FORÉCARIAH — Assény Touré’s tightly drawn features bear testament to his harrowing ordeal. In December, after he was diagnosed with Ebola, this taciturn 30-year-old was chased out of the village where he was born, Béta, an hour-drive away from Forécariah, in western Guinea. The virus killed 19 members of his family. He survived. And yet he's still a pariah.
“Ebola killed my family," says Touré, who has taken up shelter in a Red Cross tent where four patients are being quarantined. "I won’t let other Guineans die of that disease."
Now cured, Touré is trying to raise awareness in this town where Ebola leaves people either angry or indifferent. The epidemic, which moved from the forest in the northeast to the coast, is still ravaging the region even as it is finally being contained in the rest of the country. Nearly 3,600 cases have been confirmed in Guinea since December 2013. More than 2,300 people have died.
With Liberia and Sierra Leone farther along in the recovery from Ebola, the Guinean authorities are still hoping to announce the end of the epidemic before the end of May. Only nine cases were reported last week, the lowest number since the epidemic started. But they fear that Forécariah, the last active center, might contaminate the capital Conakry and the towns in between.
“We’re a kind of shield to prevent Ebola from spreading to the capital,” says Emmanuel Pajot, operations coordinator at the Red Cross Ebola Treatment Center, set up at the end of an alley in ochre earth. “The goal is to do as much as possible before the rainy season because some remote areas are already difficult to reach.”
Nearly 80% of the cases reported since January are located in this prefecture. Complicating matters is how wary people tend to be of health personnel. Many suspect health workers of transmitting the virus. The Ebola epidemic has also taken on political dimensions in this region, which is where Prime Minister Mohamed Saïd Fofana comes from. A presidential election is planned for Oct. 11.
“The government abandoned us and takes advantage of Ebola and NGOs to attract investments and to campaign for the election,” sighs one inhabitant. “They’re not welcome here anymore.”
"The snake's head"
As a result, some patients would rather turn to traditional healers, even if it means traveling to Conakry or 150 kilometers north to Boffa and thus taking the risk of spreading the virus. That’s how Binta Diallo, 26, was infected in June 2014. An aunt suffering from diabetes came from Kenema, in Sierra Leone, by way of Forécariah to be taken care of in Conakry. The old woman was especially weak. “We thought it was her diabetes but it was Ebola. Eleven of us were infected and six died,” Binta says.
U.S. Air Force supporting WHO actions in Guinea — Photo: DVIDSHUB
Mandy Kader Kondé, who heads the commission for research for the fight against Ebola, says the biggest challenge right now is sick people traveling. “We’re facing the same difficulties on the coast as we did six months ago in the Guinean forest," she says. "In Forécariah, we’re in the home stretch, but it’s the most difficult part.”
“Forécariah is the snake’s head,” says doctor Sakoba Keita, the national coordinator for the fight against Ebola. “If we can control Forécariah, we can control Conakry.” So in addition to the Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders and the World Health Organization (WHO), teams of health workers are sent from the capital and are striving to raise awareness among the inhabitants, to try and clear up suspicions and potentially detect new cases.
Scrambling for patients
Pharmaceutical multinationals are also keeping a close eye on the situation in Forécariah as they compete to carry out their vaccine tests. “Guinea has become a laboratory,” a doctor says.
Since March 7, the WHO has been testing the VSV-ZEBOV vaccine developed by the Public Health Agency of Canada and the U.S. company Merck. The British foundation Wellcome Trust has allocated close to $3 million to the WHO. By the end of April, almost 1,000 tests had been carried out, one of the people in charge of the campaign said. The figure is a long way from the 9,500 required before the third phase of the trials can be validated.
“We think we can obtain preliminary results this month, but without a fresh outbreak, we risk not being able to see these trials to the end due to the lack of patients,” notes Jean-Marie Dangou, the WHO’s representative in Guinea.
Another actor is now present in Guinea: British multinational GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), which had chosen Liberia and Sierra Leone to carry out its own vaccine trials. But since Ebola is about to be eradicated in these English-speaking countries, the number of patients is running low. So they’re turning their gaze to tiny Guinea which, until recently, “they looked down on,” a civil servant says.
“GSK is calling upon us but I don’t know where to send them,” doctor Sakoba Keita says. “The latest patients have been taken care of by Merck, and they don’t want to give ground to their competitors. This is now a race for patients.”
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".
- Long Shielded, Thailand's Monarchy Facing Hard Questions Amid ... ›
- French Monarchist Lessons For A Broken American Democracy ... ›
- Thailand To Belarus: The Divides Of Democracy Protesters ... ›