Belgian king expresses 'deepest regrets' over DR Congo colonial past

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Several statues of King Leopold II of Belgium have been vandalised by protesters over his actions in the Congo

Belgium's King Philippe expressed his "deepest regrets" on Tuesday for the harm done during Belgian colonial rule in DR Congo, in a first for his country.

Philippe made his remarks in a letter to the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Felix Tshisekedi, on the 60th anniversary of Congo's independence on June 30, 1960.

The death of African American George Floyd last month as he was being arrested by police in the US city of Minneapolis has also stoked fresh debate in Belgium over its colonial record.

Belgium's colonisation of the vast mineral-rich country was reputed to be one of the harshest regimes imposed by European powers that ruled most of Africa in the late 19th and 20th centuries.

The scars of that past remain, with two-thirds of the population in the former Zaire living below the poverty line and the country riven by conflict and instability.

"I want to express my deepest regrets for these wounds of the past whose pain is reawakened today by the discrimination still present in our societies," Philippe said.

Historians say that millions of Africans from areas in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo were killed, mutilated or died of disease as they worked on rubber plantations belonging to Belgium's King Leopold II.

- 'Suffering and humiliation' -

Philippe, without mentioning Leopold by name, said that during this period "acts of violence and cruelty were committed which weigh on our collective memory".

"The colonial period which followed (1908-60) also caused suffering and humiliation," he said.

On the day Congo broke away from Belgian colonial rule, the country's prime minister and independence icon Patrice Lumumba delivered a scathing speech about the racist maltreatment and "humiliating slavery" the Congolese people had endured.

"We experienced the slurs, the insults, the beatings that we had to undergo morning, noon and evening, because we were negroes," he proclaimed.

- 'Journey of truth' -

King Philippe said he would combat all forms of racism and said he wanted to encourage the reflection on the issue begun by the Belgian parliament so that such memories could be put to rest.

Several statues of Leopold, who ruled between 1865 and 1909, have been daubed with paint or torn down by protesters in Belgium in recent weeks, and a petition has been launched for their removal.

On Tuesday, the city of Ghent will mark the 60th anniversary of Congolese independence by removing a statue of Leopold.

"The time has come for Belgium to embark on a journey of truth," said Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes in Brussels during a ceremony marking Congo's independence day.

"All work of truth and memory begins with acknowledging the suffering of the other," she added.

The French-speaking daily Le Soir welcomed the royal intervention in an editorial: "Finally, this gesture, so necessary, which lifts the King and his country."

Through concession companies, Leopold II used forced labour to extract rubber in Congo, among other things.

Harsh treatment -- up to the cutting off of hands for unproductive workers -- have been documented.

According to most historians the violence did not stop after Leopold II, and a regime of strict separation of blacks and whites, comparable to the apartheid of South Africa, was maintained for decades.

"We have heard of the famous 'benefits of civilisation' brought by the Belgians," Romain Landmeters, a researcher at the University Saint-Louis in Brussels, told AFP.

"But between the roads, hospitals, schools, we know that everything that was built was essentially intended to serve this system of extraction and production of wealth for the settlers," he said.