KIGALI — In the courtyard of the Ecoplastic factory in the Rwandan capital, a group of men and women are hanging plastic bags on a line with clothes pins, like they would do to dry a load of wash.
“People pick them here and there and bring them to us. We buy them and process them to turn them into another product,” explains Wenceslas Habamungu, an employee of the company.
Since 2011, small factories in Rwanda have been collecting and recycling all sort of objects made of plastic. According to Rose Mukankomeje, director general of the Rwanda Environment Management Authority, the goal is “to continue to avoid the scattering of plastic garbage in order to better protect our environment.”
Rwandese lawmakers banned the import, use and sale of polyethylene bags in 2008, because they considered them to be polluting the environment. Only bags made of reusable plastic are allowed, so much so that all non-biodegradable bags carried by passengers are seized by airport customs officials.
The battle against plastic bags is happening all over the country, even in the shops of small villages, where people sell them thinking they can escape the authorities’ watchful eyes. “Law and order must be applied to the whole territory, not only in cities,” a police officer explains.
A customs official at the border between Rwanda and Uganda puts it this way: “We seize bags like others seize drugs.”
But what about unavoidable packaging and containers, such as water bottles or medication? “We’ve signed an agreement with a few hospitals to collect the bottles of saline solution, the packaging of the mosquito nets and medicines,” explains Gilbert Ndagijimana, director of Soimex Plastic, a recycling factory in Kigali. “We transform them here and then sell them to local beneficiaries.”
The rest of the plastic comes either from the security agents who seize it or from youngsters who sort the garbage at the landfill site just outside the town and sell it to the factory.
After it has been processed, the plastic is used to make garbage bags, tents, canvas sheets, bags for mushroom cultivation or bags to hold bread. And although they may cost a bit more than imported products, some clients still prefer them because it supports both the local economy and the environment. Still, some Indian factories make cheap paper-like bags that have proved to be fierce competitors to those sold by local factories.
The recycling process also encourages the population to sort their garbage, setting aside biodegradable waste, which makes it easier for those who collect the plastic.
All told, the policy seems to be successful, having helped to begin changing the civic mentality. As Nyiramutijima Epiphanie, who lives in the capital, proudly explains, “People today are too ashamed not to recycle their plastic bags and garbage.”
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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