Kursumlija, Serbia’s City Of Women

The municipality of Kursumlija is the poorest in all of Serbia. But a determined lady mayor and fellow female officers intend to turn it into “a Serbian Switzerland.”

Kursumlija in southern Serbia has fallen on hard times
Kursumlija in southern Serbia has fallen on hard times
Thomas Roser

KURSUMLIJA -- The upper-floor windows of the desolate building on Kosovo Street are missing the glass. The display windows at street level are empty. Back when this town was part of Yugoslavia, 500 people worked at the local Konfekcija textile factory. "But nobody works there now," says Zoran, a toy shop owner in Kursumlija.

Every morning, the grey-haired Serb sets his inflatable wading pools and brightly-colored beach balls up on the sidewalk in front of his shop, and every evening fetches them – unsold – back inside. "The young people are moving to the big cities, and the ones who stay don't have jobs -- or money," he says. The Kosovo war, the world financial crisis, and "very bad privatization" have "finished" the place, says Zoran. "Kursumlija is dead."

Wood, metal and textile industries, three spas, trade with nearby Kosovo, and good railway links once made Kursumlija prosperous. In the early 1960s, the municipality and its 89 villages had a population of 53,000. But times have changed. There are presently barely 19,000 residents, and the community places last in all Serbian social statistics.

Kursumlija, located in traditionally patriarchal southern Serbia, is in many ways an unlikely place for a woman to head the government. Yet it would seem that in this badly struggling town, only women have the courage to make a fresh start.

Since December, a red-haired chemistry teacher, Vesna Jakovljevic, 47, has been mayor, and she's got a hefty majority (roughly 90%) of other women working with her in the Town Hall's top slots. "That's actually more by chance than anything else," says Jakovljevic. "It wasn't strategy or a quota system. Choices were made based on qualifications and personality."

Jakovljevic says that, for a long time, she merely observed the sad decline of the town where she was born. But before the last elections she realized it was time "to do something for the town I live in."

So on a pro-European, Democratic Party platform the mother of two fought her way to the mayorship. Her predecessor, however, a member of a right-wing coalition, wasn't prepared to cede the mayor's office to her. He even went on a hunger strike to avoid it. Only after the government in Belgrade intervened, and blocked the municipality's accounts, did he finally give in.

That meant that Jakovljevic moved into her new office three months late. Her take on the incident is that men in politics tend to look out more for "their personal interests' while "women go about things differently, have a wider perspective – and certainly don't put their own needs ahead of everything else."

High unemployment, low birth rate

With gallows humor, the new mayor describes her remote town on the border with Kosovo as "Serbia's appendix." She says that "it's difficult to play hostess when the house is empty. Our town is very poor, and it has huge problems."

Kursumlija's unemployment rate is 45%. The average salary is the equivalent of 180 euros. Only 15% of the streets are paved. Because of emigration, the birth rate went down by 20% again this year.

A Serbian paper, Blic, reported that while Kursumlija might have clean air and warm springs, it had the worst living conditions of anywhere in Serbia.

Back when Serbia was part of Yugoslavia, the national pension fund used to send patients in their thousands to Kursumlija every year for cures. But five years ago, when the municipality finally finished building a road to the spa facilities, the facilities closed.

Shrubs now grow in the fountains and on the roof of the largest spa. "If we could get the mineral baths up and running again, it would set a lot of things in motion," the mayor says. "Our means to do so are limited, however. We need outside help."

Even the men employed at the municipality describe the women at the helm at Town Hall as "more persistent and responsible" than men. The women have already gotten Belgrade to free up some funds for a retirement home, a new sports hall and a garbage facility.

Jakovljevic describes contacts of the community coalition with their parties in Belgrade as being "good," but adds that they hadn't been particularly helpful in moving things forward.

A significant issue in this border area is political. The border with Kosovo is 105 km long. The 1999 Kosovo War was already hard enough for Kursumlija, but since the former province declared its independence in 2008 trade between Kosovo and Kursumlija has been paralyzed. The so-called "administrative line" that divides them has become Kursumlija's biggest impediment to development.

Both the town and Kursumlija farmers lost their major markets, says Jakovljevic. "We are anxious to at least on a local level normalize relations with Kosovo," she says.

Despite difficulties and apparently bleak perspectives, she refuses to change her optimistic outlook. There is no more beautiful place in Serbia, with as much development potential, she says. The energetic politician has plans to develop eco-tourism and equip sunny Kursumlija, with its many rivers, with hydro and solar power stations. She believes that Kursumlija could become "a Serbian Switzerland."

Jakovljevic believes that people in Kursumlija are fundamentally happy and positive by nature, but that difficult times that have lasted a very long time have taken their toll. "Many people just don't know what to do anymore."

She believes that, as a woman, it is easier for her to empathize with her fellow citizens. Her most difficult job, she says, is changing the way people have come to feel, to give them a more optimistic outlook. "At the end of the day, we all have to try to do everything we can to make things better here – so that things are finally good again."

But the active mayor has already lost toy merchant Zoran. "Politicians can talk," he says, disillusioned. "They work for the state -- so at least they get paid."

Read the original story in German

Photo - Kursumlija Municipality

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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

"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.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

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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