The first Dutch expeditions to the Guiana region took place in 1597–98, and the first Dutch colony, on Essequibo Island in present-day Guyana, was founded in 1616. The Dutch West India Company was founded in 1621 to exploit the territory. The Dutch hold on the east coast was interrupted by English and French attacks and by a slave insurrection (1762–63). The Treaty of Breda (1667, see Dutch Wars) gave all English territory in Guiana to the Dutch, but in 1815 the Congress of Vienna awarded the area that is now Guyana to Britain while reaffirming the Dutch hold on Dutch Guiana (present-day Suriname). Slavery was abolished in 1863, and the Netherlands granted Dutch Guiana a parliament in 1866.
In 1954, Suriname officially became an internally autonomous part of the kingdom of the Netherlands, and in 1975 it became independent. Just prior to independence, some 100,000 Surinamese, mainly of Asian descent, migrated to the Netherlands. In 1980 the government was ousted by a military coup led by Sgt. Major Désiré Bouterse, and the soldiers' civilian allies were installed in office. Bouterse assumed complete control from 1982 to 1987.
A variety of insurgent guerrilla groups formed in the mid-1980s and did considerable damage to the country's infrastructure and major industries. Democracy was restored in 1988 and guerrilla activity decreased. President Rameswak Shankar, however, was ousted from office in a Dec., 1990, military coup led by Bouterse, who again installed his political allies. New elections (1991) gave his opponents, the four-party New Front for Democracy (NFD) coalition, control of parliament, and NFD leader Ronald Venetiaan became president. He implemented free-market reforms, but inflation soared and the economy continued to contract.
Bouterse resigned as army chief in 1992 amid corruption charges. In 1996, however, a former aide to Bouterse, Jules Wijdenbosch of the National Democratic party (NDP), won the presidency. Bouterse served as an adviser to Wijdenbosch's government until Apr., 1999; three months later he was convicted in absentia in the Netherlands of drug trafficking. Venetiaan's New Front won a resounding victory in the May, 2000, parliamentary elections, and the former president was reelected to the office in Aug., 2000.
In the May, 2005, elections the New Front suffered large losses and surrendered its majority but remained the largest party in parliament. Bouterse's NDP won the second largest number of seats. The New Front formed an alliance with the A-Combination, a party representing the descendants of former slaves, and Venetiaan was subsequently reelected president. In 2007 the disputed sea border with Guyana was arbitrated by a UN Law of the Sea tribunal, but portions of their common land border remained contested.
The May, 2010, parliamentary elections resulted in a victory for Bouterse's NDP-led coalition, which won the largest number of seats but fell short of a majority. Bouterse, who faced trial in connection with the murder of 15 political opponents by the army in 1982, was subsequently elected (July) president with the support of the A-Combination and People's Alliance. In Apr., 2012, the National Assembly voted to amnesty Bouterse and others for crimes committed during his military rule and the guerrilla war.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.