For World Leaders, The Hard Choices Of COVID-19 Have Only Begun

French President Emmanuel Macron visiting a supermarket in western France on April 22
French President Emmanuel Macron visiting a supermarket in western France on April 22

As governments now brace themselves to begin a tightrope walk between saving lives and saving their hemorrhaging economies, one thing is certain: No decision will lead to a perfect outcome. National leaders must quickly pivot from a posture of disaster relief to satisfying often contradictory demands from their populations as the pandemic's rally-around-the-flag effect starts to fade. Indeed, for all of us, hovering over the burdensome journey ahead will be the same doubt that comes in times when old certainties are suddenly up for grabs: Will it bring us closer together, or drive us farther apart? It is question posed both within and among nations.

So far, the most acute phase of the pandemic has offered national leaders some temporary respite from dissent. In Italy, where the virus has been particularly devastating, approval of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte reached 71% in March — far higher than those achieved by his two most recent predecessors, reports Il Fatto Quotidiano. In Sweden, where authorities have been under both domestic and foreign fire for its light-touch approach, approval of Prime Minister Stefan Löfven has nonetheless increased from 26% to 47% since the crisis began, reports daily Expressen. In South Korea, where the widely praised reaction to the coronavirus outbreak limited death tolls, President Moon Jae-in's ruling Democratic Party coalition won a landslide victory earlier this month.

Still, cracks in support are beginning to show, which may be explained only in part by some examples of objectively poor management of the crisis. In France, President Emmanuel Macron's support has dropped the past few weeks, reaching 40% on Monday, its lowest level since the pandemic arrived, reports Les Echos. U.S. President Donald Trump is finally paying the price for his ham-handed (and much worse) management of the coronavirus response.

We've seen the whims of popular support in other dramatic events in the recent past. After 9/11 when President George W Bush briefly hit 90% approval, while Francois Hollande, the most unpopular French president in post-War history got a 21% boost after the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack, only to see his support quickly plummet in the succeeding months.

Still, as fearsome as the current crisis may be, it is something different than a terrorist attack — both more insidious and harder to track, tearing at every part of our societal fabric. It also comes as many countries were already suffering a surge in polarization, populism and growing distrust of government leaders.

Indeed, the threat of an economic depression turning into a democratic collapse is very real for many countries. The IMF has projected an economic downturn 30% worse than the 2009 financial crisis and a $9 trillion hit to global gross domestic product. Indeed, the financial crash a decade right now seems to pale in comparison with a perhaps more fitting, historical analogy taking us back to the mind-bending devastation of World War II.

That too was an event that destabilized nearly every corner of the planet, sparking a recognition of the need for some kind a minimum of established norms and shared values. What followed were the Nuremberg trials which, however inconclusive, were part of a broader effort to engineer a new world order and establish a common humanity as a legal principle. The post-1945 divisions, of course, brought us the Cold War, but also such institutions as the United Nations, and the Coal and Steel Collaboration that led to the European Union.

With the current uncertainty, and rising nationalist sentiment, it is still hard to envision such a rosy recomposition of the world order. In an interview last week with Le Monde, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian was rather pessimistic: "My fear is that the world "after" will look a whole lot like the world before, but worse," Le Drian said. "We seem to be witnessing an amplification of the fractures that have been threatening the international order for years. The pandemic is the continuation, by other means, of the old power struggles."

It will be months or years before we know whether this dark forecast comes to pass, or the COVID-19 dynamic somehow manages to advance a new kind of collaboration in domestic and international politics. What we do know is that the pandemic has laid bare the fragility of our globalized world while also demonstrating its potential for good — setting the stage for what might very well be recalled as a turning point in history.

For the coming weeks, Worldcrunch will be delivering daily updates on the coronavirus pandemic from the best, most trusted international news sources — regardless of language or geography. To receive the daily Coronavirus global brief in your inbox, sign up here.

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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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