DOUMANGA â€" In this western village in the Republic of Congo, the local health center lacks both material and human resources. As a result, the only male nurse in Doumanga is the one assigned to help women of the village give birth. For Max Banzoulo, it has become a noble mission that he carries out with great pride.
This unusual role includes care that comes well before the date of delivery, such as offering advice to women in order to limit the risks during childbirth. "When a pregnant woman arrives at the clinic for a medical check-up, he takes the time to carefully examine her specific situation," says Marie Ngoyi.
Ngoyi is married, has three children and is one of the women living in Doumanga â€" a small village of about 1,000 inhabitants â€" who gave birth with the help of Banzoulou, whom the women affectionately call the town's sage-homme. Literally "wise man," a play on the French word sage-femme, meaning "midwife." French is the country's official language.
Banzoulou graduated from the Jean Joseph Loukabou Paramedical Public School of Pointe-Noire, and is himself a father of three. "He practices a professional, ethical approach," says another mother, Ngouzi Diabizenga. "Heâ€˜s kind. His care and smile can heal you â€" there is no one else like him!"
When he began working in this health center in the middle of the Mayombe forest in 2009, Banzoulou decided to work overtime to make up for the lack of medical staff. "As we work in the bush, we have to do everything to compensate for the lack of midwives," he said. "Itâ€™s hard, but I have to do it, in order to save lives."
"Midhusband" Max Banzoulo â€" Photo: adiac
The Doumanga medical center, which was built by locals in 1972, has four rooms: consultation, delivery, examination and care rooms. The facilities are underequipped and everything is in short supply: gloves, aspirin, scales to weigh children. On average, there are about four births a month. "Often, there's no electricity," says Ngouzi Diabizenga. "Our â€˜midhusbandâ€™ sometimes has to make deliveries with a flashlight."
In an effort to offer support last October, Congo"s Ministry of Health assigned two young female trainees to Doumanga from the Paramedical School Jean Joseph Loukabou. Banzoulou started training them right away. Says Sandra Mouaya, one of the trainees, "We now know how to conduct a consultation, prepare a perfusion, make stitches and even help women give birth. We couldnâ€™t do it when we first got here."
Eric Makaya, a village resident, wants the government to send female midwives and trained nurses to help women give birth â€" instead of a man. "It is possible for a man to do it, but a woman for these situations is better."
Don't tell that to all the mothers cared for by Max Banzoulou.
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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