The Silent Survivor Of Hiroshima

Hibaku Jumoku, the "survivor trees"
Hibaku Jumoku, the "survivor trees"
Shivali Nayak

Japanese artist Hiroshi Sunairi has a personal connection with Hiroshima. Apart from growing up in the city, his mother and grandmother were exposed to radiation when the atomic bomb dropped on the city in 1945.

Many years later, while working with the Hiroshima museum, Sunairi attended a lecture by botanist Chikara Horiguchi who spoke about Hibaku trees, some of the so-called "silent survivors' of that fateful day.

“I was really moved by his work and philosophy. He talks about trees and nature not having an ideology, but they can symbolize a lot of things if we think about them alongside peace, atomic bombs, the environment, all kinds of things. They don't say anything, but they did survive.”

The New York-based Sunairi approached Dr. Horiguchi for some seeds from the Hibaku trees, and that's how the Tree Project was born in 2006. “The tree project has been growing organically without my help; it is a public project. I keep whatever documentation, comments and pictures we gather on my blog called the Tree Project Blog."

Over the course of seven years, Sunairi has given out some 500 seeds to people in more than 50 countries after they were cultivated in the Hiroshima botanical gardens by Dr. Horiguchi.

Spreading the seeds

“You know Dr. Horiguchi saying that the trees have no ideology really helped me because I can talk about the atomic bombings as something catastrophic without mentioning other countries' ideologies. That's what I like about the tree project, it's between us and nature," he says. "I am not so much into what happened and the visceral aspect of Hiroshima because I think there has been a lot of documentation on this already. I wanted to go beyond the reminder of the horrific, and say there is a life beyond what happened. Even terrible something like this happened but there is a beauty of life that encourages and makes people happy, that makes us think about what we have done to the nature.”

But the project has faced its challenges. For instance, differing weather conditions in different countries mean differing results. “Because it's work dealing with nature, it's not so simple, it's a hassle. We have tried to send seeds from the botanical gardens of Hiroshima to Singapore, and the first batch of seeds somehow only one of them sprouted.

The Tree Project is now part of the ongoing M1 Fringe Festival in Singapore. As for Sunairi, he has no plans to wrap up this project any time soon. “The way I think of the project is maybe some of the participants trees are large enough and they want to replant it on the ground in public places and everyone can see these trees that have survived the bombing are now in your country."

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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

"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.

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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