BENI - For many years in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the military was the main seller of liquor imported from Uganda. But now soldiers have changed sides, and are now fighting those who try to import liquor into Congo.
In order to reduce the trafficking and consumption of banned liquors in the Beni region, soldiers and police forces decided to join forces last February. These banned drinks are being imported from Uganda through the city of Kasindi, in the eastern part of North Kivu. Last March, a major from the FARDC (Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo) brought two sacks of liquor to the offices in charge of animal quarantine and veterinary services (SQAV). He asked for the bags to be destroyed publicly, an army official recalled.
“We are doing it out in the open so that the importers cease their traffic immediately, and because without knowing it, we are digging our own graves,” the army chief said.
It is an abrupt turnaround for these men in uniform, who used to devote their energies to hocking booze. Said one hotel manager: “The soldiers who sleep in my hotel used to buy alcohol in Uganda, as part of the food ration. But since February, they stopped doing it and they are cracking down on all traffic and consumption.”
In this territory, the national army is fighting militias and armed groups in a protracted civil war that touches nearly every town or village -- and part of that battle is now also over imported alcoholic beverages.
All battalion commanders have received the order to dismantle these importation networks. On the way in and out of the Beni territory, soldiers and policemen are joining efforts to implement roadblocks.
The change of policy began at the end of 2012. According to Tito Bizuri, commander of the first army battalion in the 8th regiment, when they are drunk, soldiers tend to break army rules: they do not perform their guard duties, often falling asleep on their shift. In one case, a drunk officer killed four civilians on a rampage in the town of Mai Moya.
At the Beni military court, cases of rape, murder and armed robbery are often committed under the influence of alcohol. “We want to prevent any alliances between soldiers and civilians from smuggling liquor across the border,” a spokesman for the Garrison’s Prosecutor declared. “We want our troops to avoid breaking the rules, and we are also trying to keep them healthy.”
The alcohol being smuggled into Congo is usually called “beer”, and comes from small-scale factories in Uganda. These beers usually have odd names such as “machozi ya samba” (lion tears), “kill me quick”, “yoka naino” (listen to me first), “avion” (plane) or “goal”. They are sold in sachets or pouches, which makes it easy for people to carry them in their pocket and drink them while they drive their car or motorbike.
Today, the military is cooperating with civilians to uncover liquor traffickers and retailers. Informants are singling out liquor importers who hide the merchandise in food parcels. Usually, traffickers unload the liquors before entering the city, and then use motorbikes to smuggle it into Beni, as two-wheelers do not have to stop at the toll booth to enter the city.
Vehicles are being searched at every roadblock, and soldiers who refuse to join the crackdown are brought to trial. Meanwhile, retailers are brooding. A woman who wished to remain anonymous told us she was still selling liquor illegally but only to people she knew well, for fear of being arrested.
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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