PARIS — For more than 70 years, the United States was the ultimate life insurance policy for Europe against the Soviet and now Russian thirst for power. The U.S. also held sway in Asia, in large part to counter China and to contain North Korea's dangerous and eccentric drifts.
The rise of China's economic ambitions and military capacities — the later reinforcing the former — pushed traditional U.S. allies Japan and South Korea to turn ever harder toward the American umbrella of protection. From Vietnam to the Philippines, from Indonesia to Singapore, not forgetting Taiwan of course, the rise of Beijing's ambitions reinforces their need for Washington's attention.
Faced with China's increasing presence, the countries in the region now see America retreating. What was only a worrying tendency under Barack Obama, with the relative failure of his "Asian pivot" policy, can become an infinitely more dangerous reality under President Donald Trump.
Before Trump's election, the Philippines moved closer to China; it even pledged to buy Chinese military equipment — a strong gesture which, of course, conveyed the "singular" personality of President Rodrigo Duterte. It also betrayed the Philippines leader's irritation toward American criticism about his brutal methods of repression. This diplomatic evolution also revealed the growing doubt about the prestige and power of the U.S.
By suggesting, during his campaign, that he might roll back nuclear protection to South Korea and Japan, Trump risks encouraging a nuclear arms race across the Asian continent. He's sending a troubling message: "You're on your own now." The U.S. is no longer China's counterweight in Asia. The message was made even clearer by Washington's rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and by appearing to open the door to Taiwan.
Left to themselves?
What does America really want? To push Asian countries in each other's arms so that, eventually, they'll form a sort of EU-inspired "Pacific Union"? Or, more prosaically, simply abandon these countries to their fates?
In both cases, by rejecting multilateralism in the name of "America First," Trump is only hastening the arrival of a multipolar world that will primarily revolve around Asia. Only an America unwavering in its commitment, open and rational in its behavior, could slow a movement that risks gaining pace at the exact moment when the ever-increasing centralization of power in China introduces an element of uncertainty. The junction between the not-always-enlightened despotism of Xi Jinping's China and the dogmatic provocation of Trump's America can lead to disasters.
And yet as paradoxical as it may sound, China itself may be the Asian country most "disoriented" by this new America. We can see its hesitation between a certain form of ideological jubilation and a genuine anxiety. In The People's Daily, the Chinese Communist Party's mouthpiece, there was a recent commentary that democracy had "reached its limits' and that it had "become the weapon for capitalists to chase profits."
There's a scent of anxiety in Beijing about Trump's unpredictability
It's an amusing criticism coming from a country that continues to multiply its number of billionaires. Still, it's partly justified. Since truth has become a relative notion in Washington and since there are such things as "alternative facts," can we still talk with a feeling of moral superiority, of a "geography of values' that would distinguish the democratic West from the rest of the world?
What does the Statue of Liberty, which was brandished as a symbol by Tiananmen Square protesters in 1989, stand for at a time when the U.S. wants to erect a wall between the country and Mexico? In other words, is Trump's America still in a position to lecture the Chinese on democratic morals?
China is the one now teaching America lessons in capitalism. You only need to listen to Xi's speech in Davos and his praise of globalization to be convinced of this. With Trump, the U.S. risks declining from a power protecting the status quo to the main source of global uncertainty. In other words, a fireman-turned-arsonist.
To be sure, China intends to take advantage of the new global order but there's still a scent of anxiety in Beijing about the unpredictability of the new U.S. president. China and the Western world were already living in a different time zone but the gap has skyrocketed since Trump's election.
Between a "Middle Kingdom" that references historical events that took place more than 1,000 years before the birth of Jesus and a country that now lives in the total immediacy of tweets, finding common ground will be no easy task.
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.
"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.
Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release
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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