PARIS - Everyone was expecting Mahmoud Abbas. Serious rumors claimed that, given his success at the UN, the president of the Palestinian Authority would head for Gaza, where he hasn’t set foot since 2007, when Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in a coup.
In the end, the surprise came from Khaled Meshaal, Hamas’s exiled political leader. On December 7, after entering from Egypt at the Rafah border crossing, Israel’s former public enemy No. 1 – who escaped an assassination attempt from the Israeli secret service agency Mossad in 1997 – stepped in the Palestinian enclave for the first time in his life.
Officially, Khaled Meshaal only came to attend the 25th anniversary of Hamas, founded in Dec. 1987 – shortly after the beginning of the first Intifada. Tens of thousands of Palestinians turned out last Saturday in Gaza city to celebrate the anniversary. A giant replica of the type of rockets Hamas launched last month towards Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv was displayed in Gaza’s main square.
On Sunday, Meshaal flew to Doha, Qatar, his new headquarters since he split with Bashar al-Assad and had to leave Syria.
In Gaza, the political meaning of Meshaal’s whirlwind visit was no secret. He recently received hundreds of millions of dollars from Qatar, as well as the support of Egypt, whose mediation with Israel led to a ceasefire after eight days of devastating bombings. The Hamas leader was in Gaza to show that he is a force to be reckoned with.
“This is Meshaal’s moment," says Omar Chaaban, the director of a Gaza think tank. "He is here to show that he is the leader of the Islamic movement outside but also inside the country, and that he has what it takes to lead the Palestinian cause.”
Walking around among the crowd, hugging every political leader and public figure in Gaza, the Silwad-born man -- a West Bank village that he left in 1967 at age 11 for Kuwait with his parents – hopes to further his stance, which is more and more divergent from the Hamas doctrine.
He is defending a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, and while he doesn’t explicitly recognize the state of Israel, he accepts negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, led by Mahmoud Abbas. He also advocates reconciliation with the rival Fatah movement, which governs the autonomous parts of the West Bank.
His positions create dissensions within the party but have gotten the attention of Western and Arab countries, even if they are still boycotting what they continue to consider a terrorist movement.
Following Arafat’s footsteps
Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu didn’t oppose Meshaal’s public appearance in Gaza, whereas he had earlier told Egypt that Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader, Ramadan Abdullah Shallah was persona non grata. Netanyahu, surprisingly enough, was the man who ordered Mossad to assassinate Meshaal in 1997, during his first term as Prime Minister. The whole operation turned out to be a fiasco, but earned Meshaal his now slightly dated status of public enemy number one.
“Meshaal is following Yasser Arafat’s footsteps," says political scientist Mehdi Abdel Hadi. "He is slowly shifting away from his movement’s original doctrine in order to earn an international stature.” This evolution was boosted by the Arab spring, explains International Crisis Group analyst Robert Blecher: “Many Hamas officials thought that now that Islamists were in charge, the balance of powers was shifting in their direction and that all they needed to do was wait and see. Meshaal thought the opposite – that they needed to insert themselves in the new regional order even if it meant making a few concessions. Egypt’s key role in the Gaza conflict validated his approach.”
In such a promising context, will Meshaal turn down a new mandate as Hamas' political leader? He has recently said that he would not stand for reelection as head of the movement, which he’s been leading since 1996. The vote has been postponed many times but may occur at the end of the year in complete secrecy, as is customary within Hamas.
“Whatever happens," says Gaza based analyst Azmi Kichaoui, "Khaled Meshaal will stay in the Palestinian political landscape. Hamas is getting more popular by the day. In the middle term, it will probably become Fatah’s successor. This is how History goes. When Mahmoud Abbas gives up his position, all eyes will turn to Khaled Meshaal.”
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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