On the 60th anniversary of the independence of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, King Philip of Belgium wrote a letter to President Félix Antoine Tshisekedi Tshilombo in which he admitted that "to further strengthen our ties and develop an even more fruitful friendship, we must be able talk about our long common history in all truth and serenity. "
The recognition is a watershed moment in Belgium's postcolonial history, and a rare admission of royalist imperialist sins, even if Philippe did not go so far as to formally apologize.
"Our history is made of common achievements, but it has also experienced painful episodes. During the period of the Congo Free State, acts of violence and cruelty were committed, which still weigh on our collective memory," wrote the King.
"The colonial period that followed also caused suffering and humiliation," the letter added, referring to the subsequent 52 years of Belgian state rule until the independence of the Congo and the formation of the DRC.
"I would like to express my deepest remorse for these past hurts, the pain of which is now relived by discrimination still too prevalent in our societies," he added.
"It was not (previously) announced, so it was surprising that it was today. But I think it is a very good sign," Els Van Hoof, a Belgian MP who heads the foreign affairs committee of the House of Representatives, told CNN. letter from the monarch "It is the beginning of a process, and it is a process in parliament but also in society."
The letter also marks a significant victory for anti-racism protesters who have been demanding that Belgium address its colonial past and remove public monuments to Leopold II.
"I want concrete acts," he added, calling for a broader education of the Belgian colonial past. "There are still people who don't know this story … there are many people who want to deny or don't understand what happened. It's about finding the truth. It's never too late. Maybe it could have happened 60 years ago, but if it happens now it's good "
& # 39; Reflection process & # 39;
Following Black Lives Matter's global protests, Belgium's colonial legacy has been re-evaluated, and several statues representing the former leader have been demolished in the country. Earlier this month, Belgium's parliament approved an investigation into its colonial history, led by legislator Van Hoof.
"I appreciate the process of reflection that our parliament has begun, so that we can finally make peace with our memories," wrote the King. But he did not take the opportunity to apologize to the DRC for the acts committed by Leopold II or by the Belgian governments until 1960.
"Is it just the King who has to apologize or does he have to go beyond that? I think he has to go beyond that," Van Hoof told CNN on Tuesday. "That is the committee's job: in the end, we will see who has to apologize."
The legislator did not commit to recommending that all the statues of Leopold II be removed, as many activists have demanded. "You have to contextualize and explain, and make it part of a process," he said.
But Van Hoof said the voices of Black Lives Matter activists will be heard when the investigation sends public information by the end of the year. He added that Philippe's statement was "a good first step so that we can finally deal with our past, because it has not happened before."
The DRC was finally established on June 30, 1960, a date marked by a historic speech by independence leader Patrice Lumumba in which he described eight decades of subjugation that were "filled with tears, fire and blood."
A statue of Leopold II in Antwerp was removed after Black Lives Matter protests spread across the world earlier this month, while another in front of the Royal Palace in Brussels has been repeatedly covered in anti-racist graffiti.
"We want an apology, a real one. Not one that asks us to read between the lines," Joelle Sandi Nzeba, a Belgian Black Lives Matter activist, told CNN.
Nzeba said that all these statues should be demolished and replaced with monuments that recognize the Congolese people who had been killed. "We want to discuss who benefits from colonization," he added.
Without an immediate visa offer, very few Congolese came to Belgium until recently, so while the country became home to people from various European nations, colonial sentiments toward African cultures have never been fully shaken in the country.
But Berry College historian Matthew Stanard, who specializes in colonial memory in Belgium, told CNN that a direct recognition of the royal family's past offenses is a new grant.
"There is a whole generation of young people in Belgium who have nothing to do with colonialism and who are willing to question the colonial past," said Stanard. "Opinions about (Leopold II) are deeply polarized: the number of people who have come out to speak out against him has definitely grown."
CNN's Stephanie Halasz, Scott McLean and Sebastian Shukla contributed to this report.