Geopolitics

With Russian Volunteers Who Crossed Into Ukraine

After pleas for help on social media to defend pro-Russians across the border, soldiers and would-be soldiers have left Russia to travel to Eastern Ukraine. On the ground in Donetsk.

Landing in Kramatorsk airport
Landing in Kramatorsk airport
Ilya Barabanov, Yanina Sokolovskaya, Sergei Stokan and Maksim Yusin

DONETSK — The declaration to Parliament left no doubt: Ukraine’s interim president, Oleksandr Turchinov, declared late Tuesday that his country's military forces could claim their first success in the course of the “anti-terrorism operations,” having seized control of the airport in the eastern city of Kramatorsk.

But accounts differ regarding what exactly really happened.

Some say that Ukrainian forces stormed the airport, in a full military attack. Others say that there was no fighting. Eyewitnesses say that two Ukrainian military helicopters landed in the area that had been blocked off by “self-defense” forces, and several dozen soldiers came out of the helicopters.

A military officer who introduced himself as General Krutovim walked towards the crowd. “We are carrying out an anti-terrorism operation,” he said.

By Tuesday evening, all of the airport’s entrances were filled with the cars of citizens. They had re-hung a large sign that read “Don’t Shoot People From Kramatorsk,” and people had started joking with the Ukrainian soldiers, saying, “Bandera (a reference to Stepan Bandera, a controversial Ukrainian nationalist who fought against the Soviet Union), who do you want to shoot?” By midnight, mot cars had dispersed.

Russian presence

Donetsk also waited all day for an attack. The head of the local pro-Russian army, Pavel Paramonov, met with a correspondent from Kommersant in his second-floor office in Donetsk, where he had just arrived from the Russian city of Efremov.

“I was invited to come on the social networks, so I came and am trying to live up to the trust that was placed in me,” he said. He certainly isn’t the only Russian who wants to support the protesters in Donetsk. In the administration building where his office was located there were signs that read: “Cossacks who have just arrived from Russia should call Victor.”

It wasn’t very difficult to locate Victor. He confirmed that there were indeed Cossacks from Russia arriving, but said that it “wasn’t in massive numbers.”

“I can’t give exact numbers, that’s strategic information. Hardly all are able to cross the border. Russia is also getting in the way. Even leaders bringing Cossacks from Crimea have suffered,” he said, without specifying exactly what kind of punishment those leaders actually had been subjected to.

According to the military chief, most of the activists that have volunteered for the local army lack experience. “In addition, there is also a serious lack of equipment, uniforms and, most importantly, weapons,” he said.

Paramonov says that the local police and Ukrainian military are not eager to get involved, and he says they have even asked the volunteers to blockade their bases - so that they have an excuse as to why they haven’t acted.

“We are hoping for support from Russia, but the most important thing that people want now is to avoid a civil war and bloodshed,” he said.

During the day, some 200 to 300 people have been guarding the administrative buildings seized by the local army, and World War II-era songs are performed from the stage. In the evening, people watch as activists in uniform and masks demonstrate. Before the night was over, the Ukrainian national crests on the buildings had been taken down and set near the entrance - and then broken into pieces for souvenirs.

Maidan’s ultimatum

Until the middle of Monday, the situation in Eastern Ukraine, where protesters were defying the Ukrainian government in Kiev, had been at a stalemate. The so-called anti-terrorism actions that President Turchinov announced were limited to local skirmishes, in spite of demands from Maidan protest leaders that the government should either liberate the rebellious regions within 24 hours or resign. At the same time, those in favor of a federalist system could not spread their own protests over a larger area.

Such pressure from activists was partially what led Turchinov to announce the anti-terrorism actions, although he also called on the government’s critics to volunteer for the army instead of protesting outside the parliament.

Conflicting accounts continue to come from across Ukraine’s sessessionist regions in the East. There were reports of military movements in the Kharkovsky, Donetsky and Lugansky regions. Social media had reports of some tanks that were broken down in a field near Slavyanskii, of fighter jet over Kramatorsky, one of which appeared disabled, of attacks at barricades that led to gun shots and victims. But there was no centrally-coordinated operation.

Amidst this situation on the ground, where none of the parties involved in the conflict in the East have been able to get an edge, Yulia Tymoshenko announced the formation of "National Resistance Movement." In a video addressed to the country she blamed Moscow for the escalation of the conflict and called for a military response, urging former soldiers and special forces officers should form the basis of that new army.

Moscow meanwhile continues to react forcefully to the events in Eastern Ukraine. Konstantin Dolgov, the representative of the Interior’s Ministry department of Human Right, Democracy and the Rule of Law, accused Kiev of provoking a civil war. He said that the events were “beginning to develop according to worst-case scenarios” and that the Ukrainian leaders were “following an absolutely irresponsible course.”

Moscow had previously warned that if the government in Kiev used force against the protesters in the East, it would cancel the planned meeting this week in Geneva that is supposed to include Russia, the US, EU and Ukraine. But when Kommersant asked Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov if the meeting was still on, he said he was planning on flying to Geneva.

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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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