part of the Caribbean Community even though it is situated in the northernmost part of South America. The continent's smallest sovereign state, however, has been in uproar for the past few weeks over issues of economic instability and corruption — and the end is not yet in sight. Amidst citizens’ anger and desperation, racial tensions are growing.

Suriname's 600,000-strong population boasts much ethnic diversity. The country's Indigenous inhabitants only comprise about 3.8 percent of the citizenry, while most Surinamese are either Black and can trace their roots to enslaved Africans (locally called Creoles; 15.7 percent of the population), or of East Indian descent (locally called Hindustanis; 27.4 percent). The country's Maroon population, descendants of enslaved Africans who escaped to freedom in the interior, makes up about 21.7 percent.

Despite the country’s reputation as the hidden gem of South America, citizens have been frustrated with living conditions for some time, and any improvement seems slow in coming. An economic crisis in which there has been steady inflation (2022 saw inflation increase by almost 55 percent), combined with a weak currency, and challenges with the effects of climate change are making it difficult for Surinamese citizens to fulfil their basic daily needs.

Back in 2020, certain necessities were so hard to come by that people from The Netherlands began sending items to family and friends in the former Dutch colony. Making the economic situation even more austere is the International Monetary Fund's insistence on a decrease of subsidised energy, gas, and fuel as part of the arrangement for a loan that was extended to the country in December 2021. Such measures have succeeded in placing even more strain on the already stretched people of Suriname. In the absence of adequate public transport, this is yet another blow for the working class, who already from whom travelling great distances is often part of their working lives,

When President Chan Santokhi came to power in an uncontested election in 2020, he promised to stabilise the economy within 200 days. Despite inheriting a state treasury with an empty vault, he instated several more civil servants, some of them allegedly being friends and family, which only served to magnify the level of public desperation.

The situation reached its boiling point on February 17, when protestors gathered on Independence Square in the capital, Paramaribo, and broke into the parliament building. This action was accompanied by similar riots all over the city as dissatisfaction over President Santokhi’s policy came to a head. Demonstrators threw stones, broke windows, and destroyed property. The parliament’s entrance hall was damaged, while in other locations, shops were looted and fires set.

Some businesses have remained closed after these violent escalations. In the aftermath of the protests, the government enforced a temporary evening curfew; more than 140 people were arrested and almost 50 are still detained. Citizens also experienced restricted access to social media and online messaging platforms. Such swift and extreme escalation of protest movements was unprecedented in Suriname. However, some believe it was preventable since information had come to the attention of the police that “troublemakers” were planning to attend the otherwise peaceful protests.

With strong anti-government sentiment in play, racial tensions have been growing, as well. While Suriname has been known as a tolerant and diverse society, both Creole and Hindustani minorities have always been present, with tensions surrounding the precariousness of each group's equality, which in practice was not always ensured.

President Santokhi addressed these tensions in 2021, when he gave a stern speech on acceptance and tolerance. Some demonstrators, who perhaps started out protesting against the government's policy on economic security, soon began to embrace alarming language that made it sound as if “everyone who looks like [the president]” was part of the problem. President Santokhi, as a Surinamese with Indian heritage descended from indentured labourers, would be considered part of the country's Hindustani community.

Contributing to the post-demonstration discourse was controversial former president Desi Bouterse, who called upon the people of Suriname to resist making the situation even more polarised than it already was, and to be aware of the dangers of fuelling old racial tensions. Videos and online comments about the violence, however, were marred by racial slurs from various ethnic groups. A particularly nasty one, which referred to Black people in derogatory terms and was supportive of the transatlantic slave trade, went viral and was even mentioned by a national television station. The comment, and the profile of the young Indian woman who posted it, have since been removed. On the other side of the coin, there were posts referring to getting rid of the “koelies” [a racial slur that refers to someone of Indian descent, with inferences to unskilled labourers].

There were also posts that attempted to diffuse the situation and counteract any hatred by sharing images displaying brotherhood; many netizens, however, responded by commenting that such images were unnecessary since everyone in Suriname is one.

In light of recent reparation efforts by the Dutch government — the Netherlands announced 2023 as the year commemorating the slave past in Suriname and the Dutch Caribbean, a move that was preceded by a December 2022 apology for its role in colonisation and the slave trade — such racial tensions in Suriname have added an extra dimension to an already painful situation.

When compared to the types of stories they have run about previous demonstrations, the Dutch media have been fairly quiet in their reporting of the racial tensions surrounding the Surinamese protests against government policy. Meanwhile, Surinamese citizens are worried, as are members of the Surinamese community in the Netherlands.

Twenty-six-year-old Leiden University student Dayant Ramkalup told Global Voices:

The Sunday after the demonstrations, I spoke to my grandmother in Paramaribo, who was saying she was staying home from the mandir as their pandit was worried about racial attacks on [specific Hindustani buildings]. This was the moment it hit me that this was turning into a racial conflict. I understand why the people of Suriname are protesting if the regular citizen can't afford [to send] their children to school or feed them, while the government is living well and so are their family and friends. However, […] am certain of that the people of Suriname, both Creoles and Hindustani, and especially the older generation, will not allow [the situation to devolve into racial conflict].

Fellow student, 28-year-old Roy Vermeer added:

When I saw the images on television of all the looting, my first thought was, [other Surinamese] are going to hate on the black people of Suriname. I often have felt I needed to prove I was not a ‘lazy bum’ due to prejudice [to black people] and I feel this [inequal feeling] will never completely disappear. I have a Hindustani girlfriend and we are very happy together. I am worried that these tensions will lead to a fallout in the country between Creoles and Hindustani, which will make it harder for our families as well to accept our relationship. It has not been easy.

At the beginning of March, Stephano Biervliet, an activist more widely known as “Pakittow” (a local take on the Spanish name “Paquito”), who first began organising protests when Suriname was led by Bouterse, was released from state custody. Pakittow, who happens to be of Creole heritage, was pegged as the organisational leader of the demonstrations. When prices started surging at the beginning of 2023, and the public mood turned from restless to desperate, he said he got so many messages asking him what he was going to do about the situation that he got tired of it. In an interview with the Dutch newspaper Volkskrant, he registered his dismay over the fact that the demonstrations escalated to the degree they did: “Tear gas [from the police] and looting are new to this country. I am amazed and shocked.”

A month later, the situation has not yet returned to normal. President Santokhi used the occasion of Holi (also known as Phagwa, the Festival of Colours), to call upon citizens to put aside their differences for the sake of a better, more unified Suriname.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Defence announced that there would be an increase in police and military surveillance in an effort to ensure peace. The nation's military prowess is currently at its peak, therefore, helped along by the presence of members of the Dutch military who are currently in Suriname on a jungle training exercise.

Against the backdrop of continued economic uncertainty, a clear end to the unrest is not expected anytime soon. The Netherlands has issued a yellow travel advisory for Suriname, suggesting that travellers should exercise increased caution at the destination.

Many international organisations and government bodies, meanwhile, have criticised the attack on Suriname's National Assembly as an attack on democracy. But what of the more pressing issue of economic stability as citizens continue to worry about whether they will be able to put food on the table? As a large portion of Suriname's diverse population struggles with this concern, the hope is that everyone will keep in mind their country's strong sense of brotherhood — “Wan Kondre, Wan Pipel”, meaning “One Country, One people.”


  • MWnyc

    Why did the author neglect to mention the ethnic Javanese community in Suriname, 13.7% of the population?

    • Thank you for reading the article! Good question. However, the sentence said ‘most’ people from Suriname, not all. The article is focusing on the tensions arising between Hindustani and Afro Surinamese, the other ethnic groups such as natives, Chinese, and Javanese, for example, were not mentioned in that sentence in order to stay focused on what is happening at large between the two groups. I hope that answers your question! Again, thank you for reading and taking the time to comment.

Join the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.