Moscow And The Middle East - How The Arab Spring Left Russia In The Cold

Delayed by the popular uprisings in the Arab world, the first-ever summit between Russia and the Arab League is on this week in Moscow. Though Syria is on the agenda, many the questions linger.

Putin and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas last June
Putin and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas last June
Maria Efimova and Yelena Chernenko

MOSCOW - The Russian-Arab Partnership Forum was born in December 2009. At the time, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the General Secretary of the Arab League, Amr Musa, signed a memorandum proclaiming that Russia and the Arab world’s partnership would rise to a new level.

Just over a year later, the Arab Spring was rocking the Middle East, and the first meeting scheduled for 2011 had to be postponed. Amongst its many effects, the popular uprising would wind up complicating the relationship between Russian and the Arab world, where regime change was called for, and sometimes achieved, in places like Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria.

In some cases Russia was hesitant about regime change, and downright hostile in the case of Libya and Syria. So the Partnership Forum didn’t manage to meet in 2012 either.

But now, for the first time, the meeting is taking place in the Russian capital. The invitees to this week’s summit in Moscow represent the Arab League and many of its member countries, including Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon and Libya.

Assembling such a large number of representatives was possible thanks largely to the apparent impasse in Syria. “There’s not as many contradictions as before,” explained Elena Suponina, head of the Russian Institute for the Study of Asia and the Near East. “It is clear to everyone that one side is not going to win decisively, so there has to be a political resolution.”

There were two major goals in this meeting between the Arab representatives and Russia: limiting weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East and bringing a resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. But whatever Russia and the Arab countries might want, Israel and Iran will get in the way of any international conference on the first topic. And the second issue, long-hanging over the region, seems like a virtual non-starter these days.

Regardless, a resolution to the Israel-Palestine issue is on the table during the meeting in Moscow. Russia thinks that the Arab League should join the "quartet," which now includes Russia, the U.S., the United Nations and EU. The United Nations and EU are in favor of the idea, but the United States is skeptical (largely because of Israel’s position, which maintains that the Arab League does not need to be involved).

According to Russian diplomats, the new Forum should also focus on expanding trade between Russia and the Arab world, including the creation of a Russian-Arab trade council. Since Russia has lost most of its former position in the Arab world due to the political changes, building stronger trade relationships is perhaps the key to building a better relationship.

“The plans that Russia had in relation to the Middle East were all destroyed in the past couple years,” explained Suponina. “It’s also going to be difficult to establish investment and construction projects, as well as weapons contracts, because the region is still changing.”

For example, in spite of the efforts of many Russian delegations, a multi-billion dollar weapons contract with Libya remains elusive. Tripoli has not forgotten Moscow’s support for the regime of Muammar Gaddafi. That is also why Moscow has been unable to help Russian citizens in Libya sentenced to prison for “supporting Gaddafi.”

That issue will not be among the topics discussed at the Forum’s meeting in Moscow. Libya’s foreign minister was invited, but chose to skip the meeting. As Libyan diplomatic source explained to Kommersant, “The minister is not planning on ever visiting Russia.”

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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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