- - Thursday, October 9, 2014

Suriname is a country of exceptional ethnic and religious diversity: a diversity, which, through the exercise of tolerance and co-existence, has become a national strength. It is a strength born out of hardship.

For many years the Dutch operated a plantation system that repatriated large-scale profits back to the Netherlands, leaving behind scars of enormous cruelty. The slave trade brought a large number of Africans to the Dutch plantation colony from, among others, Ghana. Slavery was abolished in 1873, but plantation owners replaced their involuntary workforce with indentured laborers from Indonesia (Java), India and China. Meanwhile, runaway slaves, - Maroons, as they became known - fled into the rainforest where indigenous communities, that had already themselves moved fleeing slavery, collaborated with them, which secured the survival of the Maroons deep in the rainforest. Year after year, decade after decade, all these communities learned how to carefully collaborate and co-exist against a common authority. Gradually a spirit of unity and celebration of diversity arose from the ashes of hardship and forced labor.

This history of being brought together, one by one, over the course of centuries from different parts of the world made Suriname a nation of true collaboration. “Today the principles of co-existence, respect and tolerance are deeply ingrained in each and every one of us,” says Suriname’s President Desir Delano Bouterse. “We eat, work, and celebrate together. Muslims celebrate Christmas with their Christian friends, Jewish people share dinner with Muslims at the end of Ramadan; and all Surinamese traditionally celebrate the Hindu national holiday of Phagwa,” he adds. In short, “We are multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and singularly peaceful.”

This unity can produce visual images scarcely imaginable in other parts of the world; perhaps most notably a Jewish synagogue and Islamic mosque standing next to each other in the capital city of Paramaribo. “Diversity is normal for us it is simply the way things are here,” says President Bouterse. “But we realize how unusual we are in this regard every time a Surinamese delegation heads overseas, and people try to figure out where we are from. Not being able to see differences based on color, religion or status is the most precious gift in life. Suriname regards its tolerance and co-existence in multi-cultural diversity as a valuable asset one that we are proud of and eager to share.”

Hindustani, Creole, Javanese and Maroons make up the largest groups, accounting for about 83 percent of the population. Suriname’s vibrant tribal population of 197 indigenous and Maroon communities, continue to live mostly in the vast rainforest areas that make up more than 95 percent of Suriname’s landmass. In recent years these communities have become an increasingly important voice in the national debate over environmental conservation and biodiversity.

This cultural and religious mosaic expresses itself in the country’s political process as well. Suriname’s Permanent Representative to the Organization of American States (OAS), Ambassador Niermala Badrising, observes that “our representative democracy counts more than 30 political parties, with coalition-building among the parties to take into account and give a voice to all our ethnic and religious communities.” Additionally, Suriname is the only country in South-America with an Inter-Religious Council (IRIS) consisting of Christian, Hindu, Muslim and Jewish representatives. IRIS operates as an advisory body to the government. This kind of civic engagement helps promote policies and programs that are inclusive and focused on the welfare of all citizens, rather than just those of certain privileged groups.

President Bouterse also believes that powerful civic benefits arise from Suriname’s strong sense of national and cultural identity. “It is only when we know ourselves, respect ourselves and feel deep pride for our cultural wealth, that we can confidently chart our path in the world,” he says. It is a strength he believes Suriname should share with the world. “Connecting to our brothers and sisters in the region and beyond can help improve the South American and Caribbean experience, and strengthen us in achieving true development for our nations.”

This article was produced in conjunction with The Washington Times International Advocacy Department.

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