Suriname: A Country of Mutes

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Terror and Marxism replace tolerance and prosperity

Once upon a time the former colony of Dutch Guiana seemed to be an enchanted tropical paradise. Its gentle, unusually tolerant melange of Creole, Indian, Chinese and Javanese inhabitants were blessed with rich farming lands, rivers teeming with fish and one of the world's largest bauxite-producing economies. Upon Suriname's independence in 1975, the Dutch promised a generous allowance of $100 million annually for 15 years, giving the newly formed nation one of the highest per capita incomes in the developing world ($2,500). One in every three citizens owned a car; living rooms were stocked with video recorders. When the police shot a demonstrator during an isolated outburst ten years ago, flowers were sent to the entire community.

But the fairy tale has become a horror story. Plainclothes police "watchdogs" arrest citizens at random. The university has been closed, along with all but the state-controlled press. Radio stations and trade union headquarters have been blown to rubble; nearly all of the country's commissioned officers have resigned or been dismissed. Says one of the few locals unafraid to talk: "People are terrified and suspicious of informers everywhere."

The idyl was shattered one evening last December, when Revolutionary Leader Desi Bouterse ordered the arrest of 16 of the country's most prominent citizens, including lawyers, journalists and labor leaders. The next morning all but one of them were dead. Doctors later found evidence of knife wounds and cigarette burns on the corpses; teeth and jaws had been broken, while arms had been almost torn from their sockets. Labor Leader Cyril Daal had been ritually castrated. Bou terse, 37, who reportedly killed two of the men, joyfully proclaimed "the building of a new Suriname." But his 350,000 citizens were less sanguine. Over the past five months, 1,000 have fled; those who remain are subdued. Says one exile: "Suriname has been transformed into a country of mutes."

Bouterse had stumbled into power in 1980. As a physical-education instructor fighting for the military's right to form a union, he managed almost inadvertently to overthrow the democratically elected, but divisive, government of Henk Arron. At first, the new regime was so diffident that it hung up a suggestion box soliciting advice on how to run the country, and Bouterse, its popular and athletic leader, even resolved to complete his high school education. Only much later was it discovered that one of his tutors had become his mistress and was schooling him in the writings of Lenin and Marx.

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