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Belgian king regretful for 'violence and cruelty' during colonial rule over Democratic Republic of Congo

On Tuesday, for the first time in Belgium's history, a reigning king expressed regret for the violence carried out by the former colonial power when it ruled over what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Colonial period 'caused suffering and humiliation,' King Philippe has written in a letter

King Philippe of Belgium, seen in this March file photo, expressed regret for the violence carried out by the former colonial power when it ruled over the Democratic Republic of Congo. (Benoit Doppagne/Belgium royal pool/Getty Images)

For the first time in Belgium's history, a reigning king expressed regret Tuesday for the violence carried out by the former colonial power when it ruled over what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In a letter to President Felix Tshisekedi, which was published on the 60th anniversary of the African country's independence, Belgium's King Philippe conveyed his "deepest regrets" for the "acts of violence and cruelty" and the "suffering and humiliation" inflicted on Congo.

"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," Philippe wrote.

A spokesperson for Tshisekedi had no comment on the letter.

Congolese Foreign Minister Marie Tumba told reporters that "this warms the hearts of the Congolese people," and said that through King Philippe, "Belgium has laid the foundation of a profound change."

Declaration not enough for some

Congolese activists and academics said Philippe's message was welcome, although some said it did not go far enough.

"The king as well as Belgium should go further than a simple declaration," said Jean-Claude Mputu, a Congolese political scientist at the University of Liege.

The letter was addressed to Democratic Republic of Congo President Felix Tshisekedi and was published on the 60th anniversary of the African country's independence. (Michele Tantussi/Getty Images)

Mputu called for "strong symbolic means to mark a new beginning" such as the restitution of Congolese works of art.

Philippe's letter was sent amid growing demands that Belgium reassess its colonial past.

In the wake of the protests against racial inequality triggered by the death of George Floyd in the United States in May, several statues of King Leopold II, who is blamed for the deaths of millions of Africans during Belgium's colonial rule, have been vandalized.

A petition called for Belgium to remove all statues of the former king.

History course reforms

A bust of Leopold II was removed from public display in the city of Ghent on Tuesday following a decision from local authorities.

Earlier this month, regional authorities also promised history course reforms to better explain the true character of colonialism.

"Our history is made of common achievements, but has also known painful episodes. At the time of the independent State of the Congo, acts of violence and cruelty were committed that still weigh on our collective memory," Philippe wrote, referring to the period when the country was privately ruled by Leopold II from 1885 to 1908.

A statue of King Leopold II of Belgium in the city of Ghent is covered with red paint. The bust was removed from display later Tuesday following a decision by local authorities. (Philippe Francois/BELGA/AFP/Getty Images)

"The colonial period that followed also caused suffering and humiliation."

Leopold, who ruled Belgium during 1865-1909, plundered Congo as if it were his personal fiefdom, forcing many of its people into slavery to extract resources for his own profit.

The early years after he laid claim to the African country are especially infamous for killings, forced labour and other forms of brutality that some experts estimate left as many as 10 million native people dead.

After his claimed ownership of Congo ended in 1908, Leopold handed it over to the Belgian state, which continued to rule over the colony 75 times Belgium's size until the African nation became independent in 1960.

Applause as bust removed

Following a short ceremony punctuated by readings, the monarch's bust was attached to a crane with a strap and taken away from the small park where it stood amid applause.

"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," Philippe wrote, insisting that he is determined to keep "fighting all forms of racism."

The king also congratulated Tshisekedi on the anniversary of the country's independence, ruing the fact that he was not able to attend celebrations to which he had been invited due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Philippe stressed the "common achievements" reached by Belgium and its former colony, but also the painful episodes of their unequal relationship.

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