Leaked diplomatic cables reveal feigned amity, eagerness for the U.S. to take on Iran
Arab leaders eye Iran's Ahmadinejad (Daniella Zalcman)
EYES INSIDE – THE MIDDLE EAST
While its founder makes bail in London, WikiLeaks' revelations are setting off a unique game of truth and consequences in the Arab world, where leaders are used to playing up their brotherly ties for the sake of Arab and Muslim unity.
Nearly every Arab government has been caught in the transcripts revealing policy stances – and points of view -- they would never have uttered publicly. Turns out that many Middle East leaders regularly feign friendship amidst rather clear regional divisions, with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians lined up against Qatar, Syria, Hezbollah and Iran.
Beyond the cringe-worthy personal details (who knew that Libyan leader and ardent African nationalist Muammar Gaddafi has a blonde Ukrainian nurse by his side?), the broader impression that some Arab regimes generally distrust, if not loathe each other, is not new. What WikiLeaks reveals is how acutely aware American diplomats are of the risks of anachronistic national leaderships that continue to resist reform.
Egyptian daily Al Masry Al Youm reported, for example, explanations of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak's waning popularity: "shortages of basic foodstuffs, external political pressures and crackdowns on political adversaries." Civil society crushed, fraudulent elections played out for a media muzzled by press laws, restrictions of personal freedoms, intelligence services that operate outside the law – all handily acknowledged only in private (until now) by American diplomats. An Al Arabiya online article cites an American State Department acknowledging that the cables would cause "major damage," and that rebuilding trust with foreign officials would be a challenge.
The cables also reveal that while Arab leaders are fighting reform at home, they are privately pushing the U.S. militarily to stave off the perceived threats of Iran and Hezbollah. The Now Lebanon website reports that Lebanese Defense Minister Elias Murr was cited in one correspondence offering advice to American officials on how Israel could defeat Hezbollah. He added a pledge to keep the Lebanese army out of the fighting, perhaps the most dangerous revelations yet to emerge in a country where Hezbollah has threatened unspecified action if its members are convicted by a UN-backed tribunal in the February 2005 killing of Rafiq Hariri.
Jordan's King Abdullah appears to be punching above his country's weight, repeatedly imploring the United States to attack Iran. One cable-writer describes
Amman's actual position on Iran as an "octopus' with tentacles that "reach out insidiously to manipulate, foment and undermine the best-laid plans of the West and regional moderates." Following the cable's publication, an unnamed government official denied the report to The Jordan Times, saying that Jordan rejects "any military action against Iran." The King subsequently stated that he is now looking for "practical steps' to improve ties with Iran and has been invited to visit Tehran.
Regional leaders are still reeling from the fallout, and wonder if the revelations will hinder their ability to carry out foreign policy in the future. "If diplomats and leaders can't exchange their views freely on the matters that affect them, then we are all in trouble," senior Saudi royal family member Prince Turki al-Faisal told a conference of leaders from the Persian Gulf region. In especially vivid language, WikiLeaks reported the Saudi desire to target Iran, as King Abdullah privately urged the United States to "cut the head off the snake" on the other side of the Gulf.
American Defense Secretary Robert Gates quickly left for the Gulf where he had a series of meetings in which he softened the snake comment into "general support in the region for applying the sanctions to Iran and for doing what we can to make the sanctions effective."
In Yemen, longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh joked about covering up the fact that the United States is using access to his country to bomb what may or may not be Al-Qaeda militants. Another cable stated that Saleh is using American-trained special forces and equipment against Yemeni rebels in the north. "The key is getting in there before there's a crisis, with economic assistance, with building partnership capacity," Gates said when asked about what could be done in Yemen.
The poorest Arab country with an estimated $1300 per capita income, Yemen has some 350,000 internally displaced persons who had their UN food rations cut in half this past spring because international donors failed to fulfill their pledges. Meanwhile, a weakened government is fighting its own heavily armed people in long-term wars in the north and south along with a flourishing Al-Qaeda presence.
However embarrassing or damaging the WikiLeaks cables are, the Arab world is a region that desperately needs more people to speak frankly, in both private and public.
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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