Why Ukraine's Standoff Imperils Europe's Future

Tangled fates
Tangled fates
Daniel Brössler


MUNICH — During these past years of economic crisis, we Europeans learned that our fate was inextricably linked to that of the banks. We’re accustomed to the idea that numbers will decide how the continent fares. A good European, then, is a thrifty European.

And now the pictures from Kiev come crashing in. They show people hoisting the EU flag in the freezing cold. They are being beaten — and shot — by police for this. Both politicians and the people of Europe should take a good long look at these pictures because, as tough as this might sound, it’s not just economic figures that are going to determine Europe’s future: It’s also the blood spilling on the snow in Ukraine.

A community of half a billion people — and by global standards still a very wealthy one — has a responsibility to the world. This sense of responsibility was demonstrated when the EU decided to send military help to the Central African Republic. But in the Ukraine, European isn’t so much about helping others. It’s about helping ourselves.

A revolt stemming from disappointed hopes about a future with the EU touches the very core of our Union. Europeans are partially responsible for the Ukraine’s failure to sign the EU association agreement in November. The EU fell for President Viktor Yanukovych’s Europe-friendly act and underestimated Russian President Vladimir Putin’s determination to sabotage the agreement.

Which doesn’t mean that those responsible for the bloody standoff aren’t within Ukraine. There is, first of all, a corrupt president, who is prepared to damage his country to serve his own interests, and doesn’t shy away from the use of brute force. Then there is the opposition that appears able to find common ground only in radicalism. But because the picture is so bleak, we Europeans should exercise every possible bit of influence we have. There is no civil war in Ukraine — yet. But every civil war has begun just like, or at least similar to, this.

What Putin knows

In Syria, Western diplomacy found itself unable to do much. That can’t happen in the case of Ukraine. If the Franco-German “dream team” — German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius — really want to make a difference, they better do it in Kiev soon, preferably together with Poland’s Radoslaw Sikorski. The government in Ukraine can’t be left feeling unaccompanied, just as the opposition can’t be made to feel it’s being left to its own devices.

But that won’t be enough. The West and particularly the EU must show the Kiev leadership what they are willing to do to promote a more reasonable outcome. And there are plenty of possible ways to assert leverage with Yanukovych and his followers in the power structure — for example, entry bans and blocking European accounts. Blocked accounts could prove more effective in Ukraine than they have in Belarus, where the EU has also applied the instrument, because unlike Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, Yanukovych doesn’t have many years of tyrannical rule under his belt. He cannot rely on people following him blindly, particularly where the economy is concerned. The Ukrainian oligarchs look at what it’s going to cost before making decisions.

Putin knows this too. Unlike some in the EU, he is unembarrassed by open pursuit of geostrategic interests. His goal is obvious: He wants to make Moscow the center of a Eurasian Union that would form a counterweight to the EU. The leverage he has is also clear: extreme economic pressure, including blackmail, as indispensable supplier of energy paired with offers of economic aid. The rhetoric of a strategic partnership has long been laid bare by the reality of strategic rivalry. This will make itself felt at the EU-Russia summit this week.

The EU won’t be able to find simple solutions to the Kiev crisis. But if it doesn’t want to lose every shred of credibility it has, it can’t leave Ukraine to fend for itself — let alone allow it to become Russian.

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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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