Economy

Euro Beware: The Real Threat May Be Bitcoin, The Online "Crypto-Currency"

Virtual money, real value
Virtual money, real value
Daniel Eckert

BERLIN - With all its other problems, the euro is also getting unexpected -- and “underground” -- competition from a new virtual currency.

It's called the bitcoin, and in case you haven't heard, it is the most ambitious (and to-date, successful) attempt to create a new online currency, generated by the calculations of thousands of computers. Some say it amounts to a kind of anarchic money.

This week, as the euro crisis has reached Cyprus, the bitcoin (BTC) marked a record high on the largest online exchange, bitcoin.de. The exchange rate has approached 50 euros, more than doubling the value of the virtual currency within four weeks.

The latest run on bitcoins was caused by reports of a bitcoin fund being launched by Malta-based hedge fund called Exante. The Bitcoin Fund has an initial minimum subscription of $100,000 and a 0.5% upfront subscription fee. Current assets under management in the Bitcoin Fund are $3.2 million.

"Investor demand is rising quickly," says Oliver Flaskämper, who drives bitcoin.de: "Many investors realize that the present market cap of around $520 million leaves a lot of room."

Europeans alone have more than 5 trillion euros in their wallet files and accounts. Everyone can use bitcoins as long as they have a wallet app installed on a PC or a smartphone.

What makes bitcoins particularly attractive is that users can use them for payment at an increasing number of places. Over 2,000 companies and organizations now accept the alternative currency, including pizza delivery outfits, but also gambling sites of dubious repute.

It has also been said that bitcoins are used in drug transactions. Unlike credit cards or online payment services like Paypal, bitcoin transactions are essentially anonymous which has aroused the suspicions of bankers and politicians alike. Bitcoin fans argue that cash was and remains the primary means of paying for drugs – and that nobody has aired the idea that cash should be abolished.

The history of the bitcoin has so far been marked by ups and downs. The virtual currency was introduced in 2009 by Japanese programmer Satoshi Nakamoto, who wanted to create counterfeit-proof money for the web. It now appears however that the name is a pseudonym, and that nobody really knows who is behind the bitcoin idea.

Bubbles and fluctuations, but still there

Hype developed around the crypto-currency relatively quickly. In 2011 the first speculation bubble – that had driven the exchange rate to $30 – burst. Then came a hacker attack on the major bitcoin exchanges. Users lost virtual coins worth several hundred thousand euros and confidence – and prices – collapsed.

Despite fluctuations, bitcoins remain an extremely interesting concept. They are created by highly complex calculations running on thousands of computers. Approximately every 10 minutes, 25 new bitcoins are created. The algorithm takes into account that at some point a maximum number of virtual coins will be reached – ostensibly around 2140, and from 2033 on no large quantities of new bitcoins will be made.

In that sense the bitcoin system bears resemblance to the gold standard. Unlike euros or dollars the amount of bitcoins cannot be increased at will. The virtual coins are interesting for investors betting on the inflation of paper money.

Bitcoins might even presage a whole new era. "Money is being re-invented," Thorsten Polleit, chief economist at Degussa Bank, believes. He sees a future where different kinds of money will be competing with each other. "The banks are misusing the money monopoly they have, using money for political purposes. In the long run that will lead to devaluation" – and the demand for private mediums of exchange will increase, he says.

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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

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"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.

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".

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