eyes on the U.S.

How Merkel’s Lectures To Thin-Skinned Trump Can Backfire

Lesson number Einz
Lesson number Einz
Clemens Wergin

-Analysis-

BERLIN — On Saturday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President Donald Trump released a joint statement regarding their first phone call earlier that day. The statement about their 45-minute conversation noted — in the neutral tone common to all statements of this kind — that a wide range of topics were discussed: NATO, the Middle East, north Africa, Russia and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

In light of the outrage Trump's immigration order against citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries has caused, the chancellor's press secretary, Steffen Seibert, thought it necessary on Sunday to elaborate on the topics covered during the phone call. He said that Merkel deeply regretted the U.S. president's immigration curbs and had voiced her displeasure to him during the phone call.

Merkel explained to Trump that the U.S., as a signatory to the Geneva Convention, had to accept refugees from war-torn regions for humanitarian reasons. Translation of this diplomatic speak: Merkel gave the U.S. president a lecture on international law.

This was, by itself, unusual. It was even more unusual for a press secretary to publicly announce what had transpired. It may be interpreted as evidence of the difficult relationship between Merkel and Trump, which is Trump's fault, as he had attacked Merkel's refugee policies during his presidential campaign. Even after his election victory, and shortly before he began his presidential term, Trump repeated this opinion in interviews with German newspaper Bild and Britain's The Times.

To be fair, Merkel has done little to ease their troubled relationship. Her immediate reaction to Trump's election, for example, felt like a lecture on morals, democracy and human rights. Merkel offered to work with Trump but only if he respected their "shared values' and then went on to name these factors. Other nations read her reaction as the lecture it was intended to be. The result? She was viewed as the new leader of the free world by American and international media, which did not go unnoticed in Washington.

President Trump on the phone with Chancellor Merkel on Jan. 28 — Pete Marovich/CNP/ZUMA

Merkel's raised stature may flatter Germans. Merkel is able to increase her popularity by distancing herself from Trump because most Germans reject Trump. But by doing so, Merkel has chosen a dangerous path because she openly risks being seen as an international enemy of the president. That's not in her interest. Neither is it in Europe's interest.

Trump's skepticism of the European Union is well known as is his support of Britain's exit from the EU, the so-called "Brexit." The EU is facing its most difficult period since its conception and it doesn't need an annoyed superpower that openly sides with enemies of Europe.

Merkel has become the source of strength and leadership in Europe since Brexit. That's why Merkel would do no favors to Europe if she were to become an antagonistic figure in Trump's mind. The president is known to quickly, and simplistically, divide people into friend or foe. He is also known to be vain and easily insulted. As understandable as it would be to continually oppose Trump, it would not be the smartest move to do so.

The EU already has a powerful enemy within Trump's inner circle, namely former Breitbart boss Steve Bannon, whose radical stance has become evident in the first few days of Trump's presidency. For Bannon, an anti-establishment figure, the EU embodies everything that he hates. He views it as a project of cosmopolitan elites, which is why he has formed close ties with anti-EU populists within Europe. His mouthpiece Breitbart News is now attempting to become a megaphone for those who want to crush the existing system.

Bannon, Trump's chief strategist, is also going to play a central role in future foreign policies as Trump has appointed him a permanent member to the National Security Council — a panel that is usually made up of security experts. This is an unprecedented elevation of a political animal. It's telling that the director of National Intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff will no longer be permanent members of this council.

It's already tough for people like defense secretary James Mattis, a supporter of transatlantic relations, to convince Trump to play America's traditional role of being a stabilizing counterweight to Europe. Merkel would therefore be well-advised to resist the temptation to distinguish herself as Trump's adversary. By doing so she risks making the lives of people like Bannon easier, and fanning the flames of anti-European sentiment in Trump's mind.

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Geopolitics

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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