MANAUS — The “City of God,” a poor neighborhood in the Amazonian city of Manaus, is a place that must be earned. It is a chaos of streets and houses where the inhabitants keep piling up, encouraged more by the illusion of escaping poverty than by poverty itself.
To find the neighborhood, you have to leave the town center, drive to the edge of the forest, search, go around in circles, and search some more. Then, finally, after the Botafogo bar, at the end of a dead-end road, with the ruts still drowned by the previous day’s torrential rain, we find the home of Bernardino Alexandro Perreira.
He belongs to the Ticuna people. He is “indigenous,” a “native,” according to local terminology, which has no negative connotation in Brazil. “Indian,” on the other hand, is considered an insult. When people in the street call him that — and it happens often — Perreira knows what to think about them.
“We suffer the consequences of discrimination,” he says matter-of-factly.
About 100 Ticuna people, among other Brazilians, live in the City of God. Bernardino arrived in Manaus in 1989 to continue his studies, which in the village where he comes from did not go beyond a basic level. Clergymen encouraged him to continue, so he left the forest, traveled five days in a pirogue and then in a boat until he reached Manaus.
But when he got there, he didn’t study. Disoriented by urban life, he just got by before buying this parcel of hillside land with a cousin. There, he used simple bricks and crude concrete to build a small house where he now lives with his wife and their eight children.
Little by little, other Ticuna came and settled. There are now nine homes made either out of bricks or wood, almost touching one another. On that hillside, they rebuilt a sort of village, with the home of the cacique — the leader — bigger than the others.
His wife has gone back to their home village for a month, a return to the roots that the others also try to make every couple of years. On the parts of land that remain free, Bernardino and his neighbors grow urucu, which they wear during ritual ceremonies, as well as other medicinal plants. They essentially live between two worlds and two cultures.
The World Cup and everything that comes with it should be miles away from the concerns of the City of God. Yet the Ticuna have decorated their streets with Brazilian flags. A 3-year-old girl, with eyes of black jade, is wandering around with a Seleção jersey. Bernardino and the others couldn’t afford a ticket, but they don’t miss a single televised game.
They even created a soccer team and are doing “more or less well” in a small local league.
Indigenous Amazon people like Perreira, divided in 160 tribes with 200 languages, are following the Copa with as much interest as the rest of Brazil. But soccer is just soccer, and although the braided basket structure of the Arena da Amazonia, the stadium in Manaus, is inspired by local culture, the status of indigenous populations is still uncertain. During the opening ceremony in Sao Paulo, the protest of a young Indian, ignored by the television network, was one symbol of unease that some would like to keep quiet.
Manaus' Arena de Amazonia — Photo: copa2014
“The Indigenous watch the games in the villages that have television,” explains Joao Neves Silva, director of the Coordination of the Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB) and himself a futebol lover. “Most of them only like soccer as a sport. The economic side of it doesn’t interest them.”
Silva explains how his organization tries to unite the 140,000 natives of the Amazonian rainforest. He belongs to the Galibi-Marworno, a small tribe that lives near the border with French Guiana.
“The Constitution of 1988 guarantees rights to the indigenous people,” he says. Since 1991, they have thus benefited from the “demarcation” principle. After a long process, they are allowed to register land as their own. The subsoil still belongs to the state, but they can claim compensation for its exploitation.
Risk of disappearing
“The laws are pro-indigenous, but the state is stripping them away more and more,” says Silva, noting the pressure from mining groups and big land owners.
Amid Brazil’s weak growth in recent years, Amazonia and its six million square kilometers are viewed by some with insatiable lust. “We pass for slackers who have a vast land but produce nothing,” Silva says. “People think they know everything, but they don’t try to understand who we are. Where we live, there are animals, plants, trees. Wherever the non-indigenous settle, all of that disappears.”
Established between the cities of Manaus (the name comes from a tribe slaughtered by Portuguese settlers) and Porto Velho, the Tenharim have to fight to keep land rights, as they’re threatened by urban expansion and the market for real estate. In particular, the natives enjoy a right of passage over a road that crosses their lands and that is a constant source of disputes with transport companies. In December 2013, a tribe leader was found dead. The official version was that he had an accident, but the Tenharim were convinced he was murdered and set public buildings on fire.
In the heart of the forest, the Yanomami are also fighting against white-collar predators, dangers more fatal than snakes, scorpions and venomous spiders because they are less accustomed to protecting themselves from them. The 21,600 members of this tribe live in 291 villages spread over an “unmarked” territory of 91,000 square kilometers, twice the size of Switzerland.
Because the soil is rich in gold, manganese and several precious metals, half of that area is being coveted for mineral exploration projects. The inhabitants, who live off hunting and slash-and-burn cultivation of bananas, manioc and natural beetroot, cannot fight against such economic interests.
Hard to count
"Twenty or 30 years ago, public opinion in Brazil was more favorable to the rights of the natives,” explains Silvio Cavuscens, a naturalized Brazilian originally from Switzerland who leads Secoya, an association created in 1997 to defend the rights of the Yanomami people. “Brazil now claims to be a developed country, but some economic and health indicators of indigenous peoples are worse than those of Africa.”
Cavuscens says that almost half of Yanomami children are undernourished, and many lack basic health and education. Isolated and frail, these populations are victims of illegal gold diggers, traffickers or employers who practically reduce them to slavery without qualm. “The Yanomami can’t count. For them, it goes: 1, 2, 3, a lot,” Cavuscens says.
Still, the city lights keep attracting many natives. Deceived by these false promises and unable to adapt to urban life, they get by thanks to handcrafting and small subsidies, but sometimes sink into alcoholism. Some women travel from the forest to become cleaning ladies. Unable to defend themselves, they are exploited by the employers. When they don’t have any money, some of them turn to prostitution to survive.
Amarn, an association for native women from the Upper Rio Negro region, offers them shelter and helps them when they have nowhere else to go. Claudineia Gama Brito, a woman from the Tariano tribe, found refuge there. “It didn’t work,” she says summing up her urban adventure.
Clarisse Arbella is one of the leaders of Amarn. A former nun and a Tucano, she also had her share of setbacks, and notes the racism she and others have faced from Brazilians, and the way it can sap a sense of self-worth.
But in the end, Clarisse Arbella also speaks about soccer, as a television set broadcast the Switzerland vs. France game in the group phase. She says she’s interested in the competition and follows the games on TV. “I support Brazil," she says, "like every other native."
Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.
"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.
Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.
But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.
The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."
Criticism of any 'royal project'
The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.
Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.
In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release
Freedom of speech at stake
"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."
The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.
The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.
Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.
Shift to social media
While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.
The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.
Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".
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