Syria's War Economy, And A Yogurt Startup In Damascus

As war upends the economy in Damascus, a few brave souls are launching small business projects that provide jobs for those desperate to work.

Making do in Damascus
Making do in Damascus
Youmna al-Dimashqi and Karen Leigh

DAMASCUS — As Syria’s war economy stalls, a new crisis is affecting the suburbs south of Damascus: unemployment. With almost all of Ghouta now jobless, Abu Omar is trying to provide opportunities for the town’s idle workforce.

During the months-long siege of Damascus’s southern suburbs, he says, residents lost their jobs when shops were destroyed by random shelling, and factories and plants were set ablaze. A UN survey in April of last year showed that almost one million Syrians across the country had lost their jobs and businesses since the start of the conflict in March 2011. In some areas under opposition control, activists tracking the numbers say unemployment is as high as 90%.

But Abu Omar’s small business initiatives are now providing job opportunities for a number of the city’s youth. Efforts like his could be the solution to providing employment for thousands of qualified Syrians who are desperate to work.

There is one in Douma making and selling homemade yogurt, and it is aimed specifically at employing young people whose higher education was cut short by the conflict. Yogurt was chosen because it’s easy to manufacture. It can be made in small batches in a home kitchen and involves ingredients that are accessible.

The yogurt project employs nearly 40 local residents and was funded by Syrian businessmen living abroad.

Women activists in Ghouta started a women’s-only ceramics painting project to help 30 women who had lost husbands, fathers or brothers and were suddenly looked upon as their families’ primary breadwinner. The women collected ceramic pieces and sold them to traders in Damascus. Their raw materials were also donated by Syrians living outside the country.

Local project managers in Ghouta say the myriad projects have been able to reduce the town’s unemployment by 10%.

Another project recruited teachers to work with children who have been forced out of school since the crisis began. The team of teachers received a small stipend. But one program manager says the team struggled to meet the costs of books and salaries, which can run into thousands of dollars.

Like with so much else in today’s Syria, funds for such projects are limited. Despite the project’s potential to staff dozens of young teachers, Abu Omar says it hasn’t attracted enough funding to pay living wages for the staff.

Unemployment isn’t limited to opposition areas. Government loyalists in Homs say they have lost their jobs in both the public and private sectors because many were unable to reach their offices, which were located in the besieged areas.

Faten, a 30-year-old from Homs, says she lost her job at one of the private medical clinics there after it became impossible for her to get to her office, which was located in the al-Maared neighborhood.

She says she currently depends on small local agriculture initiatives to feed herself and her family, as well as on aid provided by humanitarian groups working under the supervision of the Syrian government.

Fifty-year-old Issa says he lost large amounts of money after his trading business in the Damascus countryside slowed to a halt. He blames the security situation for the deteriorating economy.

“I remained silent and neutral since the beginning of the crisis,” he says, “but I was eventually forced to leave ... to open a cotton plant in Turkey.”

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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

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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