Rue Amelot

Foreign Eye On The Descent Of American Democracy, 2008 To 2020

In the midst of America’s election limbo, our Milan-based writer looks back on the first U.S. campaign he followed — from up close — and wonders what comes next.

Watching U.S. election results from abroad
Watching U.S. election results from abroad
Alessio Perrone

On Sept. 15, 2008, a teenaged version of me with shaggy hair, cheap Wayfarer sunglasses and a The Clash t-shirt, stood in a packed crowd under the dry sun of Pueblo, Colorado, waiting for the candidate to arrive.

I was a month into spending my junior year of high school with a host family who lived just outside Pueblo, where locals prided themselves on hailing from Colorado's ninth biggest city. The year 2008 was also when the financial crash was tumbling global economies, and had already sent much of my host family's savings up in smoke. As for the U.S. presidential campaign in full throttle, I didn't know much, but someone had explained to me that Colorado was a swing state, which had brought both candidates to Pueblo.

There was optimism — euphoria, even.

I skipped the appearance of John McCain, but to the chagrin of my host family — die-hard Republicans — I was eager to join the crowd that had come to see his Democratic opponent, Barack Obama. Looking back now, I wasn't moved by anything I'd call a political conscience, which would arrive later. Instead, I was curious to see someone who somehow seemed different from politicians I'd seen growing up, and who everyone back home in Italy was asking about.

Six weeks later, when election night arrived, I watched Obama's victory speech in Chicago with a sense of seeing history in the making. In a country stained by slavery's past, voters were sending the first African-American to the White House, a man who had spent part of his youth in Indonesia and spoke about hope without false promises, vowed to end America's senseless wars abroad and build unity at home. There was optimism — euphoria, even. America, the most powerful country in the world, was also showing the rest of us a better way.

Obama speaking in Pueblo, Colorado, on Sept. 15, 2008 — Photo: Alessio Perrone

Twelve years later, all of that seems to be long gone. Most of the people in my life, Americans and otherwise, see Donald Trump as an existential threat to a democracy that had seemed to reach a pinnacle as Obama took office. I am also still in touch with some friends, back in rural Colorado, who have always been warm and generous with me — but who passionately defend Trump on Facebook, worrying that a Joe Biden presidency would be the end for Christian values. The middle ground and all meeting points have vanished.

America was showing the rest of us a better way.

I'm not sure what has happened to America, and whether other democracies will follow in its path. But in this unprecedented election season, amid a global pandemic, I am following the results from the heart of Europe closer than I ever did in Colorado. The uncertainty right now goes beyond the counting of votes. What does it mean that approximately half the nation supports a president who has questioned basic science and brushed off hundreds of thousands of deaths in order to boost his own campaign? What does it mean that my colleagues in the media have again misunderstood what is happening in the country?

As we wait for the final, painful count of the votes, I think back to that rally in Pueblo. Standing under the sun, shoulder-to-shoulder with my fellow humans, is not the only thing I feel wistful for.

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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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