A Vicious Cycle of Poverty, Violence And Natural Disasters

Flood victims in the Pallasca province of Peru in 2012.
Flood victims in the Pallasca province of Peru in 2012.
Farid Kahhat


LIMA — Peruvian historian Javier Puente's latest research includes some very interesting maps. The first (and most extensive) covers the area affected by drought as a result of the El Niño weather phenomenon between 1982 and 1983 (when it was unusually intense). The second, relying on data from Peru's Truth and Reconciliation Committee, shows the areas that saw the highest incidence of political violence during the state's war against the Maoist insurgent group Shining Path.

The two maps perfectly overlap. A third map shows where the Shining Path committed its worst massacres of civilians. And that too lines up with the others, as all but one of those atrocities were committed inside the drought-hit zone, in the central and southern parts of the Peruvian Andes.

This isn't, of course, the whole story. In the early 1980s, El Niño also produced floods that were particularly severe on Peru's northern coast — without any corresponding increase in political violence. To explain this difference, it's worth citing NYU professor Alastair Smith, who found that the variable that best explains the proportion of deaths from natural disasters is income per head. Higher income means having more resources to respond to disasters. It's also tied to better access to healthcare or security, which contribute both to preventing and palliating disasters.

Low income levels make natural disasters more deadly.

The same can be said about different regions in a country: Peru's northern coast has and always had, since the republic began, higher per capita incomes than the southern mountain areas. Even in the north, disaster response continues to be deficient. But it's even worse in the south. Just think about the damage done every year in the south by winter frosts, which are both natural and predictable.

Paradoxically, research like that done by University of Oxford professor Paul Collier shows that per capita income is also a crucial variable in estimating the probability of armed conflict happening in a country. Violence of that kind is considerably more likely to happen in nations with very low per capita income levels. Using that same logic to compare regions within a given nation, it would seem — in the case of 1980s Peru — that there were perverse synergies in the southern zones.

For one thing, low per capita income levels make natural disasters more deadly. And those disasters, in turn, drag income levels down further still (especially in rural areas, since disasters are particularly damaging to farming activities). At the same time, low per capita income levels raise the likelihood of armed conflicts, which again, push down income levels, as studies commissioned by the World Bank have shown. Little wonder then that of the 39 countries involved in civil wars during the year 2000-2011, the vast majority (90%) had also experienced internal conflicts in the preceding three decades.

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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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