Jerusalem And The Politics Of Distraction

Netanyahu and Mogherini on Monday in Brussels
Netanyahu and Mogherini on Monday in Brussels
Stuart Richardson

On Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to Brussels, the de facto capital of the European Union, to discuss his own country's de facto seat of power, Jerusalem. His visit to the city, the first by an Israeli prime minister in 22 years, comes just days after President Donald Trump's announcement that he was moving the U.S. embassy to the Holy City.

In Brussels, Netanyahu met with Federica Mogherini, the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. While the Israeli government has welcomed the American move, Europe and much of the world fear it will harm the prospects for peace in the Middle East.

"We believe that the only realistic solution to the conflict between Israel and Palestine is based on two states," Mogherini said in a briefing alongside Netanyahu. This includes recognizing "Jerusalem as the capital of both the State of Israel and the State of Palestine, along the "67 lines."

Among the the 28 EU member states, however, some are breaking rank. Czech President Milos Zeman slammed his European partners for not following the American example. "The European Union, cowards, are doing all they can so a pro-Palestinian terrorist movement can have supremacy over a pro-Israeli movement," the Times of Israel quoted Zeman as saying.

Last week, the Hungarian delegation to Brussels blocked an EU statement that expressed "serious concerns' about Trump's declaration. Hungary's objection, reported in the EUObserver, suggested that the Central European nation might follow the American example.

For Israel, it's a nothingburger

And in India, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi also refrained from categorically rejecting the move, as the Indian publication The Wire writes.

"India's position on Palestine is independent and consistent. It is shaped by our views and interests, and not determined by any third country," the Indian Ministry of External Affairs said in a statement.

But though the White House decision spurred violent protests across the Middle East, some say it is not that significant. "Trump's was the first verbal description of Jerusalem as Israel's capital – but with the explicit proviso that this was no determination about borders and sovereignty in the city, which according to said longstanding US policy would be determined in negotiations," Gideon Remez, a fellow at the Hebrew University's Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace writes in the Times of Israel. "Trump's declaration, then, is for Israel a nothingburger."

If the move is insignificant to some, it begs the question as to why the Trump administration would do it now. Perhaps it is just a distraction. Trump's announcement last week diverted headlines from the guilty plea of his former national security-advisor Michael Flynn, and from persistent allegations of sexual misconduct against Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore and against Trump himself.

The announcement was also an early Hanukkah gift for Netanyahu, who is facing corruption charges back home, which sparked massive demonstrations in Tel Aviv over the last two weekends.

Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, celebrates the recapturing of Jerusalem by the Maccabees in the second century BC. Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital might have made Netanyahu feel like a modern-day hero, but the Maccabees didn't have Brussels to worry about.

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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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