Sources

What Alexander The Great Teaches Brazil About Inequality

In Parque do Gato, favela life for Brazil's huge underclass
In Parque do Gato, favela life for Brazil's huge underclass
*Eduardo Giannetti

For the Greek philosopher Diogenes, self-control and self-sufficiency were the essential values. He lived a life with no possessions, except for a cloak, a purse and a barrel made out of clay in which he would sleep.

Intrigued, the emperor Alexander The Great went to visit him. "I'm the most powerful man in the world. Ask what you want and I will give it to you." Diogenes did not falter: "Yes. Step out of my light, you're blocking the sun."

The philosopher and the Emperor are examples of the extreme, and have been used to illustrate Socrates's theory that, among mortals, those with the fewer possessions are those closest to the gods.

Alexander, a former pupil and patron of Aristotle's, learned his lesson. When one of his courtiers mocked the philosopher for "turning down" the offer that was put to him, the Emperor replied: "If I were not Alexander, I would like to be Diogenes." Extremes share much in common.

And so from an ethical point of view, what is wrong with inequality? Our ancient example reminds us that inequality is not bad in itself. What matters instead is the legitimacy of the process that may create it.

The justice — or lack thereof — of the end result depends on the means that brought us there. The crucial question therefore should be: Is the observed inequality essentially a reflection of the difference in talents, efforts and values, or is it the result of a game that was rigged to begin with. In other words, does the disparity come from a deep lack of equity in the initial conditions of life, of the deprivation of basic rights and/or of racial, sexual or religious discrimination?

Billions (and billions) wasted

In the last 20 years, Brazil has made real progress thanks to achievement of economic stability and policies of social inclusion. Still, despite that, the country remains one of the most unequal on the planet. As far as income distribution is concerned, Brazil is the second worst in the G20, the fourth in Latin America and the 12th in the world.

But we must not confuse the symptom with the virus. Brazil's poor income distribution is the fruit of a grave anomaly: the brutal disparity in the initial conditions of life as well as in the opportunities for young children and teenagers to develop according to their abilities and talents, which would allow them to widen their range of possible choices and more often realize dreams for their future.

Brazil's "new middle class" gained access to consumption, but not to true civic goods. In the 21st century, half of the population has no sewer system, public education and health are in an appalling state, public transport is a daily nightmare for commuters, about 5% of all deaths — mostly of the poor, the young and black people — are homicides. Finally, one-third of those who have left superior education (if the term actually applies) are functional illiterates.

This doesn't seem due to a lack of resources, or at least, there is no shortage of resources when the government spends $4.5 billion on Swedish fighter jets, or when it finances the construction of football stadiums for the World Cup, or when it plans to build a bullet-train for $16.7 billion, or $6.7 billion on nuclear submarines. The total amount of subsidies granted by the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES) to a selected group of partners and companies surpasses the amount spent in the whole Family Allowance welfare program.

No, what is lacking here is simply common sense!

Brazil will continue being a violent and absurdly unjust country, put to shame by its inequality, for as long as the conditions of the family in which a child has the good or bad luck to be born plays the overriding role in defining his future.

Human diversity gave us Diogenes and Alexander The Great. But the lack of a minimum of equity in the initial conditions of life limits greatly the room for choice, rigs the game of income distribution and poisons our society.

Inequality in opportunity to succeed, I dare to believe, is the root of what's wrong with Brazil.

*Eduardo Giannetti is an economist, lecturer at Cambridge University and writer.

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Geopolitics

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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