eyes on the U.S.

The Donald, The Codes And Risks Of A New Nuclear Arms Race

U.S. President Donald Trump is raising the threat of an arms build-up, and even nuclear confrontation itself. But he's not the only one.

Ballistic missile test launch in California on April 26
Ballistic missile test launch in California on April 26
Adam Taylor

WASHINGTON — Last week, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, or ICAN, a group that works to promote nuclear disarmament around the world.

Berit Reiss-Andersen of the Norwegian Nobel Committee said during the announcement that the group had been successful in "engaging people in the world who are scared of the fact that they are supposed to be protected by atomic weapons." But the award was not just for work already done: Reiss-Andersen said the prize was intended to be a "great encouragement" for ICAN and groups like it.

A story published by NBC News on Wednesday showed just how necessary that encouragement may be.

Officials told NBC that President Trump, during a July meeting about worldwide U.S. military operations, was shown a picture of how the country's nuclear weapons stockpile has declined since the 1960s. Trump then allegedly suggested he wanted a nearly tenfold increase in the U.S. nuclear arsenal to return it to its highest point of over 30,000 weapons. Other officials in the room were taken aback by Trump's comments, according to NBC, and the meeting allegedly prompted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's now-infamous labeling of Trump as a "moron."

The president quickly denied making the request, calling it "pure fiction, made up to demean." But Trump's stance on nuclear weapons has long been murky.

A six-way balance of mutually assured destruction will eventually be established in Northeast Asia.

On one hand, Trump has long recognized the threat of nuclear annihilation. In the 1980s, he worried about Libya and other rogue nations obtaining nuclear weapons, and even told The Post in 1984 that he wanted to help negotiate nuclear treaties with the Soviet Union. Just last year, he called nuclear proliferation "the single biggest problem we have."

Yet he's also said that the United States "must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability," allegedly asked advisers why he couldn't use nuclear weapons and seemingly suggested that other nations should consider having their own nuclear weapons. Worryingly, those other nations seem to have noticed.

Nuclear missile silo in Tucson, Arizona — Photo: Steve Jurvetson

Writing for The Post this week, former Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan suggested it was now only a matter of time before South Korea and Japan developed their own nuclear weapons in response to the growing threat posed by North Korea's rapidly advancing nuclear program. "A six-way balance of mutually assured destruction — among the U.S., China, Russia, Japan, South Korea and North Korea — will eventually be established in Northeast Asia," Kausikan argued.

At present, there appears to be little political will in either Seoul or Tokyo for this option. But polls show widespread public support for nuclear weapons among South Koreans, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is keen to boost his country's military power. And a future nuclear arms race may not be limited to East Asia. A number of experts have warned that if Trump scraps the Iran deal — and it looks increasingly likely that he will — it may lead to a scramble for nuclear arms in the Middle East.

"What we don't need is for that deal to be scuttled because Iran will then take steps to move in a direction of a nuclear program, and the states in the region will also take into account what they need to do, and it could lead to a nuclear arms race," said John Brennan, then the director of the CIA, during an interview with Circa last year.

The other big nuclear worry is in Russia — already a nuclear giant, with an estimated 7,000 nuclear warheads to the United States' 6,800. Russian President Vladimir Putin has spoken recently of the need to "strengthen the military potential of strategic nuclear forces," while Trump reportedly denounced an Obama-era treaty that capped the number of nuclear weapons fielded by the two nations during a Februrary call with Putin. Some people, including former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, worry that Washington and Moscow may ultimately end up scrapping these agreements.

We do not have to live with the kind of fear that Donald Trump could start a nuclear war that would destroy all of us.

Much of the blame for this new era of nuclear uncertainty can be laid at the door of the American president. Trump is a man who is clearly fascinated by nuclear weapons and, as Mother Jones" David Corn writes, has frequently made comments that suggest "he believes a nuclear conflict is inevitable and perhaps destined for the near future."

At the same time, though, there are signs that he is spectacularly ignorant of the realities of the same nuclear weapons he obsesses over. Numerous proliferation experts have already chimed in to say that the increase in the number of nuclear warheads that he asked about would not only be counterproductive — it would be impossible.

Of course, not everything can be blamed on Trump. Ultimately, the world's problems with nuclear proliferation predate him. Neither the United States nor its NATO allies were among the signatories to ICAN's Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The Obama administration was in fact a leading voice against this treaty, despite the former president's own hopeful rhetoric about a nuclear-free world.

But Trump is now the man with the nuclear codes, and ICAN's work has now become that much more urgent — a fact the group acknowledged when they spoke to The Post"s Michael Birnbaum last week. "We do not have to accept this risk," said Beatrice Fihn, the Swedish executive director of ICAN. "We do not have to live with the kind of fear that Donald Trump could start a nuclear war that would destroy all of us. We should not base our security on whether or not his finger is on the trigger."

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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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