Geopolitics

From DC To Euro Debt To Iran War: A Year Of Living Dangerously Lies Ahead

Essay: The world probably won’t end in 2012, as some apocalyptic theorists predict. But things still look a bit scary, even from the relatively stable confines of Latin America, as an ever-interconnected global map sizzles with conflict.

From DC To Euro Debt To Iran War: A Year Of Living Dangerously Lies Ahead
Rodrigo Lara Serrano

BUENOS AIRESA convoy of hearses left the cemetery in Thessaloniki, Greece and made its way to the government's nearby regional headquarters. To the relief of the civil servants watching from the windows, the vehicles were empty – except for the drivers, who arrived en masse to protest a recent tax hike. Hearse costs have recently shot up in Greece thanks to a government decision to upgrade them to the "private car" category, alongside luxury brands like Ferraris or Aston Martins. Athens, as the late December demonstration underscores, is keen to exploit even the smallest source of income in its desperate – and possibly futile – effort to remain in the euro zone.

Europe has other serious concerns as well, including the fact that its "fairy godmother," otherwise known as the European Central Bank (ECB), has proven to be overly stingy, refusing to offer Eurobonds to secure national debt, which could otherwise be an egalitarian way to share the debt burden. Indeed, the euro could become a global time bomb in 2012.

One possibility is that it will suddenly collapse in a wave of panic triggered by the default of a couple of nations. A report by Nomura Bank explains how such a scenario could play out. The French public and private sectors hold about $540 billion of Italy's sovereign debt, according to the report. If Italy were to default on that debt, France would lose the equivalent of 16.3% of its 2010 GDP and French debt would increase to about 90% of its GDP. France is exposed to $887 billion of debt belonging to countries on the periphery of the euro zone. If more countries were to default, French debt could hit 120% of GDP.

Preventing that scenario will require strict austerity measures. But that "cure" would well catapult the euro zone economies into a prolonged recession. "The crisis is currently showing itself through budget constraints, and at the same time growth is scarce," says Jérôme Creel, economist at ESCP Europe Business School. The paradox, he explains, is that "the measures adopted can make things worse. If budgets are cut, slow growth may decline into a recession and public debt could even increase. The cure is worse than the disease."

As far as Latin America is concerned, the really tragic aspect is that, despite jokes about the growing irrelevance of Europe, it currently purchases between 20% and 40% of Latin American exports. Europe also invests heavily in Latin America, and contributes more than any other region in terms of the donations and philanthropic aid Latin America receives.

America"s unsettling election

The 2012 U.S. presidential elections could make matters even worse, particularly if Ron Paul or Newt Gingrich end up in the White House. Paul believes Martin Luther King was a pedophile "who seduced underage boys and girls." Gingrich is obsessed with the apocalyptic science-fiction book "One Second After" which tells the story of how an electromagnetic pulse attack causes us to "lose our civilization in a matter of seconds." Both are vying for the Republican Party nomination. Far from being eccentric outcasts, they are both long-time legislators.

Their principal rival is Mitt Romney, ex-governor of Massachusetts, who comes off as a moderate man of the world: he successfully organized the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, was a super successful private equity manager, he gets on well with the French... and even speaks their language! As if that's not enough, he increased taxes during his time as governor to successfully eliminate the deficit. The problem is his religion: he's a Mormon. The Christian fundamentalist base of the Republican party may refuse to accept him.

"I don't think the GOP has found a candidate who can compete with Obama yet, however defiant they might like to come across," says Dr. Khatchik Der Ghougassian, and international relations professor at the University of San Andrés in Buenos Aires.

The world could become a lot more unpredictable if Gingrich comes to power. He has already forecast attacks against North Korea and Iran to destroy their military arsenals. Paul, on the other hand, preaches international disengagement, which would include abandoning the United Nations, NATO, NAFTA and WTO. That's not all. As a follower of Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, two eminent liberal economists, Paul proposes abolishing the Federal Reserve and the public health system. To cap it all, he believes global warming is a myth created by scientists. Such a return to 18th century ideology could trigger a 10th century-style global recession.

Suicidal brinksmanship

Israel has atomic bombs, but won't admit it. Iran has uranium to make atomic bombs and won't deny it intends to produce them. The United States says it wants the best for Iran, yet sends spy planes and threatens to attack. Iran insists it's a democratic country, but allows a group of people whose specialty is communicating with God to decide which members of the opposition to throw in prison. Israelis were appalled when Iran said their country should be erased from the map, but they find it acceptable to deny Palestine their place on the map. The U.S. Congress blindly supports Israel's actions, but some just do it because of peculiar religious beliefs: Israel has to exist to provoke Armageddon in order for Christ to return to Earth.

Three years before her death in May 2011, the British psychoanalyst Hanna Segal gave her last interview. She maintained that "when mad things start happening, it's when subgroups get out of control, and particularly when they combine: God, money and the military is a particularly deadly combination."

That is exactly the combination being cooked up between Israel and Iran. Just a few weeks ago, Robert J. Einhorn, an American diplomat, visited South Korea. His mission? To convince the allied government of Seoul to stop buying Iranian petrochemicals. Iran is currently the third largest exporter of oil and petroleum products in the world and South Korea is one of its top five buyers.

The U.S. plan is that, without revenue from South Korea, Teheran's economy, already in a bad way due to multiple restrictions placed on it, could enter a period of crisis that could eventually cause the regime to collapse. This didn't work with Cuba, or with South Africa, and it won't work with Iran either. But Einhorn, special advisor for non-proliferation and arms control, believes that embargos represent a useful diplomatic option to avoid things turning violent.

With this brewing, 2012 could be a very bad year if one of the players in this game loses its cool and thus loses control of the situation. The spark may well be Israel bombing Iranian nuclear plants. How would Iran respond? With its usual missiles? That would be a crazy war: no land attacks, just a few planes fighting against lots of missiles.

Another possibility is that Teheran closes the Strait of Hormuz, which is just 54 kilometers wide. Iran controls one of its coasts, Oman and the United Arab Emirates the other. Some 15.5 million barrels of crude oil pass through the strait each day, one sixth of the world's total consumption. Between Dec. 24, 2011 and Jan. 3, 2012, the Iranian navy undertook maneuvers covering 2,000 km between the Indian Ocean and the strait, just to show that they can. If Iran closed the strait, this would lead to a confrontation with the Fifth Fleet of the United States, which includes the Bahrain-based Combined Task Force 150, whose job it is to protect the strait. This is a multinational fleet with ships from 16 nations.

If Iran were to sink an American ship, that would result in war with Washington, the consequences of which are difficult to judge: Iran is not Iraq. Iran has 78 million inhabitants and two parallel armed forces (the Islamic Republic forces with 550,000 men, and the Army of the Dependents of the Islamic Revolution with 120,000) as well as a paramilitary force (Basij) with 90,000 members and 300,000 reserves. Unless the regime collapses, an invasion would appear to be outside of U.S. capabilities, although this doesn't prevent them from undertaking a long spell of bombing.

This would cause the price of oil to rise significantly, possibly reaching distressing levels if Saudi Arabian refineries, surrounded by hostilities, were to be damaged. The world economy would end up coming to a standstill, the American recovery would be aborted and, as it did with the second Iraq war, the United States would once again commit itself to budget suicide. There are few other combinations of scenarios as unacceptable -- and deadly -- as this one.

Read more from América Economía in Spanish

Photo – Marc Falardeau

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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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