BUENOS AIRES — Anti-racism protestors who've demonstrated in recent weeks, and in countries all over the world, are taking their frustrations out on historic figures, toppling or defacing statues of people who embody past injustices. And one of the more typical targets in all this is the man who, back in 1492, famously sailed the ocean blue.
Christopher Columbus, long hailed as the person who "discovered" the Americas, was also a a mass murderer, critics argue. And he was indirectly responsible, they say, for the horrors of La Conquista, as the Spanish conquest of the continent came to be known.
Tearing down monuments is not a new phenomenon or one that's exclusive to the wave of protests sparked by the police killing in Minneapolis, Minnesota of George Floyd. We have the statues of Marx, Lenin and Stalin destroyed at the end of the Soviet Union, the Buddhas of Bamiyan bombed by the Taliban and Saddam Hussein pulled off a pedestal in U.S.-occupied Baghdad.
In all of these cases, the fury represents a need to rewrite history. The Congolese want to remove statues of the genocidal Belgian King Leopold II. During the 2019 protests in Chile, people targeted the Spanish conquerors Pedro de Valdivia and Francisco de Aguirre, along with 19th-century politicians and generals who represent the country's white elite.
Chile's native Mapuches used the protests for their own demands to confront the country's "official" history. They have dismissed complaints that defacing statues is "vandalism," defending this as a powerful symbol of reactions to a falsified version of events following the Spanish conquest.
In Britain, the Formula 1 champion Lewis Hamilton defended the toppling of the statues of people who made money "selling a human being." But should the list also include African merchants and rulers who began selling their own people to the Europeans in the 16th century? Because that, if we're being honest, was also a crucial component of the transatlantic slave trade.
The fury represents a need to rewrite history.
Those who topple statues usually invoke historical revisionism as part of their alternative political narrative. But there is no history here, as they are mainly driven not by established facts, but by feelings and opinions. They would justify violence for the sake of an ideal, and want an overhaul based on a tale of the good and the bad, winners and losers.
The most eager among them prefer historical memory to the information such statues yield about the bygone periods of their builders and societies. It goes beyond the distorted memory of a personage in bronze or stone, for statues are a better reflection of their time than the subject itself. We would do well to think twice before consigning them to oblivion, because collective memory must also include the bad memories.
Christopher Columbus is one of the biggest characters in this intermittent war of statues, as is Spain, the country whence he sailed to the Americas. A recent example is California's removal of a statue of Isabella of Castille, the monarch who backed his expeditions. But actions of this kind date back decades, in fact — to the lead-up to 1992, the quincentenary of Columbus's arrival.
Pulling down Cristóbal Colón in Argentina — Photo: Sudestadarevista
The United States changed Columbus Day to Indigenous People's Day. Los Angeles removed his statue in 2018. Critics recall that Columbus didn't in fact "discover" the Americas. The accuse him, furthermore, of being responsible for history's "greatest genocide." By 2019, when Washington D.C. joined the fray, 131 cities and eight states had dropped Columbus for Indigenous People's Day.
This dichotomy seemingly includes good and bad statues, and pardonable or irredeemable acts. Should the statues of the worst people be toppled? Who decides? Many of those who want Columbus removed must have opposed the toppling of 11 statues of Hugo Chávez (10 in Venezuela and one in Bolivia), or the removal of Néstor Kirchner's ugly statue at the UNASUR headquarters.
Should we call Columbus a mass murderer and leave it at that? Or delve into complexities? The reactions are from our time, and omit to consider the historical moment in which he lived. As a man of his time, he was a pioneer of European maritime expansionism. What would he have done in our time though? Would he be racist or denounce segregation? Difficult to say.
This mêlée over monuments has a parallel in the demands made intermittently for apologies over the events of decades or even centuries past. In 2019, Mexico's President Andrés Manuel López Obrador wrote to King Philip VI suggesting Spain apologise for the crimes of the 16th-century conqueror Hernán Cortés and his soldiery. His letter reflected a pervasive view in Mexico and Latin American countries, so it may not have been the last such request.
Vast sectors of Latin American society have a vision of La Conquista that Spanish society does not share. If Spain wants to strengthen ties with the continent, it must face the issue without sticking to its "civilizing" guns (the culture, language and religion it gave the Americas). It is a two-way commitment of course: If Latin Americans want stronger ties with Spain, they too must loosen the Manichaean version of history, with its villains and victims.
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.
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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