Coronavirus

Coronavirus Consolations: Mexico City To Madrid To Tehran

Our writer finds the destruction of the natural world, and his own money problems, far more distressing than any pandemic.

Street scene Thursday in Tehran
Street scene Thursday in Tehran
Alidad Vassigh

-Essay-

MEXICO CITY — If it's not too early to look for one, I've found the proverbial silver lining of the COVID-19 crisis: the global health epidemic will probably help humanity meet its climate targets this year.

In recent days I've seen just this one series of satellite pictures showing a drop in pollution in China. Yet when infections began getting out of hand there in February, I thought right away about how it might curb polluting activities like air travel. Full-fledge reports on its environmental effects would no doubt be speculative, though we can say the same about so many of the socio-economic forecasts we're used to. But let's just consider the flights being canceled as millions renounce their travel plans, or even all the people being asked to work from home on a daily basis whose polluting cars stay in their driveways.

I am in Mexico, and I must say that Mexicans are resilient in times of crisis. They will carry on unless literally forced to stay home and watch their phones. As Paco, the owner of my favorite local internet cafe, said once, "You know what they say, if an apocalypse happens, the only survivors will be cockroaches and Mexicans. Just so you know what we put up with."

Instead, the markets have panicked on their behalf, which is something where I can indeed verify the effects. The peso is plummeting just as I've begun trying to sell my flat in Mexico City. That will leave me heading back to Spain just as the virus is spreading there, and the Brexit transition begins for real. I will likely get a good five or 10,000 euros less for it now. What I always say about calamities like earthquakes also works well for global health contagions: it's really not a good time right now.

My mother is bound to have her say.

And yet, another silver lining: I really can't do much about this damn plague. Consequently, it is stressing me far less than the complications arising from my flat's sale and return to Spain. Because those bear an element of personal responsibility. In other words, if I were quietly suffocating to death in a hospital, I might think, stop fretting, your hour has come. But in losing money on a flat sale, your mind will inevitably, insidiously suggest you made the wrong call. Who can blithely face up to a big mistake? It requires courage, integrity, honesty. Dismal words indeed.

Even if I could shoo away guilt with deceptive reasoning, my mother is bound to have her say ("Who told you to go to Mexico?"). She's got her own worries, trying to figure out how to travel out of Tehran, after her flight was grounded in early March. Iran, our native country, is one of the worst hit by COVID-19. I mailed her urging her not to shake hands, and she reminded me women do not shake hands in the Islamic Republic.

It all reminds me of another conversation with friends, from 10 years ago. We wondered what one would be thinking on a flight plunging toward destruction. I had precisely four thoughts: First and foremost: at least it's not my fault; secondly, I won't die alone, a possible indicator of failure in life; third: please God forgive my sins what with this stressful ending; and finally, the stewardesses should get up and serve the champagne, there's no sense in wasting it.

My silly friends laughed. I wasn't joking.

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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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