SURINAM: Birth Pangs of a Polyglot State

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After four days of debate that often lasted until dawn, the parliament of the world's newest, and 156th, sovereign state unanimously approved a constitution. The staid, protocol-conscious assembly in Surinam's capital of Paramaribo erupted in cheers. Outside, a crowd waiting for the vote roared its approval and set off celebratory firecrackers. As the parliamentarians stood to sing the national anthem, a Creole woman placed garlands of ribbons around the neck of Prime Minister Henck Arron and Opposition Leader Jaggernath Lachmon, head of the Hindustani Vatan Hitkarie (Progressive Reform) party. Close to tears, the two longtime political opponents embraced.

There is serious question, though, as to how long the euphoria will last. Surinam, which formally becomes independent at midnight this Tuesday, is a polyglot* New England-size former Dutch colony on South America's humid equatorial coast, with some exotic and bitter divisions. The new nation's largest single racial group−129,500 East Indians known locally as Hindustanis−almost universally opposed independence. They feared political and economic repression by the 108,500 Creoles (blacks and mulattoes), most of whom belong to leftist-influenced parties supporting Prime Minister Arron. Joining forces with Surinam's 63,000 Javanese, the Creoles took control of the preindependence assembly in 1973 elections. The state's 40,000 Bush Negroes−descendants of escaped slaves who live tribally in Surinam's jungles−have always preferred dealing directly with the Dutch, and distrust the Creoles. Another ethnic group consists of 10,000 largely apolitical indigenous Indians.

Even some Creoles and their Javanese allies are wary about Surinam's future. Arron's new government needs to work out an accommodation with the Hindustanis, who traditionally ran most of the country's commerce and supplied most of its doctors and teachers. Last week's debate over the constitution was forced by nervous Hindustanis who demanded−and eventually got−promises of such safeguards as an army composed of all ethnic groups and elections within three months. "If the government obeys it, we have a very democratic constitution here," said Opposition Leader Lachmon. "If it is obeyed, it can be one of the best constitutions in the world. If it is not, I hate to predict what might happen."

Golden Handshake. The most enthusiastic advocates of independence have been the Dutch, who governed Surinam as a colony for more than 300 years. The Hague government is rapidly trying to unload the vestiges of its old colonial empire−an anachronistic embarrassment. Beyond that, The Netherlands has grown tired of the strife that has racked Surinam since the Hindustanis lost the 1973 elections. A tide of mostly Hindustani immigrants has swollen The Netherlands' Surinamese population from 60,000 to 140,000; they have come to take advantage of the citizenship−not to mention the lavish welfare system−that the Dutch offer all their colonial subjects. At first the newcomers were warmly welcome. But the tolerant Dutch are troubled by Surinamese ghettoes growing up in their neat towns. Many of the immigrants are without jobs and have no marketable skills; some have turned to crime.

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