Belgium confronted its colonial past and looked toward reconciliation Tuesday, with the king expressing regret for the violence carried out by the country when it ruled over what is now Congo.
Belgium has long struggled to come to terms with its colonial past and history with the Congo - "a past marked with inequality and violence towards the Congolese", Belgian Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes said on Tuesday.
"I want to express my deepest regret for these past injuries, the pain of which is regularly revived by the discrimination that is still all too present in our societies", said the letter, which was seen by Reuters. The monarch, who ruled Belgium from 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.
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. This process of reflection could help Belgians "finally make peace with our memories", he said. But the worldwide protests against racism that followed the May 25 death of George Floyd in the United States have given a new momentum to activists fighting to have monuments such as Leopold removed.
The Leopold statue in Ghent had been vandalised several times in the past and again after Floyd, a handcuffed black man, died after a white police officer knelt on his neck.
Earlier this month, regional authorities also promised reforms regarding how history is taught to better explain the true character of colonialism.
That could leave Belgium open to a demand for reparations, local media reported, and it was the role of elected lawmakers rather than the King to decide on the apology. "Acknowledging the suffering of the other".
King Leopold was forced to surrender direct control of the Congo Free State country in 1908 and Belgium formally annexed it, calling it the Belgian Congo.
King Philippe wrote in a letter to DRC President Felix Tshisekedi to mark the 60th anniversary of the African country's independence that the "acts of violence and cruelty" as well as the "suffering and humiliation" inflicted on Belgian Congo "still weigh on our collective memory".