Diálogo met with Colonel Henri van Axeldongen, commander of the Suriname National Army at the South American Defense Conference held in Miami, Florida on August 17-18, where he spoke about regional challenges, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the effects of the space domain on national security.
Diálogo: What are the greatest regional challenges that South American nations must overcome jointly with the United States?
Colonel Henri van Axeldongen, commander of the Suriname National Army: The greatest need is to make sure the entire region is safe. And it must be stable. Because without a stable environment, the quality of living is not good. The security must be on a certain level that it won’t be possible for bad people to influence or disrupt your living quality. So, the question is how we can do it. We could do it by better understanding each other and working together to provide help for those unable to do so. We could all help each other so that the environment stays secure and stable.
Diálogo: What is your priority as chief of your country’s Armed Forces?
Col. Axeldongen: My priority is bringing security for the nation. We have to protect our economic way of living and earning, because if we can’t provide security, then people won’t be able to earn and live a good quality of life. Providing security for the nation goes along with certain things, such as making sure that they earn well, making sure that they are healthy, making sure that they stay well. These things will bring a good stable environment.
Diálogo: What role do the Armed Forces play in the fight against drug trafficking?
Col. Axeldongen: We have a very large area for a small population because we are also a small state. We have half a million people living in certain square miles. Other portions of the population are living in areas that are less governed. We don’t have the resources or government authorities to monitor those areas. So that means we have a certain problem, but it doesn’t have to be. But it can be because it can become a space for opportunity for people to be dealing in illicit trafficking, bringing things through the Amazon jungle because we border it. But with modern technology, we can combine capabilities with other countries. As long as we are linking with each other, and we have partnerships with each other, then all things are possible.
Diálogo: One of the topics discussed in the conference was the challenges of the space domain and its effect on national security. What is your country doing to address those challenges?
Col. Axeldongen: That’s why we are here at the South American Defense Conference; to make sure that we have a joint effort to confront joint problems to potentially help small states like Suriname, and [that we are] offered this kind of help that we don’t have the capability to do. That’s why I raised this issue at the conference because we are already dealing with it in the ungoverned areas. That’s why we are at this kind of conference to make sure that the nations that have these capabilities can help us. We know that the United States and Brazil have those capabilities and are helping us, which allows us to provide more protection to our nation.
Diálogo: What role has the military taken during the COVID-19 pandemic to assist civilian authorities?
Col. Axeldongen: We are supporting in every kind of way. We are supporting the health centers. Our minister of Defense is working in conjunction with all the other ministers to provide any kind of support [to] health institutions and the other ministries of government. But we are also dealing with big challenges such as the capacity, and the budgets and the equipment. Those things are still on the plate. But despite all that, you still see our militaries in the hospitals, giving support to health centers, giving support to the medical centers, giving support to the NGOs at the border to make sure that people are getting vaccinated. We are doing almost everything within our capability to make sure that our nation is protected. As long as people need us, we will be there.
Diálogo: What do you see as the biggest area of opportunity for your military?
Col. Axeldongen: The biggest area of opportunity for our military is in the long term, that we will be what every military is supposed to be for the nation — to act as a guardian, to make sure that we are there to guarantee the sovereignty and security of our nation and that we will provide stability.