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What Bogota Can Learn About Traffic Jams From Singapore And Shanghai

Latin American governments have shown scant interest in restricting cars and improving public transport. But some citizens in smoggy Bogotá have chosen a different path.

Gnarly traffic in Bogota, Colombia
Gnarly traffic in Bogota, Colombia
Carlos Felipe Pardo

BOGOTÁ â€" Could people start making cleaner air a priority over cars? Cities such as Singapore have successfully cut pollution by restricting car use. Now, perhaps in a sign of our times, people are warming to the idea in the Colombian capital of Bogotá, where cars are still king.

The Catharsis Bogotá project, a polling initiative backed by El Espectador and Despacio, has asked residents to offer their views on how the city could improve life and mobility. In a departure from Latin America's love of personal mobility, many respondents have urged the city to curb car use.

Sustainable transport researcher Darío Hidalgo says it's a notable change of perspective for Colombia, in line with similar developments elsewhere in the world.

Singapore, for example, had a period of immense car congestion as economic conditions there improved, and reached a situation in the 1970s similar to those of many Latin American cities today. At one point, the city-state asked economist William Vickrey to advise it on possible solutions.

His idea was not that Singapore relieve congestion by building more roads or devising complex technological solutions. Instead, he proposed charging car users and owners what their habits were really costing society. In practical terms, that meant imposing enough costs on car ownership (including monthly auctions of registration rights) to triple their sale price. He even formulated the first-ever congestion charging system, which cut traffic jams in half.

Such measures are unpopular and politically risky, but effective. Other cities since have implemented similar measures. There is London's tax on cars entering the city, and Stockholm's modulated charging in keeping with hours and traffic levels. In London, car traffic has declined 20% and in Stockholm, 25%. London has also improved security, increased bicycle use by 72%, and even brought down taxi fares. Public transport has also improved, and demand for it has grown 14%.

Shanghai has used number plate auctions to finance bus technology and cut public transport fares for some residents. Its restrictive measures have at least managed to slow rising car numbers, which grew from around two million in 2004 to 3.5 million in 2010. Comparatively, car numbers in Beijing rose from two million to about five million in the same period.

The Inter-American Development Bank (BID) compiled a report in 2013 on 12 Latin American cities, including Bogotá and Medellín, observing the difficulty of such "demand management" measures. Their unpopularity has basically made car restrictions plunge in priority for politicians, while hampering systematic moves to improve public transport or make it more attractive.

Regional governments have yet to understand that it is often the same cities that charge a premium for buying, driving and parking private cars that also turn out to boast top public transport and better walking and cycling accessibility.

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Geopolitics

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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