Why China's Landslide Victims Were Cremated By The State

A proper resting place
A proper resting place

A landslide last month in Zhenxiong County in southwestern China killed 46 villagers. Once the bodies were recovered, the local authority -- without any prior agreement from family members -- cremated them. This set off a storm of protest from relatives of the deceased, and widespread criticism from the public. Zhenxiong authorities sparked further outrage when they admitted that the cremations were prompted by a desire to maintain stability in this part of the province of Yunnan.

That one’s family member dies in a disaster is devastating enough. The fact that the local government went ahead with such a decision and deprived the families the chance to send their loved ones off properly is extra salt in the wound. Such a method of “maintaining stability” can only make matters worse.

So why are local officials so thoughtless?

In fact, they had carefully calculated their own interests in taking this decision. They must have been afraid of the families “taking the dead to press the living,” thinking they might react more irrationally when they actually saw the horrible state of their excavated loved ones.

On the contrary, especially from a long term point of view, this kind of behavior hurts the feelings of the families of the deceased, threatens public order and undermines good morals. It makes the already poor credibility of the government even worse.

But once again in China, we see officials who have to deal with a troubling event benefit more than being harmed. This explains why this kind of stability maintenance, drinking poison to quench a thirst, prevails so often. In short, that which is thought to benefit the official order not only jeopardizes social morals but also the credibility of the government itself.

“Taking the dead to press the living” is often the last remedy for the weak against the strong.

Take the custom of my hometown in Central Hunan as an example. When a woman had killed herself due to family disputes, her family clan gathered to prevent her body from being buried -- hoping such a scene could ruin the husband’s family.

This is of course an illegal practice, and not worth promoting. However, when one considers the historical background of the custom, one may understand and feel more sympathy. For starters, in traditional Chinese society, women have a very low status. It’s not rare that women suffer abuse from their mothers-in-law or violence from their husbands. The protection of a woman thus depends, not on the law, but on the forces that her own family can muster. It is very difficult to expect the law to uphold justice when a woman commits suicide because of domestic violence. This is why her family clan creates havoc as a way to punish the husband’s family.

Respect the dead

From the viewpoint of the modern rule of law, this kind of practice is primitive, a type of vigilante justice. But under specific historical circumstances, the approach does have a certain deterrent effect and to a certain extent curbs the ill-treatment of women.

So why is it that the practice of taking the dead to press the living still goes on? The most basic element for a civilized society is to respect the dead. Respecting the deceased is respecting the value of life. It’s hard to imagine how a society in which the dead are not given respect can be said to respect life.

A while ago, various local governments in Henan province implemented by force a policy of flattening tombs. Like others, I believe this is because to those officials the skeletons are just meaningless waste. The fact that that waste has to give way to economic development has broken the bottom line of civilization.

Naturally, funerals and the handling of dead bodies can evolve in accordance with economic and social changes. For instance, cremation can take the place of burial. But the premise of respect for the deceased is not to be denied. This implies respecting the deceased’s will and his or her religion.

All civilized societies respect the dead. If the rules made by the powers-that-be of the living world breach such rules of civility for mere utilitarian purposes then it’s doomed to face revolt.

Far too often, local authorities in China try to settle conflicts in the quickest possible way, fearing neither financial costs nor social taboos, for the sole purpose of maintaining stability. Such a cynical way of ruling must come to an end.

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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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