Conflict Over Catalonia, Bad To Worse

Clashes in Tarragona, Catalonia on Sunday
Clashes in Tarragona, Catalonia on Sunday
Alidad Vassigh

MADRID — For Mariano Rajoy, it's as if October 1 never happened. The Spanish Prime Minister insisted that his government was simply implementing Spain's democratic constitution in sending gendarmes to stop an illegal, separatist referendum organized by the Catalan regional authority on Sunday.

But October 1 may go down as a turning point in Spanish, and perhaps even European, history, as pictures spread of citizens being beaten and dragged away by policemen intent on stopping them from voting. The Catalan regional government reported more than 800 injuries, while announcing some 90% of those who voted favored secession.

The impression given was of a member state of the European Union looking clumsy as best, and even brutal and helpless, in the face of growing separatist sentiment in its richest region. La Vanguardia, the top daily in the Catalan capital of Barcelona, wrote that the conflict over the independence movement "will only get worse."

La Vanguardia, Oct. 2, 2017

Across the rest of Spain, the media had sought in recent weeks — in a curious convergence of postures — to downplay the importance of the separatist challenge mounted in Catalonia. Like Spain's parties, the conservative Popular Party, the Socialists and centrist Citizens who have failed to effectively unite on the issue in spite of representing the vast majority of Spaniards, the press and media have also seen how little influence they have now on the voting public.

The Socialist leader Pedro Sánchez expressed his support for the "rule of law, in spite of this government," following the vote, but refused to grant the Rajoy government his unqualified support. He was showing again his party's bewilderment at the scope and nature of the Catalan challenge, but also the unpopularity of the Rajoy government beyond its loyalist voters. The Socialists' feeble response to the Catalan issue is not unlike the Labour Party's response in the UK to the challenge of Brexit.

Nevertheless, the same party almost prevented the situation coming to this impasse. El País suggested Monday that going back to the Estatut, or statute of autonomy the last Socialist government had agreed on with the Catalans, and which the conservatives have effectively quashed, could be a way of out of the political pig's ear.

El País, a centrist paper, has otherwise moved closer to the government's positions on Catalonia. It reported that "abstention had won" the day, while many media cited the Catalan government's declaration that 90% of Catalans had voted to separate from Spain. The conservative daily El Mundo reported the Catalan president's intention to declare independence "within days."

Pictures of scuffling and verbal confrontations, and even standoffs between local and national policemen, spread quickly across the media and social networks, showing how the referendum has divided the civil service, amplifying the unease this crisis is causing inside and beyond Spain.

Le Monde observed that Spain and the Catalan region were "diving into the unknown." The daily also pointed out that Europeans were "put ill at ease" by the pictures of violence in Barcelona and elsewhere, and that European Union institutions had not yet commented on the events. The EU has clearly stated its respect for the existing territorial and constitutional makeup in Spain, but any Spanish conservative might have noted that the block had taken very few, vigorous postures against the Catalans. The hesitant response is perhaps as dangerous as the brazen challenge the Catalans have mounted against the current shape of the Europe.

Outside the Old Continent, a commentator in Colombia's El Espectador observed that the picture of disarray emerging from Spain was yet another example of the poisonous power of social networking sites, where "there is neither God nor law, no order or control or any way of differentiating between fake and real." Mexican daily Milenio largely dismissed the Catalan cause, citing Rajoy's claim that the "law had been upheld," while Excelsior, another top daily in Mexico, suggested that Rajoy was largely to blame for refusing to sit and talk with the relevant parties in Catalonia.

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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

"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.

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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