Student Activism In Colombia, An Untapped Force For Change

Quality higher education in Colombia and vigorous student activism - not student rioting - will shake a complacent elite and help cleanse public life of its longstanding corruption

Students in Bogota march for more resources
Students in Bogota march for more resources
John Anzola

- OpEd -

BOGOTÁ - I occasionally like to return to the first text I read when I entered the National University of Colombia. It was an extract from Elogio de la dificultad (In Praise of Difficulty), a 1980 essay by Colombian teacher and thinker Estanislao Zuleta . The text was in a beautiful booklet given to students beginning their university courses in the second half of 2000. I go back to it especially to find one sentence that has stuck in my mind since: "... our misery is not so much in the frustration of our desires, as in the way we desire, we do it badly."

The saying began to make sense in my very first week at university, which is also when I began forming an impression of the hooded radicals on campus (capuchos) that has, in fact, changed very little over the years. They were never difficult to identify, in spite of their efforts to wrap themselves in mystery and anonymity, as I attended the same lectures and seminars as most of them (though outsiders did appear specifically for violent protests ). Fellow students did go out to throw stones sporadically, some even for fun, but almost all of them would gradually distance themselves from the more combative lot, as they realized the changes they wanted in our society would not be attained by throwing bricks (no doubt from university corridors) at police vans.

The most radical students were always the ones who stayed the longest. Excessively ideological, they could not imagine their lives outside their particular organizations, and were often tasked with recruiting heedless novices, flattered at being sought and accepted into a group. They might have said that they have both easily won and fleeting.

Their common denominator was a desire to show themselves as the most capable at interpreting political theory, which would give them a leading role in fighting social injustice. They were ready to fight as the brave rebels they presumed themselves to be, in a society with no awareness of the abuses of the oppressive establishment, often reinforced by a conniving media that were accomplices of the powerful and tools of alienation. Radical students considered themselves to be the vanguard, the owners of truth, and the chosen.

The enemies of these radicals were state power co-opted by the elites (but almost always represented by the riot police), the yankee empire, the oligarchy, mass media, the petite bourgeoisie, and so on. In short, those who did not share their ideas. But they were few, very few. All I could see in them was frauds playing a cat-and-mouse game with the police, wanting to stand out in the easiest way: by using violence.

For decades, the civil war in this country gave the ruling elite the perfect excuse for distracting people from structural problems in the country like corruption, wealth inequality and the development model. Now our society can freely debate on such issues, thanks to the end of the pretense that the communist-inspired Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas were the cause of all our miseries.

Students have enough strength to convene thousands around them.

That is why it is a shame to see hooded radicals turn student-led marches into riots and clashes, as seen in the mass protests recently at our nation's capital. These have caused immense harm to the student movement and their rightful demands for quality education. Not only are they useful scapegoats for an establishment looking to keep things unchanged in an unjust, class-divided education system, but they have also decisively fortified the negative impression already afflicting public university students.

Students have the capacity to summon thousands around them. Let them summon the citizens (just not on public transport), take over other causes and win over the support of ordinary folk. Let them march for education and while they are at it, demand the Attorney-General's resignation (regarding the Odebrecht bribery scandal). We need more and better public education, to strip corrupt people of their long-held power. To achieve this, students do not need hooded radicals, and nor opportunistic politicians with messianic airs. Please do not let anyone snatch from you what belongs to us all.

You must keep up hope to build a new and inclusive national project that can fit everyone, regardless of one's political position. Everyone. Because as Zuleta said, "the most difficult, important and necessary thing, or what must at least be tried, is to preserve the willingness to fight for a different society without falling into a paranoid interpretation of that struggle. to positively value respect and difference, not as to lesser evil or inevitable fact, but as something that enriches life and drives creation and thought. " Do not give up.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

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".

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!