eyes on the U.S.

The Rock Star President Lives: Obamania To Reignite In Charlotte

Spreading the joy
Spreading the joy
Natacha Tatu

CHARLOTTE - No, Obamania is not a thing of the past, quite the opposite in fact. Michelle and Barack hugging, Barack with his dog Bo, the complete family portrait... all plastered on t-shirts, books, photos, pajamas, pins, badges, mugs, cushions and posters.

"Business is picking up fast," says Delia, who has sold more than 400 $3 badges in the space of a few hours.

The Democratic National Convention has barely begun, but the party has already started in Charlotte, NC. It’s joyous, enthusiastic and certainly more diverse than the Republican National Convention in Tampa last week. Hotel managers and car rental services were complaining, though, that they had not received as much business as they had hoped, causing them to lower their prices. But there is still time, with 35,000 people, delegations of supporters from 50 states, 9,000 delegates and as many journalists arriving.

For Barack Obama, choosing Charlotte as a host city was a risky move, considering he won North Carolina by a very narrow margin in 2008. The state now has an unemployment rate of 10 percent, two points below the national average. Republicans have gone door-to-door in the past few days trying to convince the city’s poorest to vote for them. But for the moment, it looks like they have failed: Charlotte has rolled out the welcome mat for Democrats.

Country fair meets VIP party

"Welcome to Charlotte," we hear throughout the day. The atmosphere in the streets of Charlotte is a mix between a country fair, a political protest and a VIP party. Definitely not for the claustrophobic.

There are activities for children, doughnut vendors, street musicians, a troop of cheerleaders and stands for all kinds of petitions... where doctors sign petitions to reform the health system and military wives sign petitions to bring back the troops. “Vote Democrat: you’ll save your ass,” says an old black woman’s sign.

It's difficult to move through the tight crowd: lots of families, celebrities and talk show hosts being gawped at by the masses. There are tourists in shorts, young activists in their Sunday best and girls dressed in sparkly lamé and stilettos on their way to some private party. Like the Academy Awards: here it’s not about the accreditation; it’s about scoring an invite to the best parties.

Hare Krishnas and handicapped Mormons

Opponents of all kinds harangue the crowd, like the Zionist militant denouncing Obama in front of the convention center, or the Republicans riding around the town with a sign that reads: "Democrats = Socialism + Corruption." A couple of handicapped Mormons hand out pamphlets in favor of Obamacare, a Hare Krishna type left over from the "80s tries to convert people whilst Evangelists hand out anti-bacterial gel.

We walk past numerous opponents of abortion - some of which are holding up disgusting, bloodstained signs - but they do not earn much attention. Hundreds of Occupy Wall Street protestors arrive, trying to regain momentum. They are guarded by a police escort. For the moment there hasn’t been any trouble, thanks to a formidable police operation with officers on bikes, on horses and on foot being drafted in from all corners of the country. And the convention hasn’t even started yet…

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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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