Geopolitics

Ukraine On The Brink: What Europe Must Do

Clashes between anti-government protesters clash and riot police in Kiev on Feb. 18
Clashes between anti-government protesters clash and riot police in Kiev on Feb. 18

-OpEd-

The Western world felt safe in the illusion that nothing would happen in Ukraine until the end of the Sochi Olympic Games. But it woke up on Wednesday to terrifying images of the bloody battlefield of central Kiev, literally ablaze.

After a three-month-long face-off between a pro-European opposition, which hasn't weakened despite the cold winter temperatures, and a government backed by Moscow that is deliberately allowing the situation to worsen, violence seems to have now reached a point of no-return.

The death of at least 25 people since Tuesday — with most of the victims among the protesters, and at least nine among the riot police — and hundreds of others wounded have led both camps to radicalize their positions. Today in Kiev, no one trusts anyone anymore.

The situation in the capital as well as in several outlying regions of Ukraine, is now highly unstable and increasingly perilous. A former Soviet Republic, Ukraine has among its 45 million-strong population many with a military background, trained for combat — not to mention stockpiles of weapons in circulation.

Deaf ears

The leaders of the opposition are divided over what course of action to follow, and are beginning to lose their grip on what is turning into a movement for insurrection. As for President Viktor Yanukovych — whose behavior doesn't cease to surprize — he chose to ignore Tuesday's phone calls from German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission President José Manuel Barroso.

During a previous phone conversation in late January, after the first deaths since the beginning of the crisis, Barroso had threatened the Ukrainian president with sanctions if the repression continued. Of course, time has now come for the European Union to put its money where its mouth is. Targeted, personalized sanctions against those responsible for the crackdown and their assets deposited in European capitals — namely Vienna, London and Cyprus — are now vital.

The problem is that, although vital, these sanctions might turn out be too little too late. The crisis is increasingly spiralling out of control, for the Ukrainians and for the EU. Nobody, neither in Brussels nor Moscow, is now in a position to predict the outcome. But if we want to help Ukrainians find the path to dialogue, it is crucial that the European Union finally speaks with one firm voice.

The cacophony of reactions from the European capitals following last night's events is a disgrace. The question is not to make promises we cannot keep. It is to use all the means of pressure at our disposal to reaffirm, with power and unity, the core values of the Union. Indeed, those are the very same values for which thousands of Ukrainians have been fighting for the past three months.

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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

"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.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

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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