For the first time in Belgium's history, a reigning monarch expressed on Tuesday his "deepest regrets" for the "violence and cruelty" his country inflicted on what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
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".
"I would like to express my deepest regrets for these wounds of the past, the pain of which is now rekindled by the discriminations still present in our societies.
"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," he added.
King Leopold II's rule over Congo, which started in 1885, was infamous for its brutality with as many as 10 million people believed to have been killed.
Leopold II handed the territory over to the Belgian government in 1908. The central African state regained its independence in 1960.
Philippe's letter comes as the country wrestles with its colonial past amid protests sparked by the police killing in the US of African-American George Floyd.
Statues of Leopold II have become particularly contentious with anti-racism protesters targeting them and calling for their removal. Some local authorities have removed statues of the former king while regional authorities are debating the issue.
In Wallonia, a region just south of Brussels, Heritage Minister Valérie de Bue has indicated she's against removing the statues, with a spokesperson telling Euronews earlier this month that it would "be a way of denying history".
Instead, she said plaques should be added to monuments to explain why they're controversial and called for the teaching of the country's colonial past to be strengthened in schools.
Philippe's also pledged in his letter to "combat all forms of racism" and expressed disappointment that he could not attend the celebrations of the DRC's independence due to the COVID-19 pandemic.