NORCIA â€" Every tragedy has its symbol, a photograph, often, that sticks in people's minds and encapsulates with profound immediacy the raw experience at hand. Sunday's earthquake in Central Italy is no exception.
In the image, a few rays of sunlight illuminate a group of nuns and displaced elderly residents praying in the devastated town of Norcia, in front of the crumbling remains of the town's famous basilica. There are five women in the foreground and the oldest, in a wheelchair, is calmly chatting to her friend.
If it wasn't a color photo, the image of warlike destruction would look like a scene pulled from a neorealist film of the post-war era. But the scenes of devastation plaguing central Italy don't just resemble the years following World War II â€" they are its second coming.
It's not only the central regions of Italy that live in constant fear of violent tremors â€" the whole country rests on highly seismic land that we no longer seem to comprehend. As they did in the post-war years and during other periods of crisis, the Italian people must unite around their own identity and their most important values: courage and generosity.
We live in a time of divisiveness, when our egos and fears are getting the better of us and we put up walls and shut our doors and windows. We turn to anger so that we can ignore the anguish eating us up inside. But in the aftermath of these earthquakes, it's time to return to our origins and rediscover what we were taught by our parents and grandparents, those who once rebuilt this country from the ashes of the war.
Politicians will have to do their jobs and rebuild quickly, this time according to seismic construction norms to ensure safety, and then invest significant funds to revitalize the economies of the many towns in the large earthquake zone. Most importantly, the destroyed churches, hamlets, castles, and bell towers that are the beating heart of provincial Italian life must be restored to their former glory.
There will be the usual controversies and the road to recovery will not be easy, but here and now our mission must be made clear. We must stay beside the victims of this disaster and once again become the country that â€" as a product of Catholicism and Socialism â€" knows how to express extraordinary solidarity.
Earthquakes evoke atavistic fears. They shake us awake at night when we're least expecting it, the way tales of monsters scare little children. Like in times of war, those most in need of our help among the displaced are young children and the ailing elderly. Even the smallest gesture of kindness we make can be important and decisive, because in times of crisis communities either disintegrate into disparate individuals or reunite as a collective, stronger and closer than before.
After Sept. 11 we all loved New York; after Charlie Hebdo we were all Charlie; after the Bataclan we all rushed to the cafés of Paris. Today, those crumbling houses in Central Italy are our houses. That woman on the wheelchair in the photo is our mother, our grandmother â€" we cannot abandon her.
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.
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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