Caught Between Army And Islamists, Fleeing Syrian Kurds Flood Into Iraqi Kurdistan

Though Kurdish Syrians have largely avoided any involvement in the country's civil war, they are now caught in the middle and fleeing in droves. A visit to the refugee camp in Iraq.

Syrian children fetch water at Kawergost Refugee Camp, some 50 km north of Erbil, capital of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region.
Syrian children fetch water at Kawergost Refugee Camp, some 50 km north of Erbil, capital of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region.
Guillaume Perrier

ERBIL — A pickup truck pierces through the dust cloud and stops at the camp’s entrance. It’s followed by a line of other vehicles arriving from Syria. It is clumsily packed with a family of eight, some blankets, pieces of furniture and an air-conditioning unit. Dozens of troops of the Peshmerga, the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government’s army, are trying to contain the new arrivals.

At the edge of huge oil fields, “at least 15,000 people have already arrived in two days” in the Kawergosk camp, located between Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital, and Mosul, according to town Mayor Djamal Martik.

“We have to stop this influx and send them to other camps,” the overwhelmed mayor insists.

As far as the eyes can see, thousands of tents — provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees — and as many families are roasting under the blazing sun. Many still remain without a shelter. “We’ve been waiting for three days,” says Jiwan, a Kurd from Qamishli, as he sits with his wife and young daughter in the two square meters of shade that their luggage provides them. All around, vehicles are transporting people and supplies. From the back of one truck, soldiers toss watermelons to a group of children.

Since Aug. 17 when Kurdish Iraqi authorities opened the border, more than 40,000 Kurdish refugees have crossed over from Syria, the Regional Government’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Falah Mustafa Bakir explains. In total, more than an estimated 200,000 people have arrived in the Kurdish region, according to official figures.

“The numbers were lower than in neighboring countries, so it didn’t draw that much attention,” Bakir says. “Now the problem has gone far beyond our capacities.” Iraqi Kurdistan regional President Masoud Barzani, who visited the Kawergosk camp on Aug. 20, has appealed to the international community for help.

Caught in a vise

“The worst off are those still over there,” a young refugee says, standing on top of a van. For the past week, those who have escaped Syria’s Kurdish region by the thousands relate the despair of the whole region. Until now, it had largely been spared the worst effects of the war.

The Rojava — the name of the Kurdish Syrians’ region — is increasingly isolated. “The border with Turkey is closed off to us, even though we live 500 meters away,” says Mustafa, an old man who arrived from Qamishli. Even though they avoided involvement with the Syrian regime or with the rebel brigades, Kurdish Syrians are now caught in a vise.

“Our village has been bombed by the regime,” says Fatma, who with her friend Djamila are from Rmeila, northern Syria’s oil production center. A larger number claim to have fled more frequent attacks on Kurds by the radical Islamist groups, the Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

For more than a month, violent clashes between these jihadist groups and Kurdish fighters of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) — which is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Marxist movement founded by Abdullah Öcalan — have been shaking the whole region. In Kobani, Afrin, Ra's al-"Ayn or in Tal Abyad, the Kurds claim to have repelled their attackers and killed hundreds of men during these clashes.

“These armed forces are terrifying civilians, which explains this exodus,” says Ibrahim Bro, secretary of the small Kurdish Syrian party Yekiti. “But tensions between Kurdish parties are also a cause of this situation. There’s fierce competition between Masoud Barzani and Abdullah Öcalan’s supporters. They’re both trying to impose their own model upon the Kurdish Syrians. And the PKK, just like the Ba'ath party, wants to impose a single-party system.”

This is also the opinion of Abdel Hakim Bashar, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Syria, affiliated with Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani. He thinks “the civilians are also fleeing the PYD’s policies.”

The party, the most popular and the most organized among the nebula of Kurdish Syrian movements, “insists on controlling the humanitarian aid and refuses to work with anyone,” Bashar says. The attempts to unify the views of Syria’s Kurdish National Council — which counts more than 20 movements — and of the PKK branch have been unsuccessful.

“The Kurdish house has to be put back in order,” Bashar says.

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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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