Geopolitics

A New, More Realistic Strategy Against Venezuela's Dogged Regime?

The Western-aligned Lima Group is now seeking help from the more neutral International Contact Group, and even Cuba, to resolve the political deadlock in Venezuela.

Anti-Maduro protest in Valencia, Venezuela on May 3
Anti-Maduro protest in Valencia, Venezuela on May 3
Beatriz Miranda

-OpEd-

BOGOTÁ — After several attempts to accelerate the overthrow of Venezuela's President Nicolás Maduro, after the failed April 30 uprising, the unsuccessful take-over of the Carlota air base in Caracas, the liberation of chief dissident Leopoldo López and miscalculations by opposition leader Juan Guaidó and his allies, the Lima Group is changing its tactics.

The decision came after Maduro's repeated wins, the military high command's refusal to betray the president against opposition hopes, and the muddled, anemic mobilization on the streets, in spite of everything. Certainty about victory a few months back has given way to a more bitter, tactical and strategic rethink in the Lima Group, which hasn't hidden its desire to see the back of Venezuela's socialist regime.

Thus the Group's foreign ministers held a lengthy, closed-door meeting in Peru, without the frenzy of tweets or online statements but under the guidance of the United States, after which they reiterated their support for the Venezuelan opposition and its actions against Maduro's government. With a more realistic tone cleansed of the earlier, euphoric hopes for Maduro's immediate departure, the Group has landed back on earth and removed the element of haste and anxiety more typical of people negotiating not for a cause, but for their own interests. It is now contemplating what should have been a priority on its agenda from the start: a negotiated exit.

Is this a bid to return to classical diplomacy and a minimum level of common sense?

Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Paraguay and Peru, with members of the Venezuelan opposition, signed a joined communiqué. The U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was expected to contact the ministers but did not, for "technical problems." This might seem unusual when a subject of such importance to the White House was being discussed, but in these lands of magic realism, technical glitches could mean a change of strategy. The final declaration would suggest it.

Members agreed in Point Five of their declaration to propose to the International Contact Group an urgent meeting between envoys of both groups, to seek convergence on finding a way to restore democracy to Venezuela. It is the first time the Lima Group envisages moving closer to the International Contact Group consisting of Uruguay, Mexico, Bolivia, Costa Rica and several EU member states. Since a deterioration of the crisis in Venezuela, this group has been responsibly urging dialogue between the government and the opposition. Is this a bid to return to classical diplomacy and a minimum level of common sense?

Maduro, not going anywhere — Photo: OEA - OAS

In Point 11, Lima foreign ministers say they would take necessary steps for Cuba to take part in the possible dialogue. It is difficult to see Washington, which is just tightening sanctions against Cuba, accepting the Caribbean island's inclusion in any talks. So does this indicate an incipient divergence between the Lima Group and the U.S.?

The United States and Russia will be talking about Venezuela in coming days, and both countries still have in their hands important pieces of this strategic game designed to neutralize the possibility of a military intervention to restore democracy and rebuild Venezuela. Touting this is facile and underestimates the pain of millions of Venezuelans suffering from a humanitarian crisis not of their own making. Caught at a geo-strategic juncture, they may well ask, what is this democracy, and who is it for?

Hopefully, a change of strategy will trace a road map to regional peace.

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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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