The most charismatic living Palestinian leader launches a massive hunger strike from his prison cell and the pages of The New York Times: In another time, it would have been front-page news around the world.
Deutsche Welle reports that between 1,100 and 1,500 Palestinian prisoners began Sunday to forgo food to demand access to phones, improved medical services and extended visiting rights for families. Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti called for the movement in an op-ed in the New York Times, in which he called Israel's prisons — which hold about 6,500 Palestinians — "the cradle of a lasting movement for Palestinian self-determination."
"This new hunger strike will demonstrate once more that the prisoners' movement is the compass that guides our struggle, the struggle for Freedom and Dignity, the name we have chosen for this new step in our long walk to freedom," writes Barghouti, who is serving a life sentence in for his role in the Second Intifada. Considered a hardened terrorist by the Israelis, many Palestinians consider him their people's Nelson Mandela.
Portrait of Barghouti on the West Bank wall — Photo: Eman
Though the story looks bound to mushroom in the region, four months into 2017, this latest chapter in the eternal Israeli-Palestinian struggle is merely background noise to other huge — once unthinkable — news stories. Take, for example, the U.S. dropping the "mother of all bombs' in Afghanistan last week.
And then there's the daily updates of Israel's neighbor Syria being decimated by the nation's civil war, bringing us "scenes of a world devoid of rules: children killed by poisonous gas, the bodies of prisoners who were tortured or burned alive and a multitude of national armies and rebel groups that hack each other to pieces," as one one Süddeutsche Zeitung writer put it.
In Europe, meanwhile, nationalism is sweeping the ballot boxes, as it apparently did in Turkey's referendum Sunday as well. Oh, and thanks to the rising tensions between the U.S. and both Russia and North Korea, there's suddenly the return of worrying about a real threat of nuclear war.
"I don't wish to alarm you," Paul Mason from the Guardian writes, "but right now the majority of the world's nuclear warheads are in the hands of men for whom the idea of using them is becoming thinkable."
Yes, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict merits our attention. But don't blame us for being distracted.
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.
"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.
Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release
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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