America Can’t Stop Talking About Us, A View From Moscow

Russia has become a main theme in the U.S. In part, perhaps, this is a sign of success of the Kremlin’s politics. But both Putin and Trump will have to compromise if they want to change things.

Putin and Trump nesting dolls
Putin and Trump nesting dolls
Dmitry Drize


MOSCOW — There won't be any reset button for relations with Russia: We either get along or we don't. Moscow should not have "hacked" into U.S. servers, as Donald Trump has now acknowledged that pro-Kremlin hackers were most likely responsible for the cyber attacks. We can now analyze the "Russian components' of statements last week by both the president-elect and his nominee for secretary of state, the former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson.

Appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Tillerson responded to questions about Russia as if he were setting the stage for Donald Trump's words on the subject, in his subsequent Jan. 11 press conference. Tillerson offered a harsh assessment of Moscow's actions in Crimea, Syria and Ukraine. Russia poses a risk, he said. Still, the nominee to be America's top diplomat offered a leitmotif that is essentially the same as Trump's: No matter how bad Russians may be, it is imperative that we talk to one another. Otherwise the situation just gets worse. Besides, it is very unclear how the relationship will evolve. It's also possible that it won't.

Moscow has reacted as it typically does, saying that this was all rhetoric intended for a domestic U.S. audience, and that Trump and Tillerson cannot underestimate the importance of timing, or the fact that the relationship with Russia is currently at a low point. They must conform, in other words, to the public mood. And no one was exactly expecting significant signs of improvement after the arrival of a new man in the White House. Things can't get any worse, according to the Moscow establishment. But they could, perhaps, get better. There may be room for hope.

But it is worth noting that Russia has become a main theme in the U.S. Even as Donald Trump tried to talk about social policy and the workplace, he still was forced to return to Putin and his relationship with him. This may, in part, be a sign of success of the Kremlin's politics. It could also be argued, of course, that all this publicity is unnecessary, and after all these statements, it is hard to believe that Trump is in any hurry to revoke anti-Russian sanctions.

It is also more than likely that we should forget about Washington's recognition of Russian Crimea, even if Tillerson did agree that the sanctions against Moscow affected the interests of both the U.S. and Europe.

What Trump and Tillerson offer is precisely this same pragmatic approach Russians like to tout: Don't try to save the world, like Obama; instead think about your own interests. It is possible that we will soon see a new series of bilateral negotiations that will take a different tone and be closer to a typical business relationship than to demagoguery. And in this case, Moscow will inevitably have to compromise if it wants to make it work.

Finally, it is possible that in such a context, the Kremlin could take some steps forward at home as well. Maybe somewhere, somehow, something will soften in the hope that Russia can avoid yet another international sanction.

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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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