Paradise Papers To Texas Shooting, In The Face Of Futility

Stuart Richardson


The headlines echo of the not-so-distant past this morning. Yesterday, media outlets around the globe began to report on the Paradise Papers, a massive leak of documents detailing the offshore investments of politicians, business tycoons, and corporations. Le Monde, which dedicated 12 journalists over the past year to the multi-outlet investigation, writes that the probe "shines a new light on the black holes of global finance."

This is the second time in less than two years that the financial details of some of the world's richest and most powerful individuals have been released to the public. In April 2016, the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung first reported on the 11.5 million leaked documents known as the Panama Papers. The same publication is again at the center of the latest reporting effort with the assistance of more than 380 journalists working at some 90 media outlets in 67 countries.

The Paradise Papers are yet another coup for investigative journalism. Like the Panama Papers, these documents single out key figures in global politics and business, including U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, and even the Queen of England. There is also a new focus on the fiscal and investment strategies of some of the world's top corporations, including Apple and Facebook.

What is the perfect chemical mix necessary for current events to provoke a watershed moment?

As with the Panama Papers, the ensuing scandal following the Paradise Papers' release will impugn a fair share of politicians and business leaders. But whether the revelations will undo careers is another story. In 2016, for example, Australian Prime Minister Michael Turnbull, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Argentinian President Mauricio Macri appeared in the Panama Papers. All three still remain in office.

Though of a wholly different nature, yesterday's mass shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, also awakens a feeling of having been there before. With 26 killed and some 20 more wounded, this was the worst mass shooting in the history of Texas. The shooter, identified as Devin Patrick Kelley, a 26-year-old who was discharged from the U.S. Air Force in 2012 for allegedly assaulting his wife and child, was pursued by two locals and appears to have been killed in the chase.

The age of the victims, between 5 and 72, as well as the fact that eight members of the same family, including a pregnant woman, were among those killed, underlines the horror described by witnesses' accounts. "People covered in blood and screaming. It was pandemonium everywhere," one witness told CNN. But these horrific scenes keep repeating themselves across the U.S., from Columbine to Newtown, from Orlando to Las Vegas, without ever leading to changes in policy that might help prevent others, most notably of the evident need for stricter gun control laws.

Whether it is a new report of mass inequalities in wealth and fairness or real-time coverage of the latest mass shooting, we read (and write) articles these days with a bitter aftertaste of futility. Each leak and each shooting reinforce the public's perception that the status quo is simply too entrenched to budge.

Besides such basic elements as bloodshed and hypocrisy and a first blast of public outrage, what is the perfect chemical mix necessary for current events to provoke a watershed moment? Perhaps we are seeing it play out in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal. Four weeks after the first report was published about the Hollywood producer, a rolling series of revelations of similar accusations has kept the questions of workplace harassment and sexual assault still very much in the news. But even here, it remains to be seen if the outrage will be enough: Inscribing lasting change in society is always harder than writing tomorrow's headline.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

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

"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.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

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".

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!