Crimea's 96.77%, Malaysia Plane Update, Happy Holi!

Holi celebration in Lahore, Pakistan
Holi celebration in Lahore, Pakistan

Crimeans voted overwhelmingly yesterday to secede from Ukraine and join the Russian Federation. With a turnout of 83%, the measure won support from 96.77% of voters.

  • After the final results were publicized, the Crimean parliament voted as planned to transform the region into an independent state, paving the way for it to enter Russia, Itar-Tass reports. It also nationalized all Ukrainian state assets and made the Russian ruble its official currency. Finally, it announced that the region will shift to Moscow time (which is two hours ahead of Kiev time) at the end of the month. “We're going home. Crimea is going to Russia,” Ria Novosti quoted Crimean Prime Minister Serhiy Aksyonov as saying. According to AFP, Interim Ukrainian President Olexandr Turchynov slammed the vote as “a great farce.”

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin is due to address the Russian Parliament tomorrow, with the Duma expected to move quickly to admit Crimea. As part of Moscow’s attempt at a diplomatic resolution, the Russian Foreign Ministry called on Ukraine to become a federal state and allow its regions greater autonomy, AP reports.

  • Meanwhile, Kiev responded to what it sees as a “war-time situation” by endorsing the partial mobilization of 40,000 reservists, the BBC reports. The Kyiv Post reports that the Parliament approved emergency funds of $600 million for military spending. “We need to put all operating units on alert,” said Andriy Parubiy, founder of the Social National Party of Ukraine (branded as fascist) and Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council.

  • The outcome of the referendum, though anticipated, prompted a new meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels to decide on more Russian sanctions. “We have to think very carefully about what we do,” EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said. British Foreign Minister William Hague, meanwhile, told the BBC he was confident he and Ashton would agree on “some sanctions today, some travel bans, some asset freezes.” According to Itar-Tass, the price of gas was on the rise this morning with investors fearing that sanctions will have a negative impact.

The co-pilot of missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 issued his last message to air traffic control after part of the aircraft’s communication system was manually shut down, The Guardian reports. UK broadcaster Channel 4 explains that this fact, coupled with his relaxed demeanor, suggests that at least one of the pilots “had full knowledge of the scheme to render the plane invisible and fly it off-course.” Investigators are also considering the possibility that the plane was flown at a low height to avoid being detected by radar. According to the BBC, the aircraft is now thought to have flown on either a northern arc (from Thailand to Uzbekistan) or a southern arc over the Indian Ocean.

Hindus celebrated Holi, the popular spring festival of colors, in eastern Pakistan yesterday. See more photos on BBC News.

Some 200 people are feared dead in central Nigerian villages after a group of gunmen attacked residents, including women and children, and set their homes on fire, local website Naij reports. According to The Washington Post, the violence might have been caused “as much by scarcity of resources as sectarian tension” between Muslim cattle herders and Christian farmers. The news comes after the death of at least 16 people in stampedes on Saturday, in five different locations, when half a million people turned up to apply for 5,000 government jobs. Read more from AP.

U.S. Navy Seals have taken control of a tanker loaded with oil from rebel-held areas of Libya, preventing “a breakaway Libyan militia to sell its contents on the black market,” The New York Times quotes the Pentagon as saying. The assault, which took place in international waters south of Cyprus, happened after Libya and Cyprus requested U.S. help.

The Syrian army has retaken the town of Yabroud, the last rebel stronghold near the border with Lebanon, state news agency Sana reports. Over 100,000 people have died in the conflict, which entered its fourth year this weekend. Read more from the BBC.

A magnitude 6.7 quake hit the northern Chilean coast last night, with the epicenter located 60 kilometers northwest of port city Iquique. According to CNN, no injuries or damage were reported, but the authorities ordered some 100,000 to evacuate their homes as a precaution. The tremor comes one week after similar events off the coast of Mexico and California.


… St. Patrick wasn’t Irish? Here are nine other things you might not know about the man.

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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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