ADDIS ABABA – On June 3, Egyptian politicians were caught in a televised diplomatic gaffe, which could have cost them dearly.
Invited by Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi to a debate on the $4.2 billion hydroelectric dam that Ethiopia is about to start building across the Blue Nile, one of the two major tributaries of the Nile, the participants openly called for military action against Ethiopia.
They were unaware that the debate was being broadcast live on Egyptian state television and spoke their minds freely about allying with “Somalia, Eritrea and Djibouti, to use them as bases against Ethiopia” and “interfering in the internal affairs of Ethiopia” by supporting rebel troops fighting the Ethiopian government.
All of this was said without drawing any objection from President Morsi. Though at the end of the debate, the Egyptian president did say that he would not engage in aggressive acts against Ethiopia. Still, a statement released later from his office said: “Egypt will never surrender its right to Nile ware and all options to safeguard it are being considered.” A difficult balancing act a week after Ethiopia announced that they had already started diverting the flow of Nile to prepare for the building of the dam.
An overview rendition of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam - Source: salini
In the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, the government responded with polite silence. The spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Dina Mufti, said they were “surprised” by the “hostile remarks.”
The standoff is two years in the making, when Addis Ababa announced the construction of what would become Africa’s biggest dam on the Blue Nile, which takes its source in the Ethiopian highlands. The dam will produce 6,000 megawatts – enough electricity for the 85 million Ethiopians, with some left over to sell to neighboring countries.
It was a decision that did not please Egypt, which for decades now has been used to enjoying the waters of the Nile without having to ask its neighbors for permission.
Becoming a developed nation
Indeed, Cairo has been challenging the project by waiving a 1929 agreement that gave Egypt and Sudan rights to the Nile water, with Egypt allowed to take 55.5 billion cubic meters out of 84 billion cubic meters in total.
The construction of Egypt’s Aswan Dam, inaugurated in 1971, allowed the formation of the Nasser Lake and the irrigation of about three million hectares of land. Egypt is worried that building their own dam, the Ethiopians risk drying up the part of the Nile that flows into Egypt. Not true, says Abdulhakim Mohammed, head of construction at the Ethiopian electricity company (EEEPCo): “Without the dam, the flow is very low during the dry period and very high during the monsoon, to the point of causing floods. The dam, which will not be used for irrigation purposes, will regulate the flow according to the needs of its users.”
In 2010, Egypt and Sudan refused to sign a cooperation agreement, which was signed by Ethiopia, Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Burundi. “They want to maintain the status quo,” says Debay Tedesse, a researcher at the Institute of Security Studies (ISS) at Addis Ababa. “Under President Mubarak, Egyptians grew up hearing that the Nile is Egypt and Egypt is the Nile. It will take time to change that.
However, the hydrologists know that the Ethiopian dam will not have an impact on Egypt.” No chance it will start a Nile war then? “I doubt it, particularly because Egypt and Sudan cannot afford to get caught up in conflict over the Nile given their current internal problems,” says the researcher. “Countries that border the Nile should sign an agreement on the sharing of its waters. The Nile can meet the needs of everybody.”
No matter what the Egyptian politicians say, there is no chance that Ethiopia will renounce its mega-dam. The dam is the backbone of a massive plan to pull out the country of its current state of underdevelopment. Companies, civil servants and private individuals were all forced to pitch in to finance the costly project. Egypt can make as much noise and as many diplomatic gaffes as it wants, diggers are not about to stop digging, and the concrete mixers mixing – Ethiopia needs to become a developed nation.
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".
- Long Shielded, Thailand's Monarchy Facing Hard Questions Amid ... ›
- French Monarchist Lessons For A Broken American Democracy ... ›
- Thailand To Belarus: The Divides Of Democracy Protesters ... ›