More than ever, last week's U.S. election was a global event. And as the four days of collective vote-counting finally culminated in a win for Joe Biden, the rest of the world seemed to react with a unanimous burst of hope for a clear change of direction.
Yet already in the wee hours of November 4, it was clear that Americans did not agree: There would be no decisive national repudiation of Trump, as hoped for by Democrats and foreign allies, and predicted by the polls.
Indeed, tuning in this past week from Paris began with a clear smack of déja vu. Four years ago, I was sitting in an expat drinking hole in Times Square as Trump won the state of Wisconsin on his way to the White House. The feeling in my gut brought memories of a seemingly very different event: the 2002 Winter Olympics, when Swedish goalkeeper Tommy Salo fumbled and dropped the puck against Belarus, costing my home country a prized hockey medal. How could something like this happen? What can we do to get it back?
In downtown Barcelona, Spain — Photo: Jordi Boixareu/ZUMA
We know now it was no fluke, and we've always known that certain things can never be undone. Trump's one-man-show, scorched-earth approach to leadership leaves deep damage both at home and abroad. Even as he gave Americans every conceivable reason to despise and distrust him — for his xenophobia and serial-lying, his objectively ham-handed management of the pandemic, for his disdain for law and democracy itself —, nearly half the country asked for more.
So how likely is it that Joe Biden will be able to bring unity to a country where Republicans might hold the Senate, and where Trump himself is bound to continue undermining the system with his nihilistic mastery of the electronic public square? Biden was, after all, seen by many as a past-his-prime candidate who only emerged in the primaries as an emergency solution to an unconvincing and fractured lineup of Democratic contenders.
Still, starting with Trump, too many have been selling Biden short. It may even be that he is the right man to face the particular grim set of circumstances that the country and the world face? His first act as president-elect to set up a task force to confront the COVID-19 pandemic is a clear message that he knows his priorities, and that things are about to change from the maskless, science-skeptical man he will replace in the White House. It is also a message to the world that many of our biggest challenges are global in nature, but can only be tackled if we have our own houses in order.
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.
"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.
Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release
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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