Shift To Asia? Africa Rising? Big Questions To Track For 2019

Looking ahead from South Korea
Looking ahead from South Korea
Tyler Cohen


NEW YORK — As 2018 comes to a close, attention is turning to what is likely to happen in 2019. I have no idea. But if you follow these questions, you will have your finger on the pulse of the world to come:

What will happen with Chinese civil society?

Five to 10 years ago, China had a proliferating and diverse group of non-profit groups, think tanks and cooperative civil society institutions, such as charities and clubs. They never stood on a firm legal foundation, but in the last few years they have been subject to a severe crackdown, including shutdowns, discouragements from the state, and much greater surveillance. Yet this social space cannot remain empty. Either the earlier growth will resume, boosting prospects for Chinese liberalization, or Chinese society will fall back under much more state control. This is my No. 1 issue for the year to come, and so far I am pessimistic.

Will China succeed in extending its political influence to the West with One Belt, One Road?

China is attempting what is the world's most ambitious plan, namely to transform the economic and political order on its western flank, ranging as far as Africa. But China to date has not done a great job cultivating true allies (Pakistan? North Korea? Cambodia?), and already a backlash is settling in against Chinese influence. Will China succeed in helping to develop this part of the world and also bringing it into the Chinese sphere of influence? I say yes and no, respectively.

Will Ethiopia serve as a viable model for African development?

The country has been growing at about 10% for a decade, and it is spending more on infrastructure and receiving more foreign investment in its manufacturing capacity. Ethiopia now also has a charismatic prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, and under his leadership the country has deregulated its internet (formerly banned outside the capital), made peace with Eritrea, instituted market-oriented reforms, and moved to sell off parts of its government-owned companies. A lot of pieces are moving in the right direction, and maybe Ethiopia has a chance to move up to middle-income status over time, perhaps paving the way for other sub-Saharan economies.

Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa — Photo: Daggy J Ali

I've visited twice in the last year, and I'm optimistic on this one, but the end of the story isn't written yet. A wild card is that liberalization could cause further ethnic tensions to flare up throughout the country. With more than 100 million people, Ethiopia is Africa's second most populous country, so a lot is at stake, including geopolitical stability in the Horn of Africa.

You may have noticed already that these lead issues do not much involve the U.S. or Europe. Next up is more from Africa:

Nigeria has incredible energy and talent, but it still has poor governance and rampant corruption. Can that combination drive significant economic growth?

The country has recovered from recession of last year, but still hasn't consistently stayed above 2% growth since then. So file this one under "remains to be seen." Nigeria, of course, has both the largest population and economy in Africa.

How will India's intellectual space evolve?

Many Western outsiders used to root for a particular Indian brand of Anglo liberalism to assume increasing importance in the political and intellectual life of India. While this has always been a minority viewpoint, it has had prominent representatives, including Ramachandra Guha, who just published a major biography of Gandhi. But these days, this perspective is dwindling in influence, as is old-style Bengali Marxism and other ideas from the left. It's not just Hindu nationalism on the rise, rather India seems to be evolving intellectually in a multiplicity of directions, few of them familiar to most Americans. In India, history ain't over, and further ideological fragmentation seems to be the safest prediction. Note that ideas are very often a leading indicator for where a nation ends up.

Lead issues do not much involve the U.S. or Europe.

Since India may become the world's most populous country and biggest economy by mid-century, this one is a dark horse candidate for the most important issue of the year.

How about some issues overrated in terms of immediate import? I don't think CRISPR is ready to pose major moral dilemmas just yet, driverless trucks are likely to arrive before driverless cars, and America's political checks and balances seem to be holding up.

And if you want some outright predictions for closer to (my) home, here are a few: Some version of Theresa May's Brexit plan will pass. President Donald Trump will remain in office though tarnished all the more. The Golden State Warriors will win another NBA championship. And finally: Stock prices will go up, and down, and then maybe up again. Just don't say you heard it here.

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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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