The Nostalgia Trap: If Only We Just Could Forget

We're drawn to it, tempted to wade in its bittersweet waters. And yet, for the most part, nostalgia just makes us miserable. Some wisdom from Latin America.

Pondering the past in Bogota
Pondering the past in Bogota
Juan David Villa


BOGOTÁ — There's an awkwardness to the word nostalgia. Perhaps its the "algia" at the end. It brings to mind an illness, a physical discomfort even.

I think it was the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges who once said, about a certain person, that "his fate, like that of all men, was to live in bad times." Nostalgia is highly deceptive, and its tricks and ruses deceive the spirit into believing, without any doubt, that past times were always the best of times. And like all the soul's ailments, it is often worse at dawn or amid the lethargy of Sunday afternoons.

It must be the "algia" that makes nostalgia sound bad. It indicates pain, like neuralgia. Except that rather than inflame a physical nerve, it harasses the psyche, triggering a natural impulse to go back in time, even though doing so is of course impossible. The word's other component, it should be pointed out, comes from the Greek word nóstos, meaning return.

Our inability to do that, to go back in time — back in one's own time — must be an error of creation. Or is it a punishment for God knows which original sin? Or is memory itself the punishment, by which I mean the cruel possibility of forever having feelings about what is no more? Perhaps it's a divine measure to prevent us from wading into the same quagmires, time and again, to make sure we don't return to the same place to make a mistake that is both repetitive and new.

My grandfather was a nostalgic type. After his third little glass of aguardiente, he would cry for his mother who died when he was 20 of an unnameable illness. And yet when it was his turn to go, he died in peace, because at the end, all he could remember was his ID number, and nothing and nobody else.

"One always returns to the old places where one loved life, only to grasp the absence of all that was loved," Argentina's Mercedes Sosa used to sing. This is a trap. Only children — untainted yet by the past, and with the memory mechanism yet to start its dreadful ticking — can be completely happy. Until they lay the trap before them, children are happy playing their games. For adults, then, only by forgetting can we truly be happy.

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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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