Why Are The Argentine Pope And President Ignoring Each Other?

The most friendly of pontiffs, Argentine-born Pope Francis has yet to speak to just-elected President Mauricio Macri. Maybe a rude remark by one of Macri's aides is to blame.

Why Are The Argentine Pope And President Ignoring Each Other?
Ricardo Roa

BUENOS AIRES â€" Something seems amiss between Argentina's new president, Mauricio Macri, and the Argentine-born Pope Francis. All the world's diplomatic corps have extended their congratulations to Macri â€" all but the Vatican's. So many have offered comments on the first steps in government, but not Jorge Bergoglio, the former Archbishop of Buenos Aires who has made informality and cordiality his personal style. Not a word yet from the pontiff about Macri.

The reason given so far has been so formalistic as to beggar belief: The Vatican says the pontiff does not call to greet a recently elected president. Francis is many things, but one thing he is not is wedded to protocol. He calls people and sends e-mails left, right and center. Inevitably, his silence with Macri is provoking murmurings through the Argentine halls of power that are difficult to silence.

OK with Cristina K

The pope had several contacts with the last president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, and was particularly considerate with her. He met with her when she was campaigning and even asked people (us?) to be kinder to her. This was in spite of the fact that when Bergoglio was archbishop, the former president refused to receive him 14 times and did not attend any of the annual Te Deum masses at the cathedral. The Kirchner couple, Néstor and Cristina, liked to call the then Primate of Argentina a conspirator, and accused him of having handed over two Jesuit priests to authorities under the military junta in the 1970s.

Yet Francis speaks to so many Kirchner partisans from the Peronist political family, including the just defeated presidential candidate Daniel Scioli â€" but not to Macri. Even when he disagreed with government appointments, he spoke to Kirchner about it. He was just photographed alongside Mario Moreno, the outgoing trade attaché at the Argentine embassy in Rome.

It is difficult to explain what's going on with Macri. Church officials reportedly said that Macri must take the first step. Official silence has a whiff of the Kirchners about it, whether it is Macri or the pope keeping silent. What are they waiting for? Is it a matter of pride?

This inevitably sends all looking for some kind of incident or run-in in the past, between them or their aides. And indeed, one showdown surfaces right away: On the eve of the second round of the presidential elections, Macri's adviser Jaime Durán Barba said Francis could not "win 10 votes." It was out of place, and reminiscent of Stalin's sarcastic observation when he asked, "the pope, and how many divisions does he have?"

Whether it is this or some other lingering resentment, time has come for the two leaders to break the ice â€" especially given the urgent socio-economic challenges that Argentina faces.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

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".

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!