DUSSELDORF — The air is ice cold without a hint of wind. As night falls over Düsseldorf, they come flocking from all directions: thousands of ring-necked parakeets. They land on the plane trees that line the luxury Königsallee shopping street. Men in expensive suits and women in fur coats look up in amazement. A little girl tugs at her mother’s sleeve and says, “Mommy, they’re back.”
But not all Düsseldorf residents share the same sense of wonder at the exotic birds. Business owners on the upscale shopping street have come together to demand that the city authorities do something about the parakeets, which come every night from an area 25 kilometers wide to roost in the trees on the Königsallee.
Karl-Heinz Eiffler, the group’s leader, claims that they have nothing against the birds themselves, just their sheer numbers and the mess they leave behind. “In the morning, the street is covered with their droppings,” he complains. “The Königsallee is a luxury shopping street. The birds tarnish its image. If someone wearing a suit sits on a bench under the trees and gets a present from above, he’s not going to be happy.”
Eiffler and his colleagues have told the city authorities about the problem and they have reacted accordingly. Ten benches have been removed from the street. Now the bird droppings fall directly onto the pavement and passersby are only in danger as they walk under the trees. Eiffler is not impressed by this solution. “In winter nobody wants to sit outside anyway. But when it gets warmer people will want to, and then we’ll have the same problem.”
Tobias Krause, head of the city park authority, shrugs his shoulders. He says the benches are being cleaned, and then they’ll have to see about what to do next. He has no plans to do anything about the parakeets. They are simply there, and they have been there for some time.
Twenty years ago a breeding pair was brought over from India to the Rhineland, although nobody knows who brought them. “The birds are not on any kind of blacklist,” Krause says. “Soon everyone will get used to them. Some people find it hard to accept anything new, but nowadays no one knows that swans are not native to Germany, for example. They came from Eastern Europe.”
A bad rap
Ring-necked parakeets have just as many natural predators as other birds, and they do not take over breeding grounds, Krause emphasizes. They do not eat other birds and there have been no instances of shoppers being attacked by parakeets. The reality is that the parakeets simply perch in the trees, and the branches do not reach all the way across the street to the pavement by the shops, so customers are not in danger from droppings.
Krause himself is bold in the face of danger. He stands under the plane trees and points to the droppings on the pavement. “That’s from a jackdaw. And that’s from a crow.” It’s not as if the parakeets alone are responsible for the mess on the street.
Above all, Krause feels sorry for the birds. “They can only just survive here. It’s really too cold.” Every winter the population drops by many hundreds. Krause often finds birds with frozen feet. “Even just a little further north it’s too cold. They’d have no chance of surviving in Berlin. They can just about manage here in the Rhineland as it’s slightly warmer.”
In Bonn and Cologne there are a few thousand parakeets, but they roost in many different sites across the cities. No one knows why all the parakeets in the Düsseldorf region have decided to make their home on the Königsallee. “They like places where there is very little wind,” says Krause. “But you can find sites like that all over the city. And the Königsallee is no warmer than other places.”
Krause thinks the answer might be light. Unlike the city’s parks, the Königsallee is lit by streetlamps at night. “There are lots of falcons here that hunt parakeets. If it’s not completely dark, the parakeets can recognize the danger more quickly.”
The business owners on the Königsallee have caught wind of this possible explanation and developed a plan to drive away the parakeets. Karl-Heinz Eiffler tells us that they’re planning to switch off the streetlamps at night. It remains to be seen whether a blackout on the street will spell the end for the parakeets of the Königsallee.
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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