The King of Belgium expressed his “deepest regrets” for the violence and suffering inflicted during Belgian rule over what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), as the African country marks 60 years since it gained independence.
In a letter written to Felix Tshisekedi, the President of the DRC, King Philippe became the first reigning Belgian monarch to acknowledge that “acts of violence and cruelty” had been committed and “suffering and humiliation” caused under the country’s colonial rule, AP reported.
“To further strengthen our ties and develop an even more fruitful friendship, we must be able to talk to each other about our long common history in all truth and serenity,” he wrote.
The letter came as Belgium faced growing calls to reassess its colonial history after a wave of global protests against racial inequality, which was sparked by the death of George Floyd in the US last month.
Several statues of King Leopold II, under whose rule as many as 10 million Congolese people are thought to have died, have been vandalised in recent weeks, while a petition calling for the removal of all statues of the former king has received more than 80,000 signatures.
As part of the country’s reckoning with its past, local authorities in the city of Ghent are set to remove a bust of Leopold on Tuesday.
Referring to Leopold’s brutal private rule over Congo from 1885 to 1908, Philippe wrote that “acts of violence and cruelty were committed that still weigh on our collective memory”.
“The colonial period that followed also caused suffering and humiliation,” he added.
When Leopold’s personal ownership ended in 1908, he gave Congo over to the Belgian state, which ruled it until its independence was declared in 1960.
The current Belgian king said, “I want to express my most deepest regrets for these wounds of the past, the pain of which is today revived by discrimination that is all too present in our societies.”
He also congratulated Tshisekedi on the 60th anniversary of independence, adding that he could not attend the celebrations because of the pandemic.