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Shifting Relations In The Americas

Donald Trump dominated global headlines once again this morning after meeting with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto in Mexico City, and later reaffirming his hardline stance on immigration in a speech in Phoenix, Arizona. In front of a cheering crowd, the Republican presidential candidate delivered enough anti-immigrant applause lines for his supporters’ hands to get blisters. It was a head-spinning day after the earlier visit across the border along which he’s vowed to build a wall that “Mexico will pay for 100%,” and failed to apologize for earlier references to Mexicans as “rapists.”


While the invitation from President Peña Nieto was widely lambasted in Mexico, the cross-border encounter was just one of several recent flashpoints of the shifting relations and the high stakes at play between the U.S. superpower and its Latin American neighbors ahead of November’s elections.


Trump’s show yesterday happened to coincide with the first commercial flight between the U.S. and Cuba in more than half a century, which landed in Santa Clara. But even as the rapprochement continues between the two former enemies, tensions are rising elsewhere in the area. Venezuela’s embattled leftist President Nicolas Maduro accused Washington of being behind the nationwide protests that are set to kick off today, calling it a coup attempt. “The government of President Barack Hussein Obama ... seeks the instability of Venezuela and the region to legitimize its imperial plans against the peace and development of the people,” he said earlier this week.


Meanwhile, next door to Venezuela, Brazil is facing profound instability of its own after Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment was confirmed yesterday by the Senate. To the north is perhaps the best diplomatic news of the summer, as Colombia and leftist rebel group FARC have reached an accord to end 52 years of civil war. The lengthy negotiations, we should note, were hosted in Havana. Could evolving U.S.-Cuba relations become the rock of stability in the Western Hemisphere?



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VERBATIM

“They think they have beaten us but they are mistaken,” a defiant Dilma Rousseff told her supporters yesterday, vowing to fight back and appeal the decision to impeach her. An overwhelming majority of Brazil’s Senators (61-20) voted in favor of her impeachment, marking the end of her Workers’ Party 13-year rule. In a pre-recorded address that was broadcast after he was sworn in, interim President Michel Temer said “this moment is one of hope and recovery of confidence in Brazil. Uncertainty has ended.” But clashes erupted overnight between Dilma’s supporters and the police for a third day in a row in São Paulo, as well as in other cities across the country, with Folha de S. Paulo reporting several injuries.


TWO DEAD IN CLASHES AFTER GABON ELECTION

Two people were killed and others were wounded last night in Libreville, Gabon, when security forces stormed the headquarters of the defeated presidential candidate Jean Ping, after days of unrest that followed a disputed election on Sunday, France 24 reports. Earlier, the parliament had been set on fire and the government said security operations aimed at “rooting out criminals.” Jean Ping’s supporters accuse reelected President Ali Bongo of stealing the polls.


â€" ON THIS DAY

The day science-fiction movies were born! This is your 57-second shot of History.


IRAN ALLOWED "SECRET" EXEMPTIONS IN NUCLEAR DEAL

The U.S. and its negotiating partners agreed "in secret" to allow Iran to evade some restrictions in last year's landmark nuclear agreement in order to meet the deadline for it to start getting relief from economic sanctions, Reuters reports.


FIRST ZIKA CASE IN MALAYSIA

Malaysia reported its first case of the Zika virus today , Al Jazeera reports. A 58-year-old woman tested positive for the mosquito-borne virus after travelling to Singapore.


â€" WORLDCRUNCH-TO-GO

Decades of civil war have ravaged Colombia's environment and undermined opportunities at oil exploration. For Colombian daily El Espectador, now with peace looming, big and small firms alike are ready to pursue the government's "sustainable" energy plan: “Just one figure may offer an idea of what big oil has lost in the government's battle against the forces of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC): Energy infrastructure like pipelines have been dynamited more than 2,500 times in the past three decades. ...

Big, medium and smaller oil firms have all declared their eagerness for a new era. ‘If we were in Colombia in the worst periods of conflict and insecurity, we'll certainly do so now that we can see the light at the end of the tunnel,’ says Orlando Velandia Sepúlveda, who heads the state hydrocarbons agency ANH, citing conversations with sector representatives. The peace deal inked last week with the FARC, he says, ‘is the best news for the oil sector.’”

Read the full article, Why Oil Firms Are Pumped About The Colombia Peace Deal.


FLIGHTS RESUMED, AFTER 4 AND 50 YEARS

A scheduled commercial flight flew from the U.S. to Cuba for the first time in more than 50 years yesterday, CNN reports. JetBlue Flight 387 departed from Fort Lauderdale, near Miami, and landed in Santa Clara, carrying 150 people on board. It lasted just 45 minutes. Meanwhile, British Airways announced this morning it will resume direct flights from London to Tehran later, after suspending them four years ago, according to the BBC.


â€" MY GRAND-PERE’S WORLD

Birds Of Prayer â€" Bharatpur, 1994


3.7 BILLION

Scientists have discovered fossils in Greenland that formed 3.7 billion years ago, making them the oldest physical evidence for life on Earth, the scientific journal Nature reports. These new fossils are 220 million years older than fossils previously discovered.


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FRIENDLY COUNTRIES

The friendliest countries in the world for expats are Taiwan, Uganda and Costa Rica. Czech Republic, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, on the other hand, are where you’ll make the fewest friends, according to the 2016 edition of Expat Insider, a worldwide expat survey that ranked the “ease of settling in” 67 countries.

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Geopolitics

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

"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.

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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