BUENOS AIRES â€" Brian Molina and Maximiliano Fernández, two of Argentina's emerging rap stars, met in jail.
Molina was 11 years old when he wrote his first song. It was May 2005, and he was living at the Borchez de Otamendi home for minors in Buenos Aires. When he performed his song for friends, teachers and guardians at the youth facility, Molina was rewarded with soccer time in the courtyard. A couple of minutes after the game began, as planned, the ball was kicked over the wall, giving the group of friends a chance to jump over it, and flee.
"That day I combined all the things that formed my life: music, confinement and escape," said Molina, now aged 22, from his rented room in the Almagro district of Buenos Aires.
Two months ago, Molina left Marcos Paz, a prison that falls west of the city, after completing a four-year sentence. During that period, like his time at the Borchez home, he rapped, and is now working on his next recording. He is scheduled to perform at a club in the capital's trendy Palermo district in late June, and in the central Argentinian cities of Rosario and Córdoba in July. He also has an upcoming gig in Uruguay.
Things are finally looking up for Molina, who had a troubled childhood. He spent the first four years of his life at the Los Hornos prison where his mother was serving time. He was then let out and went to live with his grandmother, as his father was also in jail. She then lost custody of the child, who, from the age of six, was sent to a succession of homes. He kept running away, often sleeping at the Congressional Plaza, a public park facing the countryâ€™s Congress house. But whether he was in temporary homes or out on the street, he continued to write music.
Molina cannot remember how many times he had been detained by police for some offense or the other, how many times he had been packed off to an institution and how many of them he's fled. One time, when he was 13, Molina was jailed with three gunshot wounds. He heard about a Freestyle expand=1] event, where people gather to improvise with rap, and he escaped to participate, Molina recalled, one of the many times he did so for music. His performance won him prizes, and he became known on the rap scene.
If Molina found people playing guitars on the street, he would join them and rap with improvised lyrics. But this wasnâ€™t a paid job, he said. "I was a thief and lived off stealing. I didn't want to earn money from art."
At 16, Molina was back at his grandmother's home in Almagro. That was one of the best periods of his life, Molina recalled, and he began working with other rap musicians. He got a job, met someone and had a child. He formed his first rap band, made two recordings and began performing gigs. That was also when thousands began to view his YouTube videos, and when his social life began to change.
"The rap people saved my life. I was being nourished again. I realized there was another world, and I was determined to put my art out there,â€ said Molina.
But at 18, Molina was back at Marcos Pazâ€™s prison wing for those aged 18 to 21. There, he met Maximiliano Fernández, then 19.
Fernández had begun to steal at 13, and had learned to play the guitar at 15, when he was housed at a psychiatric ward. Like Molina, he too had written songs while locked up.
Two days after they met, the two wrote a song, and within weeks were competing in the Talentos 2012 televised contest alongside inmates from six other federal prisons. Molina and Fernández won. "They started to take us seriously in jail," said Fernández.
Fernández was released from prison 10 months ago, and shares a room today with Molina, whose rap name is Rabeat expand=1].
When they were in prison, they used rap to demand better living conditions. The jail authorities were irritated, in part because the rappersâ€™ efforts stirred up other inmates. â€œThe Penitentiary Service gave us a hard time. It invented sanctions and sent us to the worst wing," recalled Fernández.
The authorities also split up the duo, forcing them to compose, and rehearse, using mobile phones. Molina and Fernández were reunited outside prison, where they both joined workshops run by Luis expand=1] el Chino Sanjurjo, who provides art coaching to inmates.
Today, their dreams are finally taking shape outside prison, where music is not just an expression of freedom, but a way to make it last.
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".
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