KUCHING — For eight years now, Irwan and his buffalo have worked through the neat rows of palm trees at the United Plantation in Teluk Intan, a town three hours drive north of Kuala Lumpur that overlooks the Straits of Malacca. For just less than 450 euros a month, he collects large clusters of oil-rich berries and carts them over to be processed.
From there, after the processing and refining, the bright red oil goes on to become a key ingredient of many everyday products in the West, China and India — from cookies and soaps to beauty creams, ice cream, margarine, noodles, and many ready meals. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimates that approximately half the products sold in a regular European supermarket contain palm oil. Now, as last month's new EU directive imposes, all labels must specify the type of fat used in place of the previously generic "vegetable oils and fats."
Like many of Malaysia's palm oil workers, Irwan emigrated here from Indonesia. But unlike so many of his countrymen, he counts himself lucky. The United Plantation, valued at 1.2 billion euros, is one of the leading companies in the industry and guarantees its more than 6,000 employees housing, health care and a fair wage. Working conditions in the country's vast palm plantations — where together with Indonesia 87% of the world's palm oil is produced — are not the main concerns of NGOs such as the WWF, Greenpeace and Flora and Fauna International.
With the increase in population and the improvement of living conditions in many developing countries, the consumption of dietary fats is destined to increase. And palm oil, thanks to its exceptional performance in comparison to other oils such as sunflower, canola or soybean, will be even more present on dinner tables around the globe.
Already it accounts for 30% of the world's dietary fat, according to Oilworld 2014's report. The top five importers of Malaysian palm oil are, respectively, India, China, the EU, the U.S. and Pakistan. In India, China and Pakistan, "interests in the certification of palm oil is virtually nil," admits a government official.
Producers have every reason to be optimistic. Enviromental groups, on the other hand, are alarmed. Palm oil production, they say, causes irreparable damage to flora and fauna — and not just in the areas where the plantations operate. Industry officials and local authorities counter by noting just how key palm oil is to the country's development.
"We have the right to grow," says Douglas Uggah Embas, Malaysian Minister for Plantation Industries and Commodities. "What we must do," he continues, "is balance the need for sustainability with development. In Malaysia, this is what we're doing."
The minister insists that no palm oil is produced here illegally by burning down the rainforest. The government's intention is to become a fully developed country by 2020 and this involves palm oil — currently 6% of the GDP and 10% of exports. The goal is to increase production by another 10 million tons (totaling 30 million) of oil by 2020.
How? By increasing productivity and deforesting, says Alfred Jabu Anak Numpang, the deputy prime minister of the Malaysian state of Sarawak. This state, on the island of Borneo, is one of the most undeveloped areas in a country whose economy depends largely on mechanical and electronic exports. But this is also the most pristine area from an environmental point of view: 81% of the land is covered by forest.
Within the next six years, the acreage will increase by one million hectares, mainly palm groves. "Palm cultivation allows small land owners to improve their conditions and send their children to school," Anak Numpang says during a meeting in Kuching, the capital of Sarawak. He promises that the palm oil expansion will not affect old growth forest or the endangered species, including orangutans, that live there. Orangutans, a great ape species, are native to Borneo and Sumatra.
Is Anak Numpang's word enough to protect the island's environment? Who will guarantee this? One group that has had some success is RSPO, an organization that brings together environmental NGOs and large buyers of palm oil — such as Unilever, the world's main "palm consumer," and Italian company Ferrero, which among other things produces Nutella — and certifies that production is sustainable. The criteria, however, is extremely stringent and is only applied to 1.2 million of Malaysia's total 5.1 million hectares of palm groves.
Many manufacturers don't support the rigid commitments and controls — not to mention their costs — imposed by the NGOs. Local governments, in the meantime, have openly accused the environmental groups of "preventing the development of Sarawak." At the end of the day, the market is the market. It's also true that outside Western countries, sensitivity to the health of orangutans is very, very relative.
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.
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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