ISTANBUL - An electronic version of a Strauss waltz suddenly starts to play. In the small fountain in the center of the mall, some trickles of water start to sprinkle up, with blue and green spotlights illuminating the scene. All in rhythm.
Everybody freezes at the moment the spectacle begins: a group of men seated under plastic palm trees, a family about to enter a store, even the Starbucks clients are motionless, hot beverages and cakes stuck in their hands.
From the loudspeakers, the sound of the synthesizers is getting louder. The water from the fountain gurgles noisily in concert. Then, just as quickly, it all stops. The show will start again in one hour.
"Who would have imagined such magic a few years ago?" says a woman, enthusiastically. And she knows the show by heart. Every day, she comes to Historia mall, in Istanbul"s Fatih district. Usually, she doesn't buy anything, not even a snack.
"But, here, you feel the money running through the veins of the neighborhood," adds her husband. "When a mall is built, it means: we are in good health."
This one was built only three years ago. If Paris has only six malls, you have the choice of about 90 of them in Istanbul, and they all sprung up from the soil in just the past decade. The AKP, the governing party, has turned shopping centers into symbols. The most strategically located malls are even personally inaugurated by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Wherever there is enough space, a mini building boom flourishes in a neighborhood. Potential buyers are assured that new apartment owners are offered "private access to the shopping arcades of the mall." Universities and medical services can also be found in these facilities.
"For a long time, when Europeans thought about the Turkish population, they imagined people riding donkeys," explains a civil servant.
"We were poor", she adds. She now has a credit card, something she couldn't have dreamed of a few years ago.
For the first time, some municipal offices were built adjacent to a mall. And soon, other official offices will be built inside. "You see, this is modernity, it's like Dubai," the civil servant insists. During her lunch break, she doesn't know yet if she will "buy something at Zara or eat sushi."
Tough choice? "Of course," she says.
A group of girls enter a Sakko store, a popular Turkish brand of scarves and ties. Their parents are happy to let them hang out at the mall, which is considered a clean and safe place. "To me, the mall represents freedom," explains one of these girls.
On a store window, there is a "National Shopping Day" poster. "This comes at the wrong time", a saleswoman remarks. Indeed. A mall project that was supposed to be built in Taksim Square over the last remaining green space has been tearing the country apart.
A few metro stations away, we are in another world. Shopping centers are no longer considered progress, but as a sign of alienation. In one month, the movement opposed to the new mall construction in Gezi Park has absorbed a decade of discontentment. A police crackdown, at least four deaths, hundreds of arrests, and a stock market crash has the world watching with trepidation.
The young people of Taksim Square who launched the movement against the government are opposed to the existing malls as well. In two locations, there were sit-ins that lasted for hours.
Slowly, the movement that began with a few people trying to preserve one park has turned into a mass movement, with a long list of demands.
One young woman explains that she borrows 2,000 euros a year to pay college tuition. A young man remembers he was with his friends at a café when the riots started. At one point, they wondered: "What about us?" They finally joined the movement and stayed two days in a row in Taksim, swept up in the adventure of it all. Then, suddenly, the boy felt he was waking up.
"What was I doing with these children of the elite -- I had to earn a living working at the mall?" The young woman now says the Prime Minister was right to intervene "strongly." Otherwise, how would it end? What if the construction stops and Turkey doesn't have the economic assets to attract German and Dutch investors? And what if the economy collapses? And if Turkey was becoming the next Spain?
Under the fake palm trees, the group of men are now standing and screaming. They are surprised to see foreign journalists. One guard is getting closer, asking us authorizations and permits. There is a sudden charge of electricity in the air. Apparently, we visitors are "agents from Iran and Israel here to destabilize the country."
With their cell-phone cameras, the clients of the mall are now taking photographs of the few Turkish who dared to talk to us. Everybody now has to leave the premises.
But as soon as we are escorted out, the men rush back in the mall. The electronic organs have again struck up the Strauss waltz.
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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