Welcome to Tuesday, where Iraq's hardline Shia cleric claims election victory, the UK confronts its historic COVID failure and Superman comes out as bisexual. We also look at "silent" Chinese investment in Latin America's railway sector.
[*Inuktitut - Inuit]
🌎 7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW
• COVID update: Thailand will reopen next month for fully vaccinated travellers from at least 10 low-risk countries. In the U.S., Texas governor Greg Abbot has issued an executive order banning mandatory vaccination for employees, including in private companies, in the state. Meanwhile in the UK, a new report says that the British government's early response to the coronavirus pandemic last year and its failure to act quickly was "one of the most important public health failures" in the country's history.
• Shia cleric wins Iraq elections: Shia Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's party won 73 seats in parliament, the biggest gains in Iraq's elections after a record low turnout.
• North Korea accuses U.S. of threatening peace: Kim Jong-un, speaking beside the country's largest missiles during an exhibition, said the U.S. was the "root cause" of instability on the peninsula and that North Korea's weapons development was necessary in the face of the U.S. hostile policies.
• Interpreter who helped rescue Biden leaves Afghanistan: After a personal plea to the U.S. president, Aman Khalili, an Afghan interpreter who had sheltered then-Senator Joe Biden from a snowstorm in 2008, has been evacuated from his country along with his family.
• Beirut blast investigation paused again: The probe into the Beirut port explosion that killed more than 200 people last year has been suspended for a second time in less than three weeks, after two politicians summoned for questioning filed a new complaint against the judge leading the investigation.
• At least 15 dead in China floods: Heavy rain and flooding are battering China's northern province of Shanxi, leaving at least 15 people dead and forcing more than 120,000 to evacuate. The floods also forced some of the country's key mines to shut down, driving the price of coal to a new record high.
• France to ban plastic packaging for fruits & veggies: In a bid to reduce plastic waste, France has published a list of some 30 fruits and vegetables that will have to be sold without plastic packaging from January 2022.
🗞️ FRONT PAGE
Brazilian daily O Globo celebrates the 90th anniversary of Christ the Redeemer, a "symbol" of the country and one of Rio de Janeiro's most visited sites.
📰 STORY OF THE DAY
China, the silent conductor in Latin America's big rail projects
China's global investment tentacles have reached South American railways, where Chinese firms are "silent" partners in expanding rail networks, through financing or sale of rolling stock, reports Gwendolyn Ledger in Latin American business magazine America Economia.
🚆⚠️ Chinese investment in Latin America's railway sector has gotten off to a shaky start. Over the past decade, the Asian superpower may have suffered from its unfamiliarity with regional and domestic policies, but it's going full steam ahead on investment in an industry where there is much to gain, but also much to risk. Francisco Urdinez, a politics professor, cites the aborted Mexico City to Querétaro railway project as a cautionary tale: The deal was canceled for corruption, and public opinion singled out the Chinese firm in the scandal, even though it was part of a multi-company consortium.
💰 Diego Leiva, a Ph.D. student at Australia's Griffith University, says, "I think they're starting to learn quite a bit and starting to have more success." Leiva points out that Chinese investments abroad are changing as they have grown at a slower rate, lost money and experienced problems in their own economy. He says that authorities are asking firms to be more considerate of risks before investing. For example, they "won't do the entire project anymore, but come in, let's say, through procurement — selling train cars, assorted inputs."
🏗️ In May 2021, the Chinese were successful bidders to build the first leg of the Mayan Train project from Palenque to Escárcega, in the eastern state of Campeche. Their proposal amounted to $781 million and was put together as part of a consortium. In Brazil, they are processing the Ferrogrão project (also known as the EF-170 railway), designed to link the Mato Grosso state with the northern state of Pará. Another Brazilian project is the Pará railway, a joint enterprise between CCCC and Vale mining.
➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com
"The idea of replacing Clark Kent with another straight white savior felt like a missed opportunity."
— In an interview with the New York Times, DC Comics writer Tom Taylor commented on the upcoming issue of his Superman: Son of Kal-El series in which Jon Kent (son of Clark Kent and Lois Lane, and the franchise's current Superman) comes out as bisexual.
✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger
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.
"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.
Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release
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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