'First step': praise for King's letter to Congolese president

'First step': praise for King's letter to Congolese president
Belgian King Philippe and Congolose President Tshisekedi in 2019. Credit: Belga

Belgium's King Philippe has received a lot of positive reactions to his letter expressing his regrets about the Belgian cruelties in Congo, with many agreeing that his a very good first step.

In a letter on Tuesday, King Philippe expressed his “deepest regrets” to the Democratic Republic of Congo for the “humiliation and suffering” inflicted during Belgium’s colonial occupation of the country.

The letter was addressed to Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi, on the occasion of the DRC’s 60th anniversary of Congolese independence from Belgium.

He stopped short of an official apology, but the letter marked the first time a Belgian king openly condemned Belgium’s crimes and cruelties in the Congo, departing from the monarchy’s long-held view of Belgium’s colonial exploits as having brought civilisation to the DRC.

"This is a very big step in a totally different direction," royal expert and professor of history Mark Van den Wijngaert told VRT. "So far, the Royal Family has usually kind of covered up the issue a little. [Former King] Baudouin even partially took up the defence for the colonial past. Now, the royal family acknowledges that atrocities have indeed taken place," he added.

While unveiling a commemorative plaque in Ixelles, Belgian Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès said that the Belgian government was “perfectly aligned” with the King's statements, even as she stressed that he had spoken in a personal capacity.

She said it was important to “give enough time” to the parliamentary commission, and declined to say whether its work would lead to official apologies from Belgium.

Mathieu Zana Etambala, a historian at KU Leuven and collaborator at the AfricaMuseum in Tervuren, was surprised by the letter. "I did not think it would happen so soon. I expected that more pressure would have to be exerted. This brings seriousness to the debate. So far, it has been very quiet in and around the royal palace. This is a first step," he added.

The next step, according to him, lies with the parliamentary commission, launched to deal with Belgium's colonial past in the DRC.

Pierre Kompany, the first black mayor of Belgium and born in Congo himself, had recently asked for an apology from the royal family. Following the king's letter, he tweeted "long live the king, long live the DRC, long live Belgium."

In a tweet, Chairman of the Chamber of Representatives Patrick Dewael, echoed the King's statement about reflection in the parliament, and said that "on the basis of research and dialogue, the Parliament will help determine how we deal with Belgium's difficult colonial history today and tomorrow."

However, as several experts noted, the King's "deepest regrets" is not the same as official apologies, which could come with obligations, as they could lead to a Congolese demand for reparations.

"I think this was thought through at length, and that in the end, they wanted to avoid personal responsibility. If someone expresses regret, they say they are sorry for what happened," said Van den Wijngaert. "That is completely different from apologising. An apology is an expression of co-responsibility. And then, for example, compensation could follow. Clearly, they do not want to go that far," he added.

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"It is good that there is an expression of regret from our king," said Ronny Mosuse, a well-known Belgian singer Ronny Mosuse with Congolese roots on Radio 2. "The letter is an acknowledgement of the suffering inflicted on the Congolese people. That is important, but it cannot end there," he added.

"I also think it is good that King Philippe makes an explicit link between the colonisation then and the discrimination now, in Belgium and the rest of the world," Mosuse said, adding, however, that he had expected something like this about two years ago.

The letter, however, never mentions Leopold II by name. "But it does refer to Congo Free State," said Mosuse. "You may find it small and silly that [king] Philippe does not mention certain things, but I found it especially small that the previous monarchs said nothing about the horror in Congo. It is very positive that there is finally a letter of regret," he added.

Additionally, many Belgian politicians congratulated the King on his letter, with former liberal Open Vld party leader Gwendolyn Rutten tweeting that it was "strong and grand."

Former Brussels Minister Céline Fremault finds the letter of regret "a historic gesture" which "brings our two countries and their citizens closer together on this 30th June."

"Well done and a strong message from King Philippe," tweeted centris CD&V chairman, Joachim Coens. "On to more respect and strong cooperation," he added.

"It is important that this first step is taken in the recognition of our colonial history," tweeted Flemish liberal MP Sihame El Kaouakibi. "With this letter, the king acknowledges that this history still has an effect today, by linking it to the discrimination that exists today," she added.

Wouter De Vriendt, Green MP, reacted "with respect" to the letter, tweeting that "King Philip I is making history."

For socialist sp.a chamber party leader Meryame Kitir, the expression of regret is an important step in the right direction by acknowledging the mistakes of the past. "But let it also, and above all, be a step forward in today's fight against all forms of discrimination and racism," she stated on Twitter.

Maïthé Chini

The Brussels Times

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