Geopolitics

A Year After Massive Fires, Is Russia Burning Again?

Greenpeace disputes the Russian government’s forest fire statistics in the region around Moscow. The controversy is especially charged following last summer’s blazes that decimated agriculture and killed hundreds when huge plumes of smoke blew into the ca

A smoky view of central Moscow last August (Ulishna)
A smoky view of central Moscow last August (Ulishna)
Ivan Buranov

MOSCOW - All the fires raging around the Moscow region have been extinguished, and all new blazes that spring up are put out as soon as they are discovered. That, at least, is the view of the Russian government's Emergencies Situations Ministry and the Federal Fire Service.

But environmentalists insist many fires are still flaring up that the authorities are hiding, including blazes that continue to rage in the Vladimir and Ryazan regions adjacent to Moscow. And very soon, the activists say, a smoky smog will envelop the capital as it did last summer.

Last August, hundreds of deaths were blamed on respiratory failure linked to the smoke from the worst Russian wild fires in memory, also responsible for the widespread destruction of crops that cost some $15 billion in damages.

As August approaches, attention to the severity of wild fires – which tend to occur each summer – is higher than ever. The Emergency Situations Ministry told deputy prime minister Viktor Zubkov that in a recent 24-hour period, there had been 12 forest and peat fires, but they had all been quickly extinguished.

But Greenpeace Russia says the situation is not quite so rosy. The head of its fire information service Gregory Kuksin said in the area surrounding Moscow, there were at least ten large fires, mostly in the Shatura region. Some of the fires have been raging for weeks.

Kuksin said on the whole, local authorities are reacting swiftly, but real information is for some reason being hushed up. He added that many of the forest fires are burning along the boundary of the Moscow region.

A Greenpeace Russia team arrived Tuesday morning to put out a peat bog fire in a town in the Vladimir region. The wind was blowing the smoke towards Moscow.

Active fires on the rise

On Monday, residents in the southeast of the capital reported that they could smell smoke, but Russia's meteorological service insisted this was not due to burning peat.

Across the rest of Russia, however, the situation is worrying. The Emergency Situations Ministry says the number of active fires has increased by 20 percent over the last 24 hours, from 167 to 206, affecting an area of 11 thousand hectares.

The worst affected areas are the regions of Yakutia, Komi, Khabarovsk and Archengelsk. Zubkov has demanded firefighting equipment be more quickly deployed to the outlying regions, pointing out that $100 million had been set aside for this after last year's disaster.

But the deputy prime minister also added that it was still necessary to find and punish those responsible for violating the norms in effect to prevent the tinderbox conditions of dry land and brush that tends to ignite the fires. Reports into administrative violations have been compiled and investigators are looking into more than 400 cases.

Read the original article in Russian

photo - Ulishna

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
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

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".

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS
MOST READ