The G20, Trump And A World In Search Of A New Leader

Xi, Merkel and Trump at the G20 in Hamburg on July 7
Xi, Merkel and Trump at the G20 in Hamburg on July 7
Clovis Rossi


SAO PAULO — The G20, the club gathering the world's biggest economies, is the offspring of two crises. First, the 1997 Asian financial crisis led to the creation of the group in 1999, as an annual summit for finance ministers and central bank governors. Their objective back then was to coordinate policies to stabilize and/or stimulate the global economy.

But it was the global financial crisis of 2008 that forced to group to transform its annual gatherings into an assembly for heads of state. Their goal remained the same, only with increased urgency, given the severity of this second crisis.

The upgrade was the initiative of then U.S. President George W. Bush, and it was carried on by his successor, Barack Obama, who was in fact so enthusiastic about the G20 that he played an essential role in the approval, at the 2009 summit in London, of a $1.1-trillion stimulus program — the equivalent of almost two-thirds of the entire Brazilian economy.

With such a history, it's only natural that a shadow is cast over this year's summit, in Hamburg, Germany, by a specter called Donald Trump. There looms the threat of seeing the country that's been the singular champion of globalization suddenly retreat into protectionism and an "America First" mentality, the antithesis of the kind of open trade and policy coordination that's in the G20's DNA.

The fact that Trump announced the U.S." withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, the most comprehensive agreement to limit global warming ever reached, is practical evidence that Washington is creating a void in the leadership of global governance. And since in politics, voids are inexorably filled, the G20 in Hamburg will be, beyond the issues on the agenda, about seeking a new leader — or leaders.

Not that anybody can claim to be in a position to replace the United States. Trump or no Trump, the country's importance is unmatchable. You only need to look at the GDP per capita: $57,436 in the U.S. compared to, for example, $15,399 in China, which is regularly hailed as the country poised to overtake America.

What experts have instead begun to envision is the emergence of one or several countries capable of opposing Trump's isolationism.

Sook-Jong Lee, president of the South Korean East Asia Institute, puts it this way: "Now is the time for other major countries to provide additional leadership in response to numerous transnational challenges, including peace and security, terrorism, refugees, and environmental problems."

A counterweight against an inward-looking America.

The paradoxical aspect of this moment is that China, a "closed country," is presenting itself as the champion of globalization, as the counterweight against an inward-looking America. "China would like to see G20 countries work together to contain anti-globalization sentiment," says Ye Yu, from the Institute for World Economy Studies in Shanghai.

Clearly, because it takes place in Europe, this year's G20 is also an opportunity for Europe, reinvigorated after the populists' recent electoral defeats, to become the world's first reference for multilateralism.

From our point of view, it is a shame that in this time of readjustment, Brazil, which never was truly a candidate for such a kind of leadership, is in no position to even take part in the debate. The reason, of course, is that the Brazilian government is too busy devoting its energy and ideas to nothing else but its own survival.

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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

"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".

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