Geopolitics

Why The Chaos? Welcome To Our World Between Eras

The sense of unraveling across the globe is the result of a power vacuum. After the post-Cold War end of U.S. hegemony, no one is ready to impose order. And, no, economics can't fix it.

Syrian refugees entering Turkey earlier this week.
Syrian refugees entering Turkey earlier this week.
Alain Frachon

-Analysis-

PARIS — The feeling of powerlessness has rarely been as strong as it is today. The events in Ukraine emanate that sweet smell of Cold War. China is threatening its neighbors, who are very much scared and calling on the United States to protect them. Terrorism is as strong as ever, and so is global warming. Where have you gone, "international community?"

Present it as a pub question. The answer is this: It's the one strutting its impotence. It not longer reacts. The United Nations is paralyzed by the revived antagonisms among current, future and past superpowers: The United States on one side, China and Russia on the other. The era of the American post-Cold War dominance lasted less than a generation, from 1989 to 2003, when the dream for some, and the nightmare for others, of an American empire buried itself somewhere in the sands of Iraq.

Meanwhile, neither of the Gs is scoring any points, be it the G8 or the G20, which are supposed to represent yesterday's and today's most powerful nations. Where are those with even the slightest grip on the tragedies of our time? The hypothesis of a G2, an American-Chinese condominium of world affairs, turned out to be a bluff.

It seems that there is but one rule that prevails in the international system, chaos. There is no conflict-solving mechanism, no institutionalized dialogue among states, no world "governance" forum that seem to be able to weigh in on the dramatic events unfolding all across the planet.

Fading glory? (photo - Katelyn Kenderdine)

Why? Why this growing collective helplessness? This is the question that French magazine Esprit tries to tackle in its latest and brilliant issue entitled, Le nouveau désordre mondial (The New World Disorder.)

Economic order v. political disorder

Let's start with a quick assessment of the main actors. With America as its unquestioned leader, the Western bloc is not as much in decline as is often said, but its hegemony is waning, explains the magazine. The United States is in a period of relative strategic "withdrawal." Except for trade, Europe has given up on having a role on the international stage. It chose this even as its neighborhood is more unstable than ever, with the threat of ISIS in the Middle East and the rebirth of a post-Soviet Russia that is tempted by a slightly revanchist nationalism.

In the meantime, Asia is asserting itself as the new economic, scientific and military hub. It is both led and intimidated by China, which, as the new French ambassador to Washington Gérard Araud explains, "is once again finding the diplomacy that matches its geography." An elegant way to say that it intends to be the boss in that zone of the Pacific, at the expense of the United States.

China is happy to play the role of godfather in the family of developing countries, among them India, Brazil, Turkey, Indonesia, and others. With the success of their economies and their demographic importance, these countries should be among the world's new power centers. And yet they are not, and don't want to be. So far, they have refused to take the slightest responsibility in solving the world's current conflicts.

Political expert Nicole Gnesotto describes them, and especially China, as "sovereigntist countries," first focused on their own development. They bring no new impulse to world affairs. They are not concerned with such matters, be they tragedies in the Middle East, nuclear proliferation, great migrations or climate change.

Esprit thus formulates a first explanation to the current "world disorder," namely that "power isn't transferred from the West to The Rest," the latter referring to developing countries. "We are not in a communicating vessels systems," in which the United States' relative withdrawal, Europe's absolute withdrawal and the United Nations' paralysis would be compensated by an active role of the developing South in the establishment of a new world order.

Marching forward (photo - Steven Zhang)

The new powers offer no alternative to a World War II-inherited system about to collapse. Hence this feeling of void, of being in between two eras, a good environment for chaos.

But chaos is also fed by the existing dichotomy between the current political and economic orders. Economic globalization has produced a single world market, an economic stage indeed globalized. But there is no such thing, no corresponding unification in the political order. “Strategic globalization doesn’t exist,” Nicole Gnesotto writes. Yet, unlike what the great Montesquieu used to think, trade doesn’t necessarily softens manners.

Economic globalization doesn't remove any of the great regional conflicts, any more than it reduces the hunger for power, domination or the wish to avenge history. It doesn't prevent a sort of new cold war. The behaviors of Beijing in the South China Sea, or Saudi Arabia or Iran in the Middle East, and of Russia in Ukraine show one thing only: that states will always be ready to sacrifice a few percentage points of growth, and even peace, in the name of the defense of what they perceive as their national interest.

The global market doesn't guarantee world peace. It can very well live amid political chaos. This may even be the defining sign of our times.

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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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