eyes on the U.S.

World Watches U.S. Debt Super Committee Fall Flat, Awaits Reverberations

The so-called Super Committee was supposed to rescue the United States from sinking in a sea of debt. The Congressional group is now being written off as a flop – mainly because Republicans want to save the super-rich from having to pay more taxes.

Democratic Senator Max Baucus
Democratic Senator Max Baucus
Christian Wernicke

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Not even an old hand like Max Baucus could pull the situation together. The Democratic senator from Montana has been in Washington for 33 years. Republicans respect the 69-year-old's gifts as a "dealmaker" – which is why his inclusion on the U.S. Congress's Super Committee, charged late this summer with coming up by mid-November with a long term plan to reduce the deficit, gave many a glimmer of hope that something useful could come of the endeavor.

It takes a lot to make an unflappable man like Baucus wax emotional, but at the end of last week he'd reached just that point. "We're at a time in American history where everybody's afraid -- afraid of losing their job," he said. The senator went on to say that there were not enough American legislators prepared to do what was right for the country because they were afraid of the radical elements in their parties. "Compared with the thousands who have given their lives in service to this country, I think it's tragic…" he said, in a reference to his nephew Philip, who died in Iraq in 2006.

Officially, the deadline for the 12-person committee is Monday night, but already on Sunday it became apparent that the six Democrats and six Republicans were unlikely to reach a compromise on how to tame federal debt. The failure will not do much to improve Congress's image with the American public. Only 9% of voters think it is doing a satisfactory job. But both parties are apparently hoping that the failure to reach agreement will help them in their campaigns in the lead-up to the presidential elections in November 2012. President Barack Obama has for weeks been referring to the "do-nothing" Congress letting the nation down in the middle of its economic crisis, while Republican candidates are spouting anti-Washington lines and promises to "clean up" Washington should one of theirs be elected to office.

The Super Committee was created in August, when President Obama and Republicans locked horns about raising the debt ceiling, and were only able to stave off U.S. default at the eleventh hour. Shortly afterwards, rating agency Standard and Poor's lowered the U.S. rating from Triple A to AA+. The Super Committee was supposed to break taboos: Democrats would accept some cuts to social security and medical insurance programs while Republicans would accept tax raises. Otherwise, as of January 2013 budget cuts would automatically come into play slicing both the budget for social programs and the defense budget by some $550--600 billion each – something that neither party wants to see.

As recently as 10 days ago, it looked as if some sort of agreement could be reached. The six Democrats agreed on $400 billion of cuts to various support and health insurance programs. For their part, Republicans would agree to tax raises of $300 billion over the next decade. That meant that a way had been found for two-thirds of the $1.2 trillion-compromise to be reached.

"Sticking divide"

But that was too optimistic. The Republicans wanted any tax increases to be contingent on continuation of the Bush cuts, which presently stand to expire at the end of 2012 and amount to $4 trillion over a 10-year period.

The Democrats agreed to let the Bush cuts stand – with one exception: the upper 2% of the income pyramid should pay higher taxes starting in 2013, a correction that would bring in $800 billion in additional revenue over a 10-year period. The Republicans balked. Senator Patty Murray, Democratic co-chair of the committee, described this as the "sticking divide."

"That is the issue of what I call shared sacrifice, where everybody contributes in a very challenging time for our country," said Murray. "That's the Bush tax cuts. In making sure that any kind of package includes everybody coming to the table; and the wealthiest of Americans, those who earn over $1 million every year, have to share, too. And that line in the sand, we haven't seen any Republicans willing to cross yet."

Meanwhile, Congressional insiders are whispering that legislators of both parties are seeking to put off major reforms until Nov. 7, 2012, the day after the presidential elections, when fear of the voters is at its lowest. Max Baucus will still be around to do his job – seeking and finding compromise. His term doesn't end until 2014.

Read the original story in German

Photo - Center for American Progress

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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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