Geopolitics

From Colombia, A Passionate Defense Of Casting A Blank Vote

The choice of two radical candidates in Colombia's second round of presidential elections does not oblige people to vote for one or the other. Let them cast a blank vote.

Voting in Bogota. Second round is scheduled for June 17.
Voting in Bogota. Second round is scheduled for June 17.
Arturo Charria

-OpEd-

BOGOTA — As Colombia prepares for a second round of presidential elections, with voters facing two rather divisive candidates, many are arguing that casting blank votes undermines democracy. This idea is reminiscent of the old days, when certain people were simply not allowed to vote. But this time, it is not an explicit prohibition but one weighted by the subtle arrogance of those who like to lay claim to "the truth."

A range of arguments are employed to convince every single citizen to force themselves to choose and cast a vote for either Iván Duque, an ultra conservative, or Gustavo Petro, the socialist former mayor of Bogota.

These "right-minded" people forget that the blank ballot is a clear expression of a citizen's will, a protest even, before the choice of these two particular candidates. The one who votes for the "least bad" candidate or against a possible "dictatorship" is no braver than one who says "no," not once, but twice to unacceptable candidates.

That which crushes liberty is despotism.

Critics of the blank vote call it an immoral or irresponsible choice in the face of the country's future. Yet it is their arguments that are closer to authoritarianism, to the very candidate they say must be fought to prevent the return of ultra-conservative rule, than to the democracy and pluralism they tout so much. Imposing personal criteria steeped in value judgment not only disrespects voters' autonomy and the individual's right to choose, but precisely shows how moral arguments are the basis for and facilitators of the notorious tyranny of majorities.

The vote as we know, like most rights, is a social acquisition. But its value disappears when the elector feels constrained when exercising it. The English political philosopher John Stuart Mill believed such situations were themselves threats to liberty, and that imposing a way of thinking by invoking noble goals threatened political liberty. Whatever "crushes individuality," he wrote in On Liberty, "is despotism, by whatever name it may be called."

Casting a blank vote is not to vote for Duque as many insist, with arguments that sound like blackmail. Nor is it to wash your hands of a dilemma as others say, or even to put the country's peace at risk as others warn more boldly, claiming the atrocities of civil war will return unless you vote for Petro.

Let us be emphatic: Casting a blank ballot is in itself not an expression of approval of one or the other candidate, but a veritable right of a citizen. To deny this is to negate democracy as a deliberative exercise. The person who votes for neither candidate is not without arguments, but rather someone how expresses their utter dismay and dissatisfaction with what is on offer. In Colombia's case, both presidential options will deepen existing tensions and takes us back, through different paths, to the same place of conflict we only recently managed to escape.

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Geopolitics

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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