KOMMERSANT

Armenia’s Mini Maidan Gives Voice To New Generation

Persistent poverty used to be quietly endured, but protests are rising against a political leadership that long ago lost the trust of the people. Still, it is a long way from Kiev.

Armenian police uses water cannons against
Armenian police uses water cannons against
Artyom Galustyan

YEREVAN â€" There is little to differentiate downtown Yerevan from western European cities. There are cafés at every turn, entertainment centers aplenty, well-kept parks everywhere, even luxury cars. But once you leave the center of the Armenian capital, towards the outer slums and tower blocks, the picture changes dramatically.

There are many towns throughout the country that look like the outskirts of Yerevan, where protests have sprung up to denounce steep increases in electricity costs in a country plagued by poverty and unemployment.

Anant is a student who lives with her mother, the two making do on an income of 120,000 dram ($300) a month. To save money, they often switch off the electricity.

The issue of electricity for Armenians has traditionally been a painful one. Those who are older remember that there was no light at all in the 1990s, and a power supply that was available for just a few hours a week. In the 2000s, the economy started to develop and some of these problems were resolved.

But electricity supply again became a problem in 2013, when the cost of one kilowatt rose from 30 dram (6 cents) to 38 dram (8 cents) during the day, and from 20 drams (4 cents) to 28 drams (6 cents) at night.

There was another increase in 2014. But starting Aug. 1, a third rise in cost is expected, this time by 16.7%. There is anxiety and unease every time the price goes up, but this time, the collective patience of citizens has just about run out.

There is no unified heating system in Armenia, which is why many families use heating devices that create hefty electricity bills. According to official 2013 data, 32% of the population is considered poor, and this includes families whose average income per adult per month is less than $100. At the same time, 17.6% of the population is unemployed, while in larger cities, the figure is between 25% and 30%. Among younger citizens, that figure is as high as 50%.

A link with Kiev?

Many Russian websites and even major media outlets reporting on the protests are trying to find a link with the Maidan protests in Ukraine. One even illustrated this with images of an Armenian protestor waving a blue and yellow flag. The problem is that the picture turned out to be a fake.

Many local residents share their fears that the price increases will hit hardest in winter when many families will have to shell out $60 a month â€" a fortune by local standards, especially for low-income families. There are also fears that these increases will trickle down to the costs of products and services.

Observers believe that Armenia's poor are "politically passive" and that the protests in Yerevan involve not so much the poor, but the middle class.

"It is a new generation that wants to be heard," says Grant Mikaelyan, a political scientist from the Caucasus Institute.

As for the other towns where there is political unrest, Gyumri and Vanadzor are traditionally critical of authorities. In the 2013 presidential elections, the opposition candidate received between 60% and 70% of the vote there.

Also, per-capita gross domestic product is two to three times lower in those places than in Yerevan. In Soviet times, these towns were the center of industrial production, but after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the 1988 earthquake, these areas have declined.

"If there hadn't been the events in Ukraine, no one would be paying attention to what is happening in Armenia," Mikaelyan says. "The protests in our country are nothing new. They always happen, and of course they are nothing like Maidan. People are unhappy with the authorities, especially after the crisis of 2008, when the economy started to decline."

But the current surge in civic activity is taking place amid a new political landscape, he says. "The thing is that in parliament there is practically no alternative opinion. The mood of the opposition has no outlet in society, and this is the result. It boils over into the street. There is a lack of trust in politicians of every level and of the political system in general."

This confirms what the protesters in Yerevan’s Baghramyan Avenue are saying. "The voice of the people is us, not them," says Maxim, one of the protesters from this so-called "Yerevan-style Maidan." But Maidan, which overturned the regime, it most definitely is not. At least, not yet.

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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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