Departing GI's Leave German Host City With Huge Urban Planning Headache

The Pentagon plans to shutter its air base in Mannheim, Germany, meaning the property – which is significantly bigger than the city itself – will soon be on the market. The local government wants to incorporate the space, but fears it’ll end up in the han

Mannheim in the works (MichaelTK)
Mannheim in the works (MichaelTK)

MANNHEIM -- Taking pictures at the main gate is not allowed. A security measure to prevent images making it onto the Internet that might unwittingly reveal military secrets. That holds for the tower too, which just now has a Black Hawk helicopter flying past it. Only after we all put our iPhones away does the double-decker bus roll past the last anti-tank obstacle.

For Mayor Peter Kurz and the four dozen local politicians joining him, this tour of Coleman Barracks is a first. They have never been beyond the barbed wire fencing that surrounds the American military airbase – even though Coleman is entirely within Mannheim city limits.

Like all of America's foreign installations, Coleman – which used to be called the Hermann Göring Barracks, and functioned as a southwestern German base for Third Reich Air Force fighter planes – is considered extra-territorial and is therefore "off limits." And yes, even the mayor was forbidden to enter, with the local government shut off from the urban planning of the property.

That's now changing. The Pentagon has announced that by 2015 it wants all American troops out of Coleman. That means that new use must be found for eight different sites that together add up to 521 hectares. It's a mammoth task considering that the entire city is laid out on only 100 hectares. The property is so big, in fact, that the German Federal Agency for Real Estate, or BIMA, fears the land could prove difficult to market or put to profitable economic use.

The city is open to ideas

BIMA has good reason to chime in on the issue since it, rather than the Mannheim city authorities, will become the new owner of the buildings and surfaces when the army leaves. No doubt the Mannheim conversion will prove to be one of the largest and most difficult tasks that agency has faced.

The Mannheim city government is, however, deeply involved in the challenging task of finding a new purpose for much of the space. It's an unusual situation, in part because of just how much land is involved, but also because of how close the U.S. military base is the city center. The advantage of that proximity is that investors could be drawn by easy access to autobahns, the Rhine port and the freight station. But there are also dangers – mainly that of damaging the whole character of the city.

Many in Mannheim fear that the whole thing is going to turn out badly, which is why, when the news first broke two years ago that the U.S. army was clearing out, local government turned its attention urgently to planning. It hired a conversion expert, Konrad Hummel, who had experience not only in city development but also with involving local residents in the process.

On the Internet and in citizen forums, Hummel's team gathered 1,000 ideas ranging from solar parks, intergenerational settlements and model developments run on renewable energy, to a tree house hotel and a branch of the Guggenheim Museum. Municipal authorities are checking on the viability of staging big-ticket gardening shows. Another idea that has found favor is creating an upscale residential community that combines top tech with the very best in quality craftsmanship. Pop musician Xavier Naidoo is planning a TV and music production facility in one of the old barracks, with rehearsal areas, stages, photo and recording studios.

"What Cologne did for TV productions, we want to do for the live segment including music shows on TV," Naidoo said.

Difficult choices ahead

The planning euphoria, however, hangs by a slim thread -- because for plans to pan out, Mannheim first has to get its hands on the properties. And it can only do that if BIMA sells to it directly, without a generalized invitation to bid, and at a reasonable price. If, on the other hand, BIMA offers the properties on the open market, the city would stand no chance against big-money investors, according to Mayor Kurz. And if those investors should build the usual apartment and office buildings "the disappointment and outrage of citizens after so much participation in the conversion process would be considerable," he said.

BIMA is under no obligation to offer Mannheim any preferential treatment. Its task, after all, is to make money for the state, not get caught up in urban planning concerns. That means doing what it can to fetch the highest prices possible for the property. "Our job is not economic promotion," said BIMA's Mannheim project head, Michael Scharf.

Even if it fails to get its hands on Coleman, the city will still have the option of legally contesting whatever projects private investors propose for the space. But that costs time and money, says Konrad Hummel, who expects that difficult choices lie ahead – even in the best case scenario.

Just how difficult is starting to occur to some of the local government officials as the bus makes its way through the base. Many look daunted as they stare out the window. "We had no idea it was this huge," says a district councilor. Mannheim can't use this much space profitably just for its own needs, they agree. What's more, many of the buildings are in top condition – the Americans recently invested millions in modernizing them, and want to be paid partial compensation. "I couldn't justify demolishing them on moral and ecological grounds, either," said Mayor Kurz.

Johannes Walter, an honorary member of the planning team along on the tour, offered his own sober assessment of the situation. "At the end of the day, maybe investors will end up with the whole thing anyway, and we'll be left out in the rain," he said.

Read the original story in German

Photo – MichaelTK

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

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.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"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.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

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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