Rio Launches Pre-World Cup Facelift For Its Infamous Favelas

With an eye on the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, both to take place in Brazil, Rio de Janeiro plans to improve its image with an extreme makeover of its notorious hillside slums.

Paolo Manzo

RIO DE JANEIRO - Already known as the Cidade Maravilhosa (Marvelous City,) Rio de Janeiro is getting ready to become more fabulous still. South America's "sleeping giant," Brazil has finally woken up and is quickly becoming an international power. And Rio, the country's second largest city, is hoping to cut a profile worthy of that status by hiding its darkest sides: the favelas, its infamous hillside slums.

The housing department of the city has launched a program called Morar Carioca (Living Carioca Style) to reshape 215 of the city's 600 favelas. In recent months, the police have struggled to pacify the slums. Now architecture will do its part to fix the many social issues that plague these troublesome areas, which together cover an area of about 12 million square meters. The Inter-American Development Bank has helped raise roughly 4 billion euros worth of funding for the project, and authorities have already selected 40 projects by some of Brazil's best architecture firms to carry out the transformation.

The 2014 Football World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games have together played a large part in hastening the projects and spurring fundraising efforts. But more importantly, according to sociologists, the Brazilian society is finally feeling the need to address long lasting social injustices.

Rio de Janeiro was founded in the 16th century by Portuguese colonizers who exploited the work of African slaves. The slaves were freed in 1888 and soon after built the first slums on the hills around the city. Ignored for more than a century, something is finally changing for the decrepit and notoriously dangerous favelas.

Corruption is said to be slowing down the construction of the Olympic buildings but in the usually forgotten favelas changes are clearly afoot. The residents themselves, furthermore, are all invited to join in the work.

"Finally we are no longer invisible. We can make our voices heard in this process, which is all about giving a human aspect to the places where we live," says Pedro Leal, a proud resident of a slum called São João.

In these favelas, drug trafficking and shootings are part of the day-to-day reality. "Your residence doesn't protect you," says Pedro, who is hoping the Morar Crioca project will bring about real change.

Star architechts take to the slums

Blue prints drafted by architects Jacira Farias and Gilson Santos – two of the designers whose projects have been selected for Rio's extreme makeover – call for the construction of large, 19th-century Parisian-style boulevards. Plans also call for "greening" the poor areas with gardens and flowers, things that right now can only be found in the upscale Copacabana and Ipanema neighborhoods.

Open spaces tend to be healthier and safer. In the slums, rudimentary residences are built one on the top of the other. The heat increases the spread of illnesses. The Rocinha favela has South America's highest rate of tuberculosis. A project by city planner Luiz Carlos Toledo calls for improving Rocinha with "eco walks' to prevent overly dense construction.

"Morar Caroca may really change the face of the city," says João Pedro Backheuserm, one of most important Brazilian architects and the person responsible for coordinating the overall project.

"Everyone will have to do his part. Remodelled houses are not enough without the implementation of a good sewage system," he adds. "Often, projects begin only to be halted soon after. That shouldn't be the case with Morar Carioca. Rio wants to look and feel its best for the Olympic Games. That's something everyone, from the administrator to the poorest resident, wants."

Read the original article in Italian

Photo - Peteris 2009

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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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