Geopolitics

Berlusconi, The Perils Of Not Knowing When To Say Goodbye

A February 2013 protest against Silvio Berlusconi in London
A February 2013 protest against Silvio Berlusconi in London
Marcello Sorgi

-OpEd-

ROME — We must remember that Wednesday's vote to oust Silvio Berlusconi from the Senate does not mean his political demise. Still, his exclusion from Parliament, the sentence for tax fraud and the other alleged cases — involving underaged prostitution, extortion, the bribing of parliamentarians, and corruption of witnesses — put the former prime minister in a most precarious condition.

These cases take their toll on a person, as well as the normal wear and tear that a 20-year career in politics brings. If this isn’t the end, it’s clearly the beginning of a decline that may be very steep, and fast.

But even before we see the end of the Berlusconi era, comes a lingering question: Will Berlusconi go down in history as the man who epitomized the so-called "Second Republic" of the past quarter-century of Italian public life?

Will Il Cavaliere be remembered as one of the most innovative entrepreneurs, bringing commercial TV to Italy, which contributed to the modernization and cultural changes comparable to that of the national broadcaster Rai, in the 1950s and 1960s?

Or instead, was Berlusconi simply an unscrupulous corrupter of politics, customs, civic life, a character devoid of any sense of ethics — or common sense? Was this a man only concerned with himself and his own business affairs?

As we wait for the historians to dissect this issue, which will take time, you’ll see that what concerns Berlusconi today is a question that in the past has involved almost everyone in charge during Italy’s "First Republic," and a good chunk of those in the Second too.

Statesmanship matters

The revelations of Tangentopoli (a wide-reaching judicial investigation in the early 1990s into political corruption that can be translated as Bribesville) offered the conclusion that Italian politicians were not responsible leaders, but tout-court delinquents.

In the case of disgraced former Prime Minister Bettino Craxi — ten years after he died — President of the Republic Giorgio Napolitano has had to intervene and restore the historical truth: Beyond the individual conclusions of the corruption trials, Craxi was a politician of the first magnitude, capable of imposing cutting-edge innovations in the country.

As for former premier Giulio Andreotti, despite his acquittal after being accused of involvement with the mafia, nobody ever dreamed, when he died earlier this year, that he could have been an organized crime boss.

But this may exactly be the fate that awaits Berlusconi.

His judicial record should not be the sum total of his biography. When the sun is setting, a calm assessment of all the results, errors, and merits of his public life must be taken into account.

For this reason, Berlusconi would have done better to make his last speech — just like Craxi did — in the government itself, rather than from a window to the shivering crowd gathered on Via del Plebiscito, near his private villa in central Rome. Likewise, he could have resigned even just one minute before getting the boot from his opponents.

“At least I tried to change some of the things I wanted to do," he could have said. "Many of you were right, but rather than give you the satisfaction, I’ve decided I’m leaving.”

If he had done it this way, he would have bowed out as a statesman. Instead, so as not to go down in history as a convict and inappropriately try to erase the shame of the sentence, Berlusconi has no choice but to fight his last, desperate battle until the very end. History is repeating itself: The Second Republic has finished exactly the same way as the First did.

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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

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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