A Besieged Indigenous People Show The Absurdity Of Colombia's Endless War

In Colombia, caught between the army and guerrillas who have been fighting each other for 60 years, the Nasa people are asking the warring parties to go fight somewhere else. It is resonating across the country.

Marie Delcas

BOGOTA - "Fight your war somewhere else!" The cry rings out in the southwestern Colombian Department of Cauca, where the Nasa Indians are demanding that the army and guerrilla factions they are fighting leave their territory.

Violent clashes are now pitting the army against the Nasa people in the Andean village of Toribio whilst talks have begun between indigenous leaders, officials and delegates from the United Nations in an attempt to resolve the situation.

The day before, a 22-year-old indigenous person had been killed "by mistake" at an army roadblock in the neighboring village of Calaoto, and locals detained those responsible for the blunder for several hours. The Association of Indigenous Governments of North Cauca have declared themselves to be in a state of "permanent resistance."

"You can see the army isn't here to protect us," sighs indigenous leader Feliciano Valencia. "What's worse, its presence itself puts us, and our wives and children, in danger."

The indigenous population, marginalized and poor, is paying a heavy price because of the armed conflict in Colombia, which is half a century old and largely confined to rural regions. "We don't want to pay anymore for a war that isn't ours," Feliciano declares.

The Nasa people are convinced that the Indigenous Guard, armed with simple wooden sticks or batons, can guarantee the safety of the territory, which the Indians have laid claim to for centuries. After guerrilleros from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) attacked Toribio's police station yet again in early July, the Indigenous Guard started to rally troops in the form of an insurgency.

Fighting lasted three days with a dozen Indians injured, including a woman who lost both of her legs. Exasperated, the Indians issued an ultimatum for the army, demanding that they leave the village before midnight, July 16. Out of the question, responded Juan Manuel Santos, the Head of State who has ruled out demilitarizing even "one square centimeter" of national territory.

Last Tuesday, more than 1,000 Indians armed with their batons and pacifist beliefs, stormed the Cerro Berlin barracks. Authorities say that the indigenous people attacked soldiers with catapults and machetes. However, a video, filmed by the Nasa people, shows soldiers firing into the air to scare a number of the indigenous people, determined but unarmed, before leaving the scene. One photo was picked up again and again by the media: young Indians, in caps and t-shirts, dragging one of the soldiers. He is in tears.

For the right-wing military, which has former President Alvaro Uribe as its mentor, this image was seen as a symbol of the "humiliation of the army" and the failure of the Santos government to maintain civil order. But for Colombian novelist Hector Abad, seeing the Colombian army refusing to shoot at civilians: "it's not a humiliation, it's a victory." Last Wednesday, the police took control of Cerro Berlin, by using tear gas.

An old guerrilla stronghold

Meanwhile, the Nasa people captured four guerrilleros. "They will be put on trial and sentenced according the indigenous law that is recognized by the Colombian Constitution," announced Feliciano Valencia. This is the same constitution that the government uses to claim maintaining a military presence in Indian territory is not negotiable.

The government has a duty to defend the population throughout the country, President Santos says. This problem of sovereignty is all the more sensitive now that the FARC are particularly active in Cauca, one of their old strongholds, where they control part of their illicit crop of coca plants and opium poppies. According to the authorities, there are more 600 rebel fighters in this region.

Fearing the national army's aviation squad, which has bombed jungle camps and inflicted severe losses, the FARC are retreating into the Andes to fight in the mountains. The Department of Cauca has become a strategic location and the scene of more than 150 battles since the start of the year.

In an effort to address the Nasa people's anger, the government has announced an ambitious investment program in the region of $280 million, and the reinforcement of public forces. "Nothing new," consider the indigenous leaders, who believe that the only promise the government is keeping is to send "more soldiers." Yet, says Feliciano Valencia, "the army is not a solution, it is a part of the problem."

Read more from Le Monde in French.

Photo - *DulCeCAriTo*

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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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