Earthquakes And The Wealth Divide: Comparing Japan, Italy, Haiti

Earthquakes And The Wealth Divide: Comparing Japan, Italy, Haiti

An Italian geologist explains disaster tolls' links to poverty and bad planning, and why Japan's quake damage could have been much worse. But the tsunami is a reminder that even prevention has its limits.

Japanese quake (Yuichiro Haga)

They have survived the end of the world, the "Big One," the most powerful of them all. Friday's earthquake in northern Japan was the one that's been coming since the last mega-temblor in 1923, when only a few buildings were left standing and an entire nation was left in shock. This was the one you can only survive through culture and awareness, if you've been trained for an emergency, and if construction has been sound.

They are men and women like us, the Japanese, but they managed to stay calm as the earth was shaking. In the face of one of the six or seven most powerful earthquakes ever, they exited in an orderly fashion from the skyscrapers that had just stopped swaying like trees in the wind. They didn't wail against "nature's assassin" or the "killer quake."

In Japan, catastrophic events that are yet to come are called "tokai" or "chokkagata," which expresses an awareness of the future's inevitability. Earthquakes, like volcanic eruptions, are part of both national and personal daily planning.

A quake like the one in Sendai would have caused tens of thousands of deaths in Italy and hundreds of thousands in Iran. Certainly a quake like the 6.3-magnitude one that hit L'Aquila two years ago wouldn't have even knocked over a book shelf in Japan. In and around the Italian city, 300 people were killed.

In the future, natural disasters of catastrophic proportions will be marked by a class division that is already evident today: well-prepared rich countries can avoid an apocalyptic toll, poor nations that can't prepare themselves won't -- as was shown by the 7.0 magnitude quake in Haiti, which killed some 317,000. And within those nations, the desperate who are crammed in favelas on the edges of cities are more at risk than those who live in safer zones.

But this quake is something more. It is evidence that prevention is the only serious and scientific tool that really works, which actually allows a nation to save money in case of an emergency. Instead of going after the delusional idea of a prediction that has so far proven impossible, it would be good to follow the lead of the country that has the best prevention in the world, one that relies on research and ultimately on a centuries-long culture of risk assessment.

Anti-quake drills, which in Italy would be contrasted with superstitious rituals, over there actually save lives: when the earth is shaking underneath one's feet and panic takes hold, repeating a well-rehearsed routine saves more lives than saying the rosary.

A citizen of Tokyo has a 40 percent chance that a 7-magnitude quake will hit his or her land within the next 10 years, as the islands that make up Japan are located right at the point where the Pacific plate and the Asia plate enter into contact, generating quakes and eruptions. It has been this way long before men appeared on the Earth, and it will be so for a long time to come. Everybody in Japan knows that, and nobody is interested in placing blame on destiny.

Still, a seaquake – a tsunami -- is a whole different story. It runs as fast as a jet, some 800 kilometers per hour, and in the open sea nobody can feel it. As soon as it reaches the coastline, where the waters becoming more shallow, it can generate waves as tall as buildings, as it unleashes a power that can uproot everything that stands in its way.

One can only defend oneself from such a powerful tsunami by getting as far away as possible from the coast, and as high up as possible. Most people's lives take place within two meters of the earth's surface, and there is no cement strong enough against the tsunami. (Japan actually did try anti-tsunami walls but they never worked)

For this reason, the tsunami will end up being much deadlier than the quake itself: no warning system can work when there's so little time. Immunity from natural disaster is simply not within human reach.

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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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