How One African City Is Taking Back The Streets, Literally

Local planners in Bukavu, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, are clearing out homes and businesses that encroached over the years along the city's main avenues.

Bulldozing in Bukavu
Bulldozing in Bukavu
Dieudonné Malekera

BUKAVU — Heavy machinery from the Office of Road Work and Drainage (OVD) rumbles, grinds and rat-a-tat-tats along Kibombo avenue in this city on the eastern edge of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

A bulldozer has torn down the walls of a religious convent, a hotel and a radio station. Various homes and shops are felled as well. Some property owners acted preemptively, hiring workers to start dismantling the stones and bricks even before the OVD machines showed up — but others complain that they weren't properly warned.

Whatever the case, the demolition is now very much underway, here as well as along neighboring roads like Kasongo avenue, where some 30 buildings have already been destroyed. The goal is to remove unauthorized homes and businesses that have encroached over the years along the city's main avenues.

Walking amid the rubble and battered bits of corrugated iron is Kalenga Riziki, the provincial planning minister. "People who have built along the path of the road should take it up upon themselves to start destroying those structures," he says. "If they don't, the State will do the job for them. We’re determined to return the city to how it used to be."

Bukavu Mayor Philémon Yogolelo Lutombo in Bukavu — Photo: Skyscraper City forum

Onlookers are surprised to see tar under some of the rubble and torn-up gardens. "Back in the 1960s, Kibombo and Kasongo avenues each had two or three lanes," Symphorien Kashemwa, a man in his 70s, recalls.

Serge Barhayiga, a top-level planning official, concurs, saying he has an old city map to prove it. "The idea is to clear six meters along the width of the avenue, plus up to another two meters for the sidewalk," he explains.

Barhayiga says people really started to build on the edge of the roads during the Congolese Rally for Democracy rebellion (1998-2003) — a period marked by a real-estate boom, illicit mineral trafficking and overall lack of oversight on the part of the government. "Most of the agents involved in all this maneuvering are now dead," he adds.

But Descartes Mponge, a local civil society leader whose office is on Kibombo avenue, says some of the structures are only two or three years old and were built with the complicity of officials acting in the name of the State.

Michel Kabote, an advisor to Minister Riziki, says such cases are isolated. "This is a post-conflict country. There are people who built in a dishonest way, using military officers to intervene on their behalf, calling in favors from Kinshasa, and working between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m., or only on Sundays."

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

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".

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!