What is your dissertation about?

“I conducted research into the development of democracy in Suriname, from 1975, when Suriname became independent from the Netherlands, to 2020, when the most recent elections were held. By describing that development, I wanted to highlight points for improvement, and how that democratic state under the rule of law can be developed further.”

How did you do that?

“I did a lot of reading. Much has been written on democracy, and on Suriname. Besides reading literature and academic texts, I conducted many interviews, both in Suriname and in the Netherlands. By talking to about forty current and former politicians, journalists, activists and citizens, I tried to get a representative perspective on democracy from as diverse a group as possible.”

What are your main recommendations?

“Everything depends on societal engagement, so civics and social studies should be mandatory subjects in education. This is how the government can invest in raising the awareness of every Surinamese citizen. Every citizen will know from a young age what their rights and obligations are, so that they realise: ‘Fundamentally, I hold the power. My vote matters. Not just once every five years at elections, but during the period in between as well. And if I no longer approve, I can express my opinion.’

“Besides that, Suriname has all the institutions associated with a democracy, such as a constitution, a parliament, an independent electoral committee, a constitutional court, an independent judiciary and an audit office. In practice, however, some crucial institutions aren’t operating optimally. That’s why my second recommendation is that those institutions be strengthened.

“For example, the parliament currently doesn’t operate independently, because members of parliament from the coalition parties still conduct themselves too much as extensions of the government. The parliament is insufficiently critical and party interests prevail. Members of parliament should be aware that they’re serving the interests of the nation.”

Is that realistic for a relatively young democracy?

“I haven’t done a comparison with other young democracies, so I’d recommend investigating this further. I do think that it might be interesting to compare Singapore and Suriname, so I considered it as a subject for my doctorate dissertation. The countries became independent at roughly the same time, but if you look at where Singapore is now economically compared to Suriname, you might wonder what they did differently.

“The good news is that you can see the younger generation of Surinamese people uniting and hitting the streets when they worry about the state of their country. Another positive sign is the ongoing prosecution of Desi Bouterse for the December murders that happened during his presidency in 1982. This shows that the separation of powers is solid.”

B.D. (Bharti) Girjasing Promotie 1123-16_Levien Willemse
Image credit: Levien Willemse

Last week in the Netherlands, a party won that many people say does not respect the democratic rule of law. Do you feel that some of these recommendations could be made for the Netherlands as well?

“That’s the flip side of a democracy: if the people hold power, they may choose to undermine democracy itself. You need safeguards in your system to prevent that, and the Netherlands doesn’t.

“But to answer your question: yes, absolutely. Every Dutch citizen should understand the impact of their vote. For example, I’ve heard that many young people who voted for PVV didn’t necessarily read the party’s political programme, reasoning: ‘Who reads that stuff?’ It’s striking that there seems to be little real interest in what drives a person or party.”

Why did you want to look into democracy in Suriname?

“I lived in Suriname for ten years, from the age of eight until eighteen. While I lived there and afterwards, events took place that made me wonder: is everything all right with Surinamese democracy? For example, there’s the uncritical attitude of members of parliament or their double roles, where they’re also civil servants. When talking to a number of Surinamese people to find out how they felt about this, I also interviewed former prime minister Jules Sedney (in office from 1969 until 1973, ed.). He said that the democracy after independence met the needs of the Surinamese people. I had some doubts about this, so that prompted me to conduct further research.”

What was it like to conduct research into a topic that is dear to you?

“Suriname is a small community, where everyone knows everyone else. People are always asking after your last name and your parents, and then you just get pigeonholed, also politically. As an academic, an added obstacle was that some of my family members had been politically active. This could have been an issue, because I wanted to interview and highlight the entire political spectrum objectively. I had to convince some people of my impartiality.

“Personally, Suriname has done a lot for me, and I wanted to do something for the country in return. This was my way of giving back.”

You are an external PhD student. What do you do for a living?

“I work at the Ministry of Finance. Twelve years ago, I completed my master’s programme in Public Administration after four years of studying. That was a little too soon for me, and I didn’t want to leave the world of academics yet. On the other hand, I wanted to start working as well, so I decided to combine that with research.”

Did you ever have doubts about finishing your dissertation?

“No, never. There were years where I didn’t do much. I thought it was important to have fun in life as well, so I didn’t want to spend every holiday working on my dissertation. That’s how I ended up spending eleven years on it.”

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