U.S., UK HACKED SIM CARD PROVIDER
The NSA and its British counterpart GCHQ illegally hacked into the internal computer network of Gemalto, the world’s largest SIM card manufacturer, and stole encryption keys to facilitate eavesdropping on global cellular communications, The Intercept reports. The documents, leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden, show that intelligence agencies have therefore been able to monitor mobile communications — voice and data — without approval from telecom companies and foreign governments. Gemalto produces about two billion SIM cards every year and is a provider to some 450 networks in 85 countries. The Dutch company said it was investigating the report.
ON THIS DAY
On Feb. 20, 1872, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art opened. Time for your 57-second shot of history.
Protests erupted in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas last night after Mayor Antonio Ledezma was hauled away by camouflaged police after the president accused him of attempting to overthrow the government. Read more from our 4 Corners blog.
WAR IN UKRAINE DESPITE CEASEFIRE
Despite efforts from Ukraine, Russian, German and French leaders yesterday to salvage last week’s ceasefire agreement, fighting continues in eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainian military says pro-Russian rebels have attacked their positions 49 times in the last 24 hours, and Reuters reports there is shelling in Mariupol. The rebels also accused Kiev of shelling residential areas in Donetsk.
- Russia’s state-owned company Gazprom has, meanwhile, started sending gas to rebel-controlled areas in eastern Ukraine after Kiev cuts its supplies to the region, AFP reports. Two convoys from Russia, each carrying 100 tons of humanitarian aid, mostly food, have also arrived in Donetsk and Luhansk.
Photo above: Baris Kaykusuz/Depo Photos/ZUMA
The new presidential palace that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had built especially for himself in Ankara — and that boasts “at least” 1,150 rooms — is guarded by 1,150 policemen for a total security cost of more than $20 million, Hürriyet reports.
LAST-CHANCE TALKS FOR GREECE
Eurozone finance ministers have gathered in Brussels for what The Guardian describes as “make-or-break” talks over a new bailout deal for Greece. The country has vowed to reject any new demand for austerity measures, with Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis saying that the only reason to demand more is “out of ideology or on punitive grounds.” “We have already done more fiscal tightening than has ever been done by any country in peacetime,” The Daily Telegraph quoted him as saying. Berlin rejected Greece’s demand of a six-month bailout extension yesterday, describing the carefully worded request as a “Trojan horse.” Failure to reach agreement today would see Greece run out of cash, default on its debt and likely leave the Eurozone.
“Our life was nothing but slavery,” Rim Il, a North Korean who was sent to work in Kuwait in the 1990s, said of Pyongyang’s policy to confiscate the wages of its citizens working abroad. Read the full report from The New York Times.
THE PENTAGON’S MOSUL STRATEGY
The Pentagon announced plans yesterday to retake Mosul, Iraq, from ISIS terrorists in April or May, explaining that the group is “in decline” militarily and is losing ground every day in Iraq, The Huffington Post reports. The operation will reportedly involve 20,000 to 25,000 Iraqi troops, including three Kurdish Peshmerga brigades. The Los Angeles Times describes the announcement as “unusual” and says it could be intended “at least in part, to rattle the estimated 2,000 Sunni fighters believed to hold the northern Iraqi city.”
- Turkey and the U.S., meanwhile, have signed an agreement to train and arm Syrian rebels fighting government forces and ISIS, AFP says. This came amid reports from Turkey’s intelligence agency that some 3,000 ISIS militants had crossed into the country and were plotting to attack diplomatic missions in Ankara and Istanbul.
As Süddeutsche Zeitung’s Martina Miethig writes, Ho Chi Minh City has a rich nightlife, where gourmet restaurants, styled establishments and airy “sky bars” that present the Vietnamese metropolis from a bird's eye view abound. But there’s the usual way to tour the city’s culinary delicacies, and then there’s the moped option. “Nguyen Tien is a confident driver and tour guide,” Miethig writes. “‘We're going through Chinatown right now,’ she says in perfect English from the front of the moped. No sooner has she uttered these words, we smell the medical, slightly musty herbs and roots of traditional medicine. The camera in the driver's helmet is capturing the scenes around us. Too bad it can't capture scents too. Like the other smells on this “Foodie Tour” of Ho Chi Minh City, these are to be savored.”
Read the full article, Vietnamese Foodie Delights On Moped Tour Of Ho Chi Minh City.
THAILAND BANS SURROGACY
Thailand’s lawmakers passed a law banning foreigners and same-sex couples from paying women to be surrogate mothers. One legislator characterized it as an attempt to prevent Thailand from becoming “the world's womb,” Reuters reports. The decision comes after last year’s Baby Gammy scandal in which an Australian couple refused a twin boy and left him with his surrogate mother after finding out the baby had Down syndrome.
For more on this topic, we offer this Le Nouvel Observateur/Worldcrunch article, Brave New World: Inside India's First Bonafide Baby Factory.
MY GRAND-PÈRE’S WORLD
DRUG-RESISTANT MALARIA A HUGE THREAT
An alarming report shows that a drug-resistant form of malaria parasites has been detected in many Southeast Asian countries, especially in Myanmar, and now threatens India. Read more from the BBC.
KIM JONG-UN’S NEW ’DO
It’s even worse than before.
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.
Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.
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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