Kabul Zoo: A Symbol Of Afghanistan's Past Stabs At Modernity Is Buzzing Again

Once in the frontline of Afghanistan’s civil war, the Kabul zoo attracted hungry militiamen, not tourists. But now it is bringing in peaceful crowds again.

Zabul zoo: a quiet oasis (Jeremy Weate)
Zabul zoo: a quiet oasis (Jeremy Weate)
Frédéric Bobin

KABUL - In the shade of the tall fir trees, a small crowd walks past a fountain and along the menagerie's dry paths. Behind the wire fences, animals bask placidly in the sun. White and brown bears, peacocks, macaques, gazelles, wolves, eagles, owls and parrots capture the attention of their friendly audience. It is important to find time for relaxing, even in troubled Afghanistan.

Along with the Shar-eNow park (famous for its Bollywood movie theatre) and the Babour gardens, Kabul zoo is one of the havens for the capital's inhabitants to forget their everyday worries and fears of the future. The day before, not far from the zoo, a suicide squad attacked a police station, killing nine people. Within a few hours, the streets were empty. But today, the people are out again, sweeping into the markets, crowding the sidewalks. Life must go on.

The zoo's visitors reflect the mixed urban population of Kabul. A young man in jeans walks next to a woman in a blue burqa. Inside the aquarium a woman points out the shimmering colors of the fish to her handicapped son. The child is amazed. Opposite the gazelles' pen, a refreshment stall sells sodas and kebab sandwiches. Some visitors doze in the cool shade of the trees. The zoo is surrounded by the winding hills of Kabul, a cirque of rock flanked with ochre adobe houses. The light is so bright that the stony ridges seem to be on fire.

Aziz Gul Saqeb is the director of the zoo, his personal battleground. He invites us into his large office with its purple, flowery rugs. The computer and television show some affluence, signs of an Afghan state striving to exist. The zoo, the pride of 1960s Kabul when King Zahir Shah undertook the modernization of the country, must live again. It's a question of principle. Trained in India, the young director sought support for the zoo from abroad. The Zoological Society of London and the North Carolina Zoo answered his call. But with serious debts, recovery is painstaking.

Animals as war casualties

It was the civil war that steadily devastated Kabul zoo, which was situated right on the front line. Following the collapse of the communist regime in 1992, Mujahdin factions plunged the country into violence and chaos. With no one to feed them, the animals, once numbering 400, died of hunger. Fighters helped themselves as though the zoo were a butcher shop's backroom. Deers and ducks ended up in the cooking pots. But the bears, tigers, monkeys and eagles, escaped the hungry militiamen, who considered their consumption to be "haram" (forbidden). These animals died of negligence, or were hit by stray bullets. When the Taliban came to power in 1996 they limited the damage. Aziz Gul Saqeb says "they built new outer walls' and "gave food to the surviving animals."

The tragedy of Marjan the lion sums up the zoo's misfortune. Ah, Marjan! Kabulis still talk about him with emotion. He was paraded as a national emblem. His story is a parable for Afghan martyrdom. The Germans gave Marjan to the zoo in the late 1960s, when the director of the zoo was Prince Nader, the King's son. Next to the Bactrian deer (an extremely rare species), Marjan was the pride of the institution. In 1993, at the height of the civil war, a daredevil had the strange idea of slipping into his den to defy him. Marjan made short work of his opponent, who quickly died. The next day the victim's brother took his vengeance by throwing a grenade at the lion's snout. Marjan lost one eye and his teeth.

"Look how he suffered," murmurs Aziz Gul Saqeb as he shows a photo of the disfigured lion. Marjan's face was scarred, he was permanently blinded, but he survived. Bitter coincidence: he died of old age in 2002, just as the "new Afghanistan" started offering some signs of hope. A bronze statue of Marjan now stands at the zoo's entrance. Visitors stroke him lovingly and ask to be photographed with him. Marjan is immortalized as a hero.

The day after Marjan died, the Chinese gave Afghanistan two new African lions. Later they added two bears, substitutes for the pandas they usually gave as diplomatic gifts. You can't have it all. Pakistan tried to outdo China with a gift of Kashmir peacocks. This is how the menagerie is slowly being repopulated. Aziz Gul Saqeb would have preferred to find the animals here in Afghanistan, but local wildlife – such as the Badakhshan snow leopard – is under threat from traffickers of rare species. "Putting an endangered species in a zoo is out of the question," asserts AzizGul Saqeb.

In any case, Kabulis don't necessarily flock to to the menagerie to see a precious wildcat. They come to enjoy this quiet oasis, its cool shade, its sodas, its kebab sandwiches and the myth of king Marjan.

Read the original article in French.

photo - Jeremy Weate

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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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