Ancient Maya Culture Brought Back to Life In Old Europe

An exhibition currently underway at Berlin's Martin-Gropius-Bau museum showcases 300 artifacts from the ancient Mayan civilization.

Ancient Maya Culture Brought Back to Life In Old Europe
Martin-Gropius-Bau museum
Berthold Seewald

BERLIN â€" The fascinating history of the Maya is often overlooked in Europe, where Greeks and Roman reigned supreme. It's been more than two decades since Germany has seen a major exhibit on the Maya, the pre-Columbian people who shaped large parts of Mesoamerica for 1,500 years. Now, running through August 7 at Berlin's Martin-Gropius-Bau museum is a truly remarkable exhibition, produced together with Mexico City’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) to kick off the German-Mexican Year of Culture.

The exhibit can only be described in superlatives. Instead of filling display cabinets with an excessive number of artifacts, curators chose only 300 pieces from the Mexican collections, and used this selection to help 21st-century Europeans better understand a culture so very different from their own.

The Maya did not have many of the advantages enjoyed by the Greeks and Romans. They had no draught animals, no metals that could be used for making tools, no carts or wheels, no throwing wheels for pottery. They could not engage in intercontinental trade or expeditions on the high seas.

Nevertheless, they followed their human instinct, which also meant that their culture included some very gory rituals. In the Mayan belief system, blood and twitching hearts were the only means of ensuring the earth’s fertility, and so the Maya provided plenty of both through ritual sacrifice.

Inscriptions on Mayan ruins speak of endless wars among city states between 250 and 900 A.D., the Golden Age of the Maya. Entire cities were destroyed, the elite sacrificed and survivors enslaved. Kings and rulers, too, had to make personal sacrifices to preserve their status: depictions of nobles stabbing their penises with bone daggers to sway the Gods are among the most brutal rituals that testify to this.

Burning hair, sawing teeth

Very little Mayan written history remains due to the Spanish invasion; Franciscan inquisitor Diego de Landa is believed to have played a large role in the destruction of Mayan texts in the 16th century. Ironically, however, Landa’s own Account on the Affairs of Yucatan was later used to decipher most of the Mayan hieroglyphs and interpret Mayan art and rituals.

His report, in essence a justification for the Spanish invasion, shed light on Mayan life and rituals. Tattoos, for example, were created by cutting the skin and then filling it in with earth or stones. Hair was burned rather than cut, owing to the absence of scissors. And one particularly painful adolescent ritual had the goal of filing teeth down “so they resembled a saw.”

Unlike cultures of Mediterranean antiquity, Mayan civilization was structured around a deep respect for animals: The Maya believed that every animal had a divine counterpart. For this reason, birds, apes, dogs and large cats often appear in Mayan art, sometimes looking quite lifelike, and other times rather stylized.

Their image of the Gods was shaped by the extreme dualism the Maya perceived in nature: for instance, the sun could both nurture life and cause drought. Thus, in the Mayan view, the Gods were equally capable of creating the most wonderful things and bringing about demonic destruction.

Endless wars and a gradual depletion of natural resources appear to have led to the demise of the Maya, even more than the Spanish invasion. By 900 A.D., the Yucatan Peninsula and its metropolis Chichén Itzá saw the end of the Mayan heyday. Southern Mayan metropolises vanished from around 1000 â€" 1527 A.D., and northern cities’ power soon waned, as well. By the time the Spanish conquistadors arrived, it was easy for them to overpower what little remained of a once-great culture.

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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

"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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