The Post-Western World Is Still A Messy Place

The West is in relative decline, especially compared to Asia, but no obvious alternative 'system' has emerged.

Buried deep
Buried deep


BEIJING — The Great Recession of 2008, election victories for Trump and Brexit, recent forecast of continued slower growth for the United States, Europe and Latin America: All are signs of a major change underway.

The rise of the Asia-Pacific region marks the world's shift into a "post-Western order." This theme was at the center of this past weekend's Brazil + China Challenge Forum 2017 which took place in Beijing at the launch of the three-day BRICS summit in Xiamen, China, that brings together leaders of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

Specialists in international relations treat the notions of "order" and "system" as synonyms. However, to better understand the unfolding changes, it would perhaps be useful to mark a difference between the two terms. "Order" is a sort of X-ray of how the flows of power, wealth, and prestige (or soft power) are currently distributed worldwide. "System," meanwhile, refers to the ensemble of institutions and norms built and led by the dominating powers, so as to reflect the interests and the vision that emerge from the current "order."

The post-World War II order featured the United States as the hegemonic power. It wasn't just because the Americans were the biggest military power: It was also due to its economy representing half of the world's GDP, as well as the cultural influence that expanded to all corners of the world. In more ways than one, American interests would wind up blending with those of Europeans after 1945. It's from this convergence that the contemporary meaning of the word "West" was extracted.

Going beyond geography, the word "West" refers to the following criteria: market economy, representative democracy and the rule of law. And the norms and institutions of the "system" — the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, NATO, et al. — were created in accordance with this "order."

Therefore, when we now ponder a "post-Western" world, the questions we should be answering are the following two: Do the United States and Europe still hold dominant positions, as far as military, economic prosperity and values are concerned? And are Western institutions in decline?

In terms of the "order," interpreting a transition to a post-Western world order is no easy matter. As far as political and military might go, the United States and the NATO remain unchallenged, either in terms of conventional force or of dissuasive power.

No alternative is emerging to fill the void.

Of course, the "Nuclear Club" includes countries that are potentially or openly enemies of the West (Russia, Pakistan and, obviously, North Korea) and the fragmented damage inflicted upon the West by terrorism is disturbing. Still, so far, nothing has emerged — either in the form of a nation-state or of an international pact — to compete with or even threaten NATO, despite the well-known Trumpian criticism aimed at it.

In terms of wealth, there is no doubt about it: The West has clearly seen its position affected by the rise of the "Rest." The emergence of China, India, and others supporting actors from Southeast Asia have reshaped geo-economics.

Regarding prestige and soft power, the West's decline is plain to see. And yet, no alternative with a clearly-defined and potentially universal framework is emerging to fill the void. The "American Dream," for instance, is at no risk of being replaced by the "Chinese Dream," Beijing's propaganda notwithstanding.

To be sure, in the "systemic" scope, it's undeniable that the rise of the Rest, and particularly of China, brings with it the creation of a family of new institutions reflecting the new realities of economic capabilities. But even then, the New Development Bank of the BRICS, and the different institutions recently created under Chinese leadership in the Asia-Pacific and Eurasia are not there to replace the ones designed during the West's long domination.

Instead, they are aimed at increasing the range of options available to finance development, a field in which, even so, the needs are far superior to the sources of investment.

The contemporary order — and system — are still both too fluid. For all the West's decline, there is no Chinese, or Asian, or other emerging hegemony set to replace the established paradigm. What we are faced with, instead, is a "polymorphic" dimension in which the main players (the United States and China) and a series of non-negligible supporting actors (Russia, Germany, Japan, India) are engaged in a game where neither the rules nor the outcome are clear to see.

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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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