Trump's America And The Grief Of An Indian Mother

Sunday vigil in Olathe, Kansas
Sunday vigil in Olathe, Kansas
Sruthi Gottipati


It's every Indian mother's worst nightmare. Would the son she proudly sent abroad wind up in harm's way in a foreign land? Parvatha Vardhini's son reassured her that he was safe and secure in the U.S., even as hate crimes rose in the wake of Donald Trump's victory. After his body was flown back to the family in Hyderabad, and laid out in front of her for the last funeral rites today, Vardhini cautioned Indians in the U.S. to stick together.

"No other mother should meet with the tragedy I had met with," she said.

Vardhini's son Srinivas Kuchibhotla, a 32-year-old engineer, was shot dead in a Kansas bar last week. He had been drinking a beer with an Indian-American friend when a man walked up to them and asked what country they were from and whether they were in the U.S. illegally. The man was told to leave but later returned — with a gun. He shot Kuchibhotla dead. His friend was wounded.

The American Dream has long captured the imagination of Indian families. Middle-class parents don't go on impulsive shopping sprees or vacations abroad. They scrimp and save to send their kids to study in the U.S. When their children do finally depart, they pack homemade pickles in their suitcases and the whole family gathers at the airport to send them off.

Kuchibhotla appears to have been cut straight from that storyline. For a decade, he did all the right things to realize his family's dream. While he got his degree in electrical and electronic engineering, he worked as a teaching and research assistant to help pay for expenses. He was snapped up in the job market after graduation.

"He was very sharp. A top-of-his-class kind of guy," a former boss told The Kansas City Star. "He was the kind of employee every manager would want … He was a low-maintenance employee and did whatever was asked of him."

Kuchibhotla got married and recently bought a car for his dad with his salary. His family shone with pride. What Kuchibhotla didn't factor in was the ascendancy of Donald Trump, who painted an apocalyptic picture of the U.S. under attack by immigrants, who threatened the jobs and lives of ordinary Americans. As Trump's rhetoric energized the deepest, darkest prejudices in the U.S., Kuchibhotla's wife stayed awake at night worrying about their safety. He assured her they would be OK.

In the days after Kuchibhotla was killed, Trump, who typically dumps every passing thought on Twitter, was silent about the engineer's death.

At today's funeral in India, where the murder had been closely covered by local media, Vardhini was also thinking about her other son who'd also gone to live and and work in the U.S. "I will not allow my younger son to go back to the U.S. again. I want him and his family to return to Hyderabad for good."

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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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