As US-Pakistan Tensions Rise, China Looks Set To Gain

Osama bin Laden’s death has deepened tensions between Islamabad and Washington. Will Pakistan fall into China's arms?

Hillary Clinton and Nawaz Sharif, leader of the opposition in Pakistan
Hillary Clinton and Nawaz Sharif, leader of the opposition in Pakistan
Frédéric Bobin

Could China be the country that benefits most from Osama bin Laden's death in Pakistan? As tensions between Islamabad and Washington reach new heights over the killing of al Qaeda's former leader, Pakistan has discretely begun looking to China in its hope to minimize the impact of a potentially major crisis in relations with the US.

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani addressed his Parliament on Monday on the bin Laden raid. His speech disclosed little new information, but underlined the diplomatic strategy that Islamabad intends to adopt in order to free itself from America's embrace. Mr Gilani bent over backwards in his attempt to praise China, describing it as "a source of inspiration for the Pakistani people".

Politicians and the public are showing increasing demand for a looser relationship between Islamabad and the US, whose attitude is considered ungrateful, given Pakistan's "sacrifices' for the fight against terrorism. Nawaz Sharif, leader of the opposition and the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), has called for the government to reconsider its relations with Washington after its "violation of Pakistan's national sovereignty," as he described the American intervention in Abbottabad.

In Pakistan's press, calls are multiplying for the country to opt for the China alternative. In an article entitled "Time to distinguish between friends and foes', The Nation daily, which is close to the army, wrote on May 6: "It is about time that the government started distancing itself from the so-called friend, the US. It should get closer to time-tested China."

Analysts in Islamabad are convinced that bin Laden's death will mark a turning point in Pakistan's diplomacy. "It is highly probable that Pakistan will get closer to China and Russia too," says Imtiaz Gul, Director of the Centre for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad. "Pakistanis are now asking themselves what the country has gained from our alliance with the United States. The result is a whole array of condemnations and a total lack of confidence."

Iftikhar Murshid, a former diplomat, now Editor-in-chief of the magazine Criterion Quarterly, puts the announced turnaround in perspective. "The relation between Pakistan and China is already incredibly profound," he says, noting that "it could, of course, become even more so. The perception of people here is that China is a reliable partner who has never let Pakistan down. But it goes without saying that we would never put all our eggs into the same basket."

It did not take long for China to understand the full benefits of the confidence crisis between Pakistan and the United States. While suddenly finding itself the object of general suspicion in most Western countries, Islamabad received kind words from Beijing. On May 6, China's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman urged the international community to show "more comprehension and support" to Pakistan, also recalling that "national sovereignty should be respected", an implicit criticism of the American raid. The official Chinese press has done the same, qualifying any doubts on Pakistan's anti-terrorist commitment as "unjust".

Until now, Islamabad had managed to strike a balance between its partnership with the US and its long-lasting friendship with China. Relations with Washington have been strained at times, especially because of Pakistani nuclear ambitions. In the aftermath of 9/11, the "war on terror" brought the two countries together as never before. Pakistan has skillfully cashed in on its "borderline state" status (as during the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan), benefiting, according to certain critics, from "strategic rent."

In the period from 2002 to 2011, the U.S. has spent nearly $20 billion on aid for Pakistan, three quarters of which was in the form of security costs. This help is now being questioned by some members of Congress who think that Washington has received very little in return.

China has considerably increased its presence in Pakistan over the last decade. It has built the Gwadar port in Baluchistan, for example, securing Chinese access to energy supplies via the Arabian Sea. It has also reinforced its civil nuclear cooperation with Pakistan to counterbalance closer relations between the Unites States and India. China's role in Pakistan looks set to grow, reshaping the geostrategic balance in Southern Asia.

Read the original article in French.

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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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