Although football administrators are very keen to pretend otherwise, football and politics are often closely linked. Especially in smaller countries, like Suriname. An event that disrupted Surinamese society also left clear traces in football.
Although Suriname never played at a World Cup, the former Dutch colony had (and still has) an immense impact on international football. Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard, Patrick Kluivert, Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf, Virigil van Dijk, Gini Wijnaldum. Footballers with (partly) Surinamese roots brought their clubs the Champions League and excelled in the Dutch national team. To boost the small South American country’s national team, in recent years the Surinamese football association has given sports passports to Dutch-born Surinamese players. Quite a few talented footballers were eager to get such a passport and play for Suriname. With success, as Suriname is starting to be a force which must be taken into account in the region. It was not the first time that attempts were made to interest ‘Dutch’ Surinamese players in Suriname’s national team. In the early nineties this also happened. At that time, the focus placed on Suriname’s national team revealed an uncomfortable situation.
First Surinamese professional footballer
One name stands out in Surinamese football history: André ‘Ampie’ Kamperveen. Born in the Surinamese capital Paramaribo in 1924, Kamperveen was the best Surinamese footballer of his generation, shining in the Surinamese and Caribbean team in the 1940s and 1950s. In 1954, he became the first Surinamese professional footballer in the Netherlands, having previously played a year in Brazil’s highest division. The centre forward played for HFC Haarlem (the oldest club in the Netherlands) for two years and impressed with his style of play and goals. During his time in the Netherlands, he successfully completed training as a sports instructor. He was a very talented sportsman, who was also skilled in basketball, boxing, judo and jiu jitsu. After returning to Suriname, he spoke enthusiastically about his stay in the Netherlands. He paved the way for many compatriots. Because of his experiences, fifteen other Surinamese players ventured to the Netherlands within a short time.
Pioneering sports enthusiast
Not only as a footballer, Kamperveen had a major impact in Suriname on sport in general and football in particular. After his return to Suriname, he set himself the goal of getting the sport there well and thoroughly established. He did so in many ways. He opened a sports school and published a sports magazine. He also held all kinds of positions, especially in football. Starting in the late 1950s, he was coach of the national team for several years. Furthermore, Kamperveen was coach of top club Transvaal and played a role in the introduction of women’s football in Suriname, by providing training. In the managerial field, he held a large number of positions, at every conceivable level. He was first a board member and later president of the football association of Suriname. In the 1970s, he became the very first president of the new Caribbean Football Organisation, vice-president of CONCACAF and vice-president of FIFA. Besides all these activities, Kamperveen was also a journalist. In this capacity, he founded his own radio station in 1975: Ampie’s Broadcasting Corporation, or Radio ABC for short.
Independence and coup
In the same year, Suriname became independent from the Netherlands. The first years as an independent country were not easy. There was widespread dissatisfaction with the policies of the government of the first prime minister Henck Arron. In 1980, a group of soldiers led by Desi Bouterse seized power. This coup was greeted with enthusiasm by a large part of the country. Kamperveen also supported the newly installed government and became press chief of the new regime. In 1981, he was appointed minister of youth, sports and culture. He resigned in 1982, when it became clear to him that the military had no intention of bringing back democracy. After a hopeful beginning, daily matters proved that the military regime did not respect human rights. The military was guilty of large-scale illegal arrests, acts of violence, mistreatment of detainees and, in some cases, murder.
1982 was a turbulent year in Suriname’s history. The military cracked down on the ever-growing feelings of discontent in society. Kamperveen grew to become one of the military regime’s biggest critics. As a journalist and owner of Radio ABC, Kamperveen often spoke out against the authorities. This criticism eventually became fatal to him. On the night of 7-8 December 1982, he and other critics of the military were lifted off their beds and taken to Fort Zeelandia, the military headquarters. His radio station was set on fire. In the evening, Kamperveen could be heard on the radio. Under duress he uttered a false statement, saying that he had plotted a coup together with the other detainees. He was presumably executed shortly afterwards, without trial. Family members later established that Kamperveen had injuries to his jaw, that his femur was broken and that there were eighteen bullets in his chest.
This event, named the December Murders, had a huge impact on Surinamese society. To add some perspective: among the fifteen victims were four lawyers. That may not seem like a shockingly large number, but out of a total of 40 professional lawyers working in Suriname, this meant that ten percent of all lawyers had been killed. Criticism of the military regime had been silenced and, despite all kinds of international protests, an investigation was not held. Bouterse and his men came up with contradictory statements, including that the fifteen victims had attempted to flee and had been shot on the run. Although the exact facts remained unclear, especially in the first few years, it was clear that the military was responsible for killing the regime’s biggest opponents. One name kept recurring in this regard: Paul Bhagwandas. Bhagwandas was the third in command and acquired the nickname ‘Butcher of Zeelandia’ in the rumor mill in Paramaribo, where it was said he played a (or the) major role in the killings.
The military remained in power until 1991. Although an investigation was never started, relatives and others involved made a case for the fifteen victims not to be forgotten. Because of his great merits for Surinamese sport and football in particular, the national stadium in Paramaribo was renamed the André Kamperveen Stadium on 29 August 1988. Not long after that it was shown how small and highly intertwined Surinamese society is. Paul Bhagwandas suddenly had left the army in the mid-1980s for unclear reasons. He held a position as a police officer and also became involved in football in Suriname. Bhagwandas, who had training as a sports instructor during his military career, became national team coach in 1989. This team played its home matches at the André Kamperveen Stadium. This was poignant because Bhagwandas was one of the perpetrators of the December Murders, while Kamperveen was one of the victims. In fact, it is not even unlikely that Bhagwandas was the one who killed Kamperveen.
Commotion in the Netherlands
This uncomfortable situation was brought to attention in the Netherlands in 1993, at a time when attempts were being made to interest ‘Dutch’ Surinamese players for the Surinamese national team. On 1 March, the Dutch football association received a letter from an interest group drawing attention to the fact that Bhagwandas was one of the main suspects of the December Murders. In June, a large article appeared in Voetbal International, the country’s leading football magazine. Footballer André Wasiman, spokesman on behalf of Surinamese players in the Netherlands, stated that under these circumstances, probably none of them would want to play for the Surinamese team.
Son asks for investigation
Journalist Johnny Kamperveen, son of André and himself only narrowly escaping in 1982, also was quoted in the article in Voetbal International:
I find it scary that Bhagwandas, who was allegedly involved in the December Murders of which my father was also a victim, now holds a position with the Suriname Football Association. That cannot go together. By the sounds of it, Bhagwandas is one of the suspects. But so are Bouterse and many more soldiers. The silly thing is that you only talk about noises you have heard, and suspicions you have. That is why it is so important to have an investigation, only then can you draw conclusions, only then can you say: that man cannot hold that position. It’s lame to start from assumptions and stories. The whole community assumes that Bouterse and Bhagwandas, among others, are involved. It is not concrete, but where there is smoke, there is fire.
He called for an investigation, which at the time still hadn’t started. “I want to know who killed my father, I have that right,” he said. And on football: “Suriname will only be accepted internationally if the Suriname Football Association is clean again. That is another reason why those questions have to be answered: who is clean and who has blood on his hands?”
Bhagwandas himself did not want to comment. “I deal with sports, not politics”, he said. Not long after the article in Voetbal International, Bhagwandas resigned his post. Also, at that time an influx from ‘Dutch’ Surinamese players into the national team didn’t take place.
Now, 41 years after the December Murders, there has been an extensive legal investigation into the December Murders. Bhagwandas did not live to see it. He died of an illness in 1996. On his deathbed, he did confess to one of the victims’ relatives that he had been involved in the massacre. Bouterse, chiefly responsible from his position as leader, has since been sentenced to 20 years in prison. However, due to an ongoing appeal process, he is still a free man. André Kamperveen still lives on as a legend in the Surinamese football society. In Paramaribo, his statue stands in front of the office of the football association.
Especially in smaller countries football and politics are inextricably connected. Do you know more examples of this?
A sideline in this article is the possibility for football players with a diverse background or multiple nationalities to choose between national teams. In some countries like the Netherlands there is an ongoing discussion about this. Some say that players who have the option to choose should be loyal to the country they grew up in and learned to play football. What is your view about this?
Find out more
Read an article about the importance of Kamperveen for football in Suriname on FIFA.com. Find out more about the December Murders on En-academic.com.