Crackdown on rights following elections
Human Rights Watch recently published the report Closing Doors? It documents abuses including torture, arbitrary arrests, banning of opposition activities, and harassment of civil society groups following this year's elections.
The ruling party in Burundi: conspicuously absent, but no less pervasive in a debate which was long awaited in the Netherlands. "People in the diaspora are relaxed and talk more openly because they can put forward their ideas without fear of being arrested on leaving the room."
Burundians in the Netherlands want to know what’s happening in their country of origin and expected to witness a frank debate between the major political players. The debate in the city of Almere was organised by Izere, a local NGO that manages development projects in Burundi.
But the chairman of the ruling CNDD-FDD ruling party, who had accepted an invitation to come, failed to show up and people were visibly disappointed. They had to be satisfied with two representatives of opposition parties who did make the trip: Frederic Bamvuginyumvira, vice-president of FRODEBU and Abdul Nzeyimana of UPD-Zigamibanga.
No to war
But that did not prevent some 50 members of the 3,500 large Burundian Diaspora in the Netherlands from passing a clear message to anyone who would listen: "No to war", "Never Again" and "Yes" to a political dialogue back home, where the political climate is bogged down since elections earlier this year were boycotted by the opposition.
The Dutch Burundians are concerned about the insecurity in the country and the spree of deadly attacks since the polls. Attributed by some to armed bandits and a nascent rebellion by others, these new acts of violence leave the Diaspora perplexed. They want the country to rapidly get to the stage of reconstruction.
This community knows the price of violence. Many of its members have fled the ethnic conflicts and massacres of the past and fear the country will take a step backward.
Life and death
Outside on the market square in Almere, to the sound of djembes, artists protested against the cuts in the budget for culture announced by the new Dutch government. Inside the hall of the municipal council of Almere, the Burundian Diaspora was concerned with matters of life and death.
There were fierce reactions when FRODEBU member Pancrace Cimpaye, in exile in Europe with many opposition party members since the elections, brings up the threat of an armed rebellion in the country. According to him, a true rebellion could break out "within three months" in Burundi "if we do not cut the grass under the feet of the armed bandits."
Thinly veiled threat
It was difficult for a journalist used to very direct arguments between Dutch politicians, to grasp the unspoken Burundians. If she had obtained her visa¸ the Burundian journalist who was to cover these debates in collaboration with Radio Netherlands would no doubt have helped to ‘translate’ these statements, which for some in the room, were a thinly veiled threat of resort to violence.
The reaction was clear: many reiterated their "no" to violence, prompting the vice-president of FRODEBU to say that his party is for dialogue and not violence.
But how to bring about this dialogue? The Diaspora does not know how to. Someone in the room proposed the ‘polder model’, a model of consensus which has long functioned in the Netherlands. The latest feat being the new Dutch coalition which managed to include an anti-Islamist party in it, without really doing so. Another one advocated for a mediator.
The opposition parties present felt that the Burundian authorities needed be forced into talks with the opposition, for example if the Netherlands threatened to withdraw its direct budget support to the government of Burundi.
Many in the audience rejected this, saying this could "asphyxiate” vulnerable people. According to Chantal Habonimana of Abelo, an association of elected local representatives in Burundi that is sponsored by the Association of Dutch Municipalities VGN, conflicts are often imposed “from above”. People in the rural hills, she explained, have in many occasions proven that they can resolve their conflicts through dialogue.
A representative of the Dutch government present in the room confirmed that the new cabinet's policy on development assistance would be made public the coming weeks. Drastic reductions in Dutch development aid are expected.
An eternal optimist, the president of Izere, André Nkeshimana, concluded by suggesting the Netherlands should stimulate economic development. Next month, a group of potential Dutch investors, supported by the Dutch government, will visit Burundi in search of business partners. That is the way forward, he feels.