BHAKTAPUR â€" With one arm, Rabindra Puri slowly clears a pile of rubble, followed by a second, and a third, until a statuette of the god Shiva appears. He delicately wipes the object's dust-covered face, then puts it on a stretcher so that it can be carried away and placed in a locked cabin nearby.
Like other wooden survivors, the sculpture will be numbered and stored before eventually being returned its original home â€" once it is rebuilt.
Five months after the earthquake that struck Nepal and left about 9,000 dead, men with masks covering their faces are still rummaging through the rubble in search of buried memories; things that date back to the Malla or Mewar Dynasties, for instance, carved in the wooden decorations, door frames or richly sculpted lintels.
In total, some 2,500 religious and historical structures were damaged or destroyed by the earthquake, according to the Nepalese governmentâ€™s latest figures. "Their destruction was heartbreaking," says Rabindra Puri. "I ran to stop the bulldozers that were about to demolish old houses."
The architect knows better than anyone the value of the Nepalese architectural heritage. Restoring old homes is his job. He spends his days trying to understand older building techniques, their peculiarities, the different influences they represent. In the 19th century, for example, the French who came here to train the royal army "raised clearances and widened windows," the architect explains. So much history was buried on April 25.
Radindra Puri and his teams are trying to save 10 houses that were built with red bricks and carved woodwork in the Gachhen neighborhood, in Bhaktapur, a town founded during the 12th century by King Ananda Deva Malla and included on the UNESCOâ€™s World Heritage List. They alone cannot save everything, but they are setting an example.
All the houses that the architect built these past few years, following the traditional building methods, are still standing. "Nepalese houses are flexible," he says. "This means all the parts of the structure are linked to each other, which allows them to resist quakes and not break."
The destruction was not caused by the earthquake alone, but also by the use of poor quality building material and a lack of maintenance of old buildings. The Nepalese archeological department's paltry $2 million annual budget, it turns out, was not enough to protect the vast architectural heritage.
The loss of those treasures will now deprive the country of the financial windfall that stems from tourism, which represented 8% of Nepal's GDP and employed more than 500,000 people prior to the quake.
With that in mind, Nepalese authorities decided to reopen certain damaged sites in mid-June, against the advice of UNESCO, which had warned against "a risk of collapse."
Willing and ready
Given the extent of the reconstruction needed, the traditional crafts industry has a bright future. Prem Raz Zhakya is a mason. Wearing a roomy shirt, he has a bright smile on his face. In the town of Bigmati, which is famous for the quality of its craftsmen, heâ€™s the most experienced. "I started out by earning 12 rupees ($0.11) per day; now I earn 1,000 rupees ($9.40) per day," he says proudly.
During his years in construction he witnessed the growing fondness for concrete and taller and taller buildings. "I told my clients it was dangerous, but no one listened to me.â€
Pem Raz Zhakya, with help from the government, is now in charge of training young craftsmen. And he has no trouble finding candidates. Some are students who, while their university is closed, chose to learn a job to rebuild their home or earn a living by working on construction sites.
The bigger challenge for rebuilding the religious and historical buildings is finding quality building supplies. â€œThe lack of material is a serious threat to our efforts,â€ a post-quake report published by the Nepalese government warned. "There will also be great demand for wood...There will also be problems obtaining special bricks necessary for the renovation of monuments."
Cost is an problem as well. The government expects it will need more than $180 million to complete the job.
"Low prices shouldn't win"
In the Karya Bianayk temple, a few kilometers from Bagmati, Mahesh Shakya is a priest known for his wooden carvings. He receives orders from all over the world via WhatsApp or email, mostly for Buddha statuettes, his specialty. â€œMany idols have been lost," he says. "The government only thinks about houses, but how will people pray if they donâ€™t have idols?â€
But houses are not built like the Shiva or the Vishnu statues. â€œItâ€™s important to understand the nature of divinity, its attributes, its spiritual meaning, before starting the works," the priest adds. "There are so many Hindu divinities that if we miss a detail, a motive, the god in question could be mistaken for another.â€
Mahesh Shakya thinks at least one year of training is required before someone can sculpt â€œthe smile of Buddha that isnâ€™t that of laughter, but of beatitude.â€
In August, the government launched a call for bids. â€œBut itâ€™s as if the Sistine Chapel launched a call for bids to repaint its ceiling," the sculptor-priest says angrily. "Itâ€™s impossible! Low prices shouldnâ€™t win, quality should."
A petition has been launched to ask the government to cancel the call for bids and give time and money to the countryâ€™s sculptors. Itâ€™s not easy to rebuild centuries of heritage in a hurry.
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.
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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