Africa’s Game of Thrones

Africa’s Game of Thrones

The hazards of human-rights work in the continent’s last absolute monarchy
King Mswati III (Reuters/Lerato Maduna)

Imagine a mountainous kingdom at the edge of a lush, tropical continent, where one house has clung to power for hundreds of years. The aged kingpassed away after ruling for more than six decades in one of history’s longest reigns. He fathered more than 200 children but left no heir, unleashing an epic struggle between the queen regent and a handful of challengers in the royal court. Eventually, a 14-year-old boy, the product of one of the king’s hundreds of illegitimate affairs, was chosen as successor, and his mother was wedded to the dead leader’s corpse to legitimize the plot. Selected as a puppet, the new king quickly outgrew his courtiers and became notoriously cruel and corrupt.
Today, the new king rules from a castle and employs a royal guard to protect his15 wives. He often picks a new wife in a national festival each summer where his servants round up tens of thousands of the most beautiful young virgins from all across the land. There, they dance shirtless, and the king examines each one, choosing his next bride.
This is a feudal society where the majority of the population are poor farmers, tilling land supervised by the royal palace. Through his relationships with foreigners, the king earns plenty of coin, but hardly any of it trickles down to the poor. Although surrounded by spectacular and exotic plants and animals, the king’s subjects suffer from a lack of basic goods and modern medicine. More than one in four adults is afflicted with an incurable, often-fatal disease.
His Majesty has no rivals. Under his banner of a golden lion, he dictates the future of his people after chatting with his small council. Political parties are illegal, and any defiance or criticism of the royal family is outlawed. Even insulting the king’s name is liable to be punished by imprisonment. The king controls all feudal lands and local barons, along with the court system, press, police, and army. Any who choose not to bow their heads to his decree are rewarded with a stay in the royal dungeons, where a pair of leg irons, or worse—an ancient and excruciating form of foot torture—is the punishment of choice.

Considered the father of his people, the king’s legitimacy rests on ritual and superstition. To protect himself against demons, the king imbibes charms and potions. His royal court and ministers routinely grovel on the ground. If His Majesty deigns fit to visit a subject’s home, the chair in which he sits must be destroyed—or else, it is feared, an evil sorcerer might attack him.
We who write this are not on the production team of HBO’s Game of Thrones. We work in a human-rights organization in 2014. Yet we could be describing King’s Landing. Regrettably, however, this is no tale from Westeros: It is an accurate description of Africa’s last absolute monarchy, a tiny country near the continent’s southeastern coast called Swaziland.
King Mswati III, the real-life ruler of Swaziland, has held total dominion over this realm since 1986. Of course, Mswati’s lifestyle also includes the trappings of modernity: Maybach limousines, a DC-9 jet aircraft, and foreign bank accounts worth billions of dollars. The habitual treatment of his critics might be medieval, but his corruption parallels that of Russian President Vladimir Putin, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, and Equatorial Guinea strongman Teodoro Obiang.
Mswati does, in fact, select his new wives from tens of thousands of half-naked women crammed into a stadium. Elsewhere, 80 percent of the Swazi population makes less than two dollars per day. HIV, the incurable illness mentioned earlier, afflicts 31 percent of the country’s adults, the highest national rate on Earth. The average Swazi can only expect to live about 50 years.
Amid this bleakness, Swaziland is also home to some larger-than-life heroes whose bravery rivals that of any character found in George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. This week, for instance, the human-rights lawyer Thulani Maseko and journalist Bheki Makhubu sat in prison, on trial for the crime of questioning the independence of Swaziland’s judicial system.
Last year, King Mswati violated a constitutional ban on foreign-born judges and personally installed Michael Ramodibedi of Lesotho, a pliable Mswati loyalist, as Swaziland’s chief justice. This February, Maseko and Makhubu wrote defiant articles in The Nation—the country’s only independent media outlet—excoriating Ramodibedi for imprisoning Bhantshana Gwebu, the national motor-vehicle inspector. Gwebu was just doing his job, but a car he impounded happened to be owned by one of Ramodibedi’s colleagues. Gwebu has been released on bail, pending his trial.

In Swaziland, following the law instead of a royal judge’s decree lands you in jail. So, in retaliation for their investigative journalism on Gwebu’s arrest, Mswati’s police raided Maseko and Makhubu’s homes, violently seized them, and brought them to “justice.” In true Westerosi style, they were arraigned not in a court of law with due process, but in the chief justice’s private chambers. As you read this, Maseko and Makhubu are in leg irons, lumped in dungeons with common criminals. The day before his arrest last month, Maseko accepted an invitation to speak in Norway at the Oslo Freedom Forum, which is organized by the Human Rights Foundation, about the state of human rights in his country. He’s scheduled to speak on May 13—if he’s released from jail in time.
“There is peace” in Swaziland, the head of the country’s only trade union once remarked. “But it’s not real peace if every time there is dissent, you have to suppress it. It’s like sitting on top of a boiling pot.”

Thousands attend funeral of Burmese democracy hero as tributes to his courage pour in

Original :

Thousands attend funeral of Burmese democracy hero as tributes to his courage pour in

23 April 2014 
Mizzima News 

Thousands of mourners have attended the funeral of U Win Tin, a giant of Myanmar’s democracy movement, in an outpouring of grief for one of the country’s best loved champions of freedom.

Activists, political figures and ordinary citizens crowded Yayway cemetery on the outskirts of Yangon on April 23, 2014 filing past the coffin for a last glimpse of the co-founder of Myanmar’s opposition National League for Democracy.

Many wore blue in a symbolic tribute to U WinTin, who was Myanmar’s longest-serving political detainee under the former junta and who continued to wear a prison blue shirt after his release in 2008 following 19 years in jail.

A memorial ceremony was held earlier in a Yangon church for U Win Tin, who died in hospital in the city early on April 21 at the age of 84.

Mourners, many holding pictures of their hero aloft, described U Win Tin as an inspiration to others in Myanmar, which was ruled by a military junta for nearly half a century before a quasi-civilian regime took
power in 2011.

Political activist La Pyae Way, 28, said all young people should aspire to his ideals and personal sacrifice.

“Whenever there are clouds above, he will always be our blue sky,” he said.

Rights campaigners, politicians and many in the international community have joined the tributes to U Win Tin’s courage during nearly two decades of brutal treatment in jail.

Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth said he was an “irreplaceable loss for Burma’s human rights community” in a statement using the country’s former name.

“His bravery in the face of cruel hardship continues to echo through Burma’s fragile reform process,” he added.

U Win Tin was a journalist by profession – including a three-year stint as an editor at the Agence France-Presse bureau in Yangon in the early 1950s – but later entered politics in response to the army’s tyrannical rule which began when General Ne Win seized power in a coup in 1962.

He formed the National League for Democracy with Daw Aung San SuuKyi in 1988 in the wake of a student-led democracy uprising that ended in bloodshed.

But he was imprisoned by the military the following year for his political activities and was not released until 2008.

During his incarceration he was interrogated for up to five days at a time, deprived of sleep and adequate medical treatment, hooded and beaten.

But he kept writing and was unflinching in his criticism of the military regime from the moment of his release.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi penned a short note in homage to her longtime ally, praising him as the “pride of the country, pride of humanity”, said a release by the NLD.

The Nobel laureate, who was herself released from a total of 15 years under house arrest in 2010, now leads her party in Myanmar’s parliament after a wave of reforms under a new quasi-civilian government that took power in 2011.

But the army retains huge power in Myanmar, casting doubts over Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s chances of becoming president after the 2015 elections, seen as a litmus test of the reforms.

U Win Tin consistently voiced caution about the pace of change in Myanmar, explaining in an interview with AFP last year that he wore a blue shirt in solidarity with dissidents still held in jail and to show the world that his country was not yet truly free.

“I feel like I’m still in prison,” he said.

Despite his steadfast loyalty to Daw Aung San SuuKyi, he was not afraid to voice disagreement – a rare attribute in a party where many are awed by “the Lady”.

“The only dissent comes from me,” he told AFP last June.