KOMMERSANT

In Kiev, It May Be The Moment To Dismantle Maidan

Barricades and tents at Maidan Square in Kiev, on July 14, 2014.
Barricades and tents at Maidan Square in Kiev, on July 14, 2014.
Yanina Sokolovskaya

KIEV — Representatives of the new Ukrainian government are convinced: It is time for Maidan Square to be free of tents.

The only question is how to get rid of the protestors from the site that became the center of the pro-democracy movement. The police think Maidan should be cleared with force, as if it were occupied by criminals. Vitali Klitschko, the mayor of Kiev, and a number of national politicians all think that the protesters need to leave on their own.

Earlier efforts have started by trying to first clean up Kreshchatyk street, which leads up to Maidan. But taking down the first two tents led to an uproar, and traffic couldn’t be opened on the street anyway.

Now Klitschko thinks he can come to an understanding with the residents of the tent city. “A forced clean-up is an extreme measure. I am not considering it and will never consider it,” the mayor said, as he was announcing the first steps towards cleaning up the square.

The government is holding negotiations with the protesters, but the only concrete step that has been taken is moving some of the tents out of Kreshchatyk street and into another neighborhood of Kiev.

Boots on the ground

“The mayor has offered us options for temporary lodging. But we aren’t refugees, we are monitoring the government, which isn’t carrying out the wishes of the people. They want us to leave, because they don’t want to free Donbas and they don’t want to fight corruption,” said Nikolai, sitting in the summer heat in full camouflage and new army boots.

Seeing the activist's shiny footwear, one passerby sneered: “You would be better off sending those new boots to the front, where our soldiers are fighting in sneakers.”

Nikolai answered right back: “We also need equipment here, we are also on the front-line.”

Maidan Square on June 21, 2014. Photo: Flickr/Mighty Travels.

But the Ukrainian government considers the present Maidan a criminal camp, not the front line. Both the prosecutor general, Vitaly Yarema, and Interior Minister Arsen Avakov have made statements to that effect. Yarema said that there have been 158 crimes committed in Maidan Square since February, four of which led to fatalities. He said there were investigations into “14 cases of armed assault, 79 robberies, and 18 beatings as well as drug use, illegal weapons and fraud.”

“It’s best to avoid the Maidan area,” explained employees of the city television channel, whose studios are near the camp. “There have been times when someone finished filming, and then was attacked, beaten and robbed. Today Maidan is not the center of the civil society, like it was during the winter.”

Interior Minister Avakov says that he has a plan to deal with the tent city, and feels sure that Ukrainian society will look kindly on “the use of force to deal with criminals.”

Maidan representatives have responded to the threats of security forces by holding “people’s assemblies,” although they weren’t particularly well-attended. The speakers warned that all efforts to clear Maidan will be for naught - they simply won’t leave.

Newly installed Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin has called on the government to proceed carefully. In his opinion, Maidan is “more than just a symbol.”

Viktor Hebozhenko, a political scientist in Kiev, says that trying to unilaterally clean up the square would be a major mistake for the new government, which he notes was “brought into power by Maidan.”

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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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