Trump Lost, But 'Our America' is Gone — A View From Abroad

Reflections on an election from far away, but still so close.

Protesters in Portland, Oregon in September
Protesters in Portland, Oregon in September
Ranjani Iyer Mohanty

NEW DELHI — Many of us non-Americans have long drunk the blue kool-aid of the red white and blue. Despite its shortcomings, we've grown up thinking that, at its heart, America lives up to its ideals of freedom and justice: where a free press, equal rights, and equal access to opportunity can be fully realized. We look to this singular nation where immigrants are welcomed, where the world's leading educational institutions prosper, and where progressive social thinking, scientific advancements, and a fair justice system are open to all. The home of Batman, Spiderman, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The election of Donald Trump in 2016, and the tumultuous past four years, no doubt gave us pause. So it was only natural that we would follow this month's election with both trepidation and hope. For days, we sat in front of our TV and computer screens, watching so closely that many of us now know not only the swing states, but the swing counties, from Allegheny, Pennsylvania, to Maricopa, Arizona. That Trump ultimately lost, however, can't erase the fact that he received 73 million votes (compared to Joe Biden's 78 million) — and should make us finally question what has been our naïve, simplistic, one-sided perspective of America.

The other half of America, which the world has effectively ignored for decades but which is growing in visibility and anger, is very different from the image we've constructed. They do not want immigrants — at least not those of color. They do not condemn racism. They don't believe in science or vaccines or that COVID-19 is a serious threat. The press is the enemy of the people, and the truth whatever they want it to be. And now they say they don't believe the 2020 elections were fair. They don't believe that Trump lost, or even could lose. Sure, within this half of a divided nation, there are some who may not truly believe in any of these things but they are prepared to stay quiet and sacrifice their rights in the hopes of getting jobs.

Trump was not their inspiration; he was merely their high-level mouthpiece. Even though he led their parade, he was clearly in it for his own gains.

We've learned from China that economic growth need not automatically lead to greater democracy. Now we're learning from the U.S. that democracy need not lead to a more open and progressive way of thinking. Indeed, the revelation of the past four years, and past two weeks, is that there's no guarantee that "once a democracy, always a democracy."

This could also portend the decline of a global superpower.

So facing these hard truths, what should those of us in the rest of the world do? We need to educate ourselves on the real America in all its complexities, and better anticipate its possible evolution. We need to see the U.S. for the deeply divided nation it is. The contentious relationship between Republicans and Democrats is not merely one between two political parties: It is a reflection of two opposing halves of America that seem to be sliding toward some kind of civil war, at least in terms of ideas. All of this could also portend the decline of a global superpower.

Indeed, it's time our countries explore alliances and institutions and agreements that are not centered around the U.S. We can no longer rely on the U.S. to protect our interests — be it in terms of global health, trade, climate, or security. It was naïve of us to think they ever could. Some years ago, when Henry Kissinger was visiting India, he was asked a rather long-winded question as to why Washington had adopted certain policies that were detrimental to India. He leaned forward and in his low, gruff voice, succinctly said, "American foreign policy is for Americans."

Hopefully America will soon have a man in the White House who doesn't speak with the cynicism of a Kissinger or a Trump. But the world will never look at America in quite the same way again.

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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

"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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