Armed Forces Overviews
Suriname

Surinam Air Force / Surinaamse Luchtmacht

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By Wim Sonneveld

Republiek van Suriname


History 
By the time the Spanish arrived in the late 15th century, the Surinen, the original inhabitants of Suriname, part of the Guyanas in the Northeastern part of South America, had been driven out by other Amerindian groups. Fierce resistance to colonisation deterred most would-be occupiers from Europe and the territory formally changed hands many times between the French, English and Dutch before finally being confirmed as a Dutch possession by the terms of the 1815 Treaty of Vienna.

At this time, the majority of the population were slaves (slavery was eventually abolished in 1863) working plantations. Despite the abolition of slavery in 1863, conditions changed very little until the early 20th century and the discovery of large bauxite deposits which brought about a major change in the economic and consequently political complexion of the country. In 1954 Surinam, with the Netherlands Antilles, became an autonomous region within the Kingdom of The Netherlands. Full independence was achieved in 1975.

The new country's political parties were largely organised along ethnic lines (descendants of the black slave workforce, Indonesians, Indians, mixed-race Creoles and a small European contingent). The necessity of forging coalition governments tended to destabilise the political process in the early years of independence. In February 1980, the coalition government which had been in power since independence was overthrown in a widely popular military coup, led by sergeant-major Desi Bouterse. The new regime followed a left-wing political line, killed 15 prominent opponents in 1982, cultivating close links with Cuba at the expense of those with The Netherlands, and banning all political parties.

The economic burden of the civil war which broke out between the regime and jungle-based dissident elements (mainly the Jungle Commando of bushnegros led by Ronnie Brunswijk) prompted the military regime to announce a return to civilian rule. A transitional constitution was agreed in March 1987 and elections in November gave 40 out of the 51 seats in the National Assembly to the Front for Democracy and Development. A ceasefire agreed with the guerrillas for January 1988 was withdrawn, but a settlement was finally reached with them in 1992.

Diplomatic relations with The Netherlands have see-sawed continually since the early 1980s, depending largely on the extent of Dutch aid. Following a dispute with the elected President, Ransewak Shankar, now Lieutenant-Colonel Bouterse launched another coup in 1990. The National Assembly rapidly approved a new government, dominated by the National Democratic Party (NDP) which, despite having won just two seats at the 1987 election, had the strong backing of the army. In practice the Government was dominated by the vice-president and premier Jules Wijdenbosch. Wijdenbosch and his counterpart in the New Front (NF, successor to the Front for Democracy and Development), Ronald Venetiaan, have since become the dominant figures in Suriname politics. Venetiaan held the presidency from 1991 until 1996 when he was replaced by Wijdenbosch and another NDP government, virtually putting Bouterse again back into power. However, this administration was handicapped by a small majority and constant disputes between the coalition partners. Its term of office came to a premature end in 1999 when, after weeks of civil disturbances and strikes, the government lost a vote of no confidence. Some projects carried out by the government put the country almost into bankruptcy. In May 2000, Venetiaan once again took over as president and ties with The Netherlands are slowly improving since.

Bouterse, still popular with the military, has ill-defined power as an Advisory of the State through the National State Council, although he is sought after by American and Dutch prosecuters for large scale narco-traffic. The western borderline of the country is disputed by Guyana although a final treaty was signed in Chaguaramas recently. Expected large oil and bauxite resources as well as illegal border crossings and narco-traffic in the disputed Tigri area recently gave new impulse to the conflict.

Suriname Air Force

The Suriname Air Force (sometimes simply referred to as luchtmacht) is an independent part of the National Army (or Nationale Leger) alongside the army, navy and military police. With a colonel as Commander-in-Chief, consisting of some 2.000 man and a budget of less than $ 10 million the National Army is a very limited power in the international environment although internally and politically it remains a force to be reckoned with. The air force forms a relatively large part of the armed forces and it's history started soon after the country gained independence and is closely linked with the country's recent history.

The first military aircraft of the young air force was a Hughes 500 helicopter, simply registered SAF-001 and being used for light observation tasks. Unfortunately the aircraft was written off in March 1982, but in May of the same year a couple of Britten-Norman Defenders were delivered, providing the air force with a slow but valuable observation and light transportation aircraft. Later the number of Defenders increased to four and currently at least one is still operated by the air force, another two are (temporarily) stored.

Civil war broke out in 1986 following the rebellion of bushnegros (descendants of escaped black slaves) and fierce battles were fought with the Jungle Commando in the east of the country near Albina and Moengo, the army simply destroying complete villages of bushnegros. To deal with the rebels the airforce obtained relatively advanced aircraft with two PC-7 trainers and two Alouette III helicopters (the latter bought from Portugal) which could be armed with gunpods and machineguns respectively, making it the first armed aircraft in Surinam history. None of these aircraft are still operational today, as maintaining them would have brought severe problems to the air force and all were sold when the conflict had ended.

Populist president Jules Wijdenbosch however decided to buy two CASA 212 Aviocar aircraft in February 1998 and these were delivered in December 1998 and May 1999 putting serious pressure on the country's annual budget. Although the aircraft provide valuable capabilities for fishery patrol, border patrol and transportation into Suriname's vast jungle, as for earlier acquisitions, maintaining and operating these relatively sophisticated aircraft is almost impossible with the limited resources of the Suriname Air Force. Full control of the whole airspace will therefore not be obtained easily but the southern part of the country was lately covered by the extensive Brazilian SIVAM-project which aims to control the whole Amazon basin, in order to prevent illegal border crossings, narco-traffic and protection of natural resources in the enormous area.

Guyana still claims parts of the country in the southwest, which is expected to contain major oil and bauxite reserves. As with Guyana and Trinidad & Tobago, the Chinese are providing limited military assistance to Suriname which is aimed to bring more SAF aircraft back to airworthness. In the meantime, military ties with the Netherlands and the United States are being redeveloped slowly. Lately, Suriname turned to India to purchase three HAL Chetak helicopters, a licence built version of the well known Alouette III.