Belgium’s King Philippe expressed regret Tuesday for 75 years of his country’s exploitative rule in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The king spoke on the African country’s 60th anniversary of independence. “I want to express my deepest regret for these past injuries, the pain of which is regularly revived by the discrimination that is still all too present in our societies,” Philippe wrote in a letter to Congo’s President Felix Tshisekedi. FILE – Belgium’s King Philippe, wearing a face mask, walks down a main shopping street in Brussels, May 10, 2020.The statement is the closest a reigning Belgian monarch has come to an apology. The Congo gained independence from Belgium in 1960 after 52 years as a colony and 23 years of brutal private ownership under Leopold II. Millions of Congolese died under Belgian rule, which exploited land and people for rubber, copper, diamonds, gold and other natural resources.
In a statement to the Agence France-Presse news agency, Congo Foreign Minister Marie Ntumba Nzeza said the king’s letter was “balm to the heart of the Congolese people. This is a step forward that will boost friendly relations between our nations.”
A spokesman for Tshisekedi had no comment on the letter. But in a TV address on the eve of independence day, the president said Philippe was “searching, just like me, to strengthen the ties between our two countries without denying our common past, but with the goal of preparing a bright and harmonious future.”
Other Congolese activists and scholars said Philippe’s letter, which did not include an explicit apology or mention Leopold II by name, did not go far enough. “It’s not enough to say, ‘I feel regret,'” Lambert Mende, a spokesman for former Congo President Joseph Kabila, told AFP. “People should be willing to repair the damage in terms of investment and compensation with interest. That’s what we expect from our Belgian partners.”
Some have also called for Belgium to return Congolese artifacts, double down on investigations of colonial violence and issue reparations for 75 years of bloody rule. A bust of Belgium’s King Leopold II is hoisted off of its plinth by a crane as it’s removed from a park in Ghent, Belgium, June 30, 2020.The Belgium city of Ghent took a statue of Leopold II off public display Tuesday, just hours after Philippe’s letter. The city of Antwerp removed another statue of the ruler earlier this month to repair it after anti-racism protesters defaced it with paint, though a spokesman for the city’s mayor said it probably would not be put back.
Burundi and Rwanda, also former Belgian colonies, will celebrate their independence on July 1.Leslie Bonilla contributed to this report.