On Edge In Kashmir, Where Neither War Nor Peace Reigns

Indian soldiers on patrol in Srinagar, Kashmir.
Indian soldiers on patrol in Srinagar, Kashmir.
Vanessa Dougnac

SRINAGAR - An eagle boldly splits the air, to and fro, between disputed territories. On the ground, an electrified fence hurtles down the jagged flank of the mountain, bumps into the river, then resumes its straight race up heights.

In the Uri district, in Silikot, the fence sharply cuts an odd borderline: dividing the Muslim province of Kashmir between India and Pakistan, the Line of Control (LoC) embodies the confrontation of two nuclear powers that waged two wars over this rugged Himalayan region.

Built by India in 2004, the fence doesn't always have a clear logic: encircling a cluster of chalets, splitting a forest or forsaking some village like Charunda on the wrong side. Then suddenly, in some places, in front of steep heights, it ceases to exist for a while.

Comprising 550 kilometers of a 740-km demarcation, it aims at blocking "infiltrations" of mujahedins trained on the Pakistani side from crossing over to challenge Indian sovereignty in Kashmir.

India has largely choked off the separatist uprising, which began in 1989: 47,000 soldiers dead, 8,000 civilians "disappeared". With more than half a million soldiers and legions of spies, Kashmir remains hostage to an unprecedented military presence.

"Normally it's calm," says Farooq, who hails from Silikot. Occasionally, soldiers defy one another in skirmishes breaching the 2003 ceasefire agreement.

(On Thursday, four Indian soldiers were killed in an ambush by Muslim militants in Hurdmeer village, the BBC reports)

Back in January, at the Sawan Patra post by the mountain's summit, a Pakistani was killed after India accused its neighbor of cutting one of its soldiers' throat and beheading another. These sporadic reprisals poison Indo-Pakistani relations, which had started afresh in 2011 after being frozen in 2008, when India blamed the Mumbai terror attacks on Lashkar-e-Toiba, a Pakistan-based Islamist group that seeks liberation of Kashmir from Indian control.

Some signs of peace

Well beyond lingering border tensions, the enthusiastic sounds of Indian tourists make a happy hubbub on Lake Dal, near Srinagar, the biggest town in the valley. Couples float along in gondolas, slaloming between lotuses and water lilies. Families indulge in water skiing or the visit of Mughal gardens. Soon, they can also enjoy the Gulmarg ski station, Sonmarg glaciers or Pahalgam's romantic landscapes. War swept away the hashish-smoking hippie flâneurs, but now the Indian middle class is taking over the Kashmiri heaven.

This is the other face India tries to show: normalcy, tourism. "Indeed, terrorism has not yet reached the level zero," concedes the Inspector General of Police Abdul Ghani Mir. "In the valley, 30,000 former mujahedins and 100 active terrorists, both locals and foreigners, are numbered. But the situation is far better than it used to be."

Sameer Yasir, a political analyst at the University of Awantipura, notes that while some checkpoints have been cleared, soldiers in bulletproof vests still roam the countryside. "Yet, there is no reduction of troops on the ground," he says.

The anti-Indian feeling remains strong within the population. Hopes of reconciliation were born when then Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had showed a "friendly hand" to Pakistan in April 2003. But the progress was limited. From summer 2008 onwards, protests erupted in the valley, and a burgeoning movement was repressed by the police, with 112 protesters killed during summer 2010.

Ever since, Kashmir has looked like Lake Dal's troubled waters. During the past winter, the valley was paralyzed by a curfew, enacted to smother protests after the controversial hanging of a Kashmiri convicted for having ties with terrorists.

Attacks continue. "There has been a surge in mujahedin activities because New Delhi has resolved nothing," says Sameer Yasir. "Kashmir remains explosive."

By the rhythm of saffron teas, in the offices of politicians of all parties, disillusion is unanimous. "We are disappointed and pessimistic," says Naim Akthar, spokesman for the People Democratic Party (PDP), in the Opposition, "Our valley has been abandoned by the international community, when inhabitants are under the yoke of a brutal force. India gives a military answer to a political problem."

And the ranks of the mujahedin recruits never seems to dry up. In Sopore, Tawheed describes the circumstances that pushed his brother to take up arms. "In 2010, Aatir was 19, and a serious student. But he was arrested and tortured by the police. He disappeared in August 2012."

On December 18, Aatir was shot dead by security forces, along with four Pakistani mujahedins. "We received his corpse," says his brother, "No one cried: he was celebrated as a martyr."

On a commemorative card, his picture is printed with the caption "Lashkar-e-Toiba mujahedin." Just one year before, he was a student dreaming of a good job in the civil service.

Now, the Baramulla, Sopore or Kupwara youths cast stones and yell slogans at security forces after the Friday prayer. And early death keeps arriving. Gulam Rassul Sodi, a Baramulla resident, weeps for his son Tahir, a 27-year-old PhD student, who was killed on March 15 by the paramilitary that suddenly opened fire on unarmed demonstrators.

According to a report, at least 500 members of the local law enforcement have committed abuses. "There is no improving of the human rights question," confides Zaffar Qurashi, the president of an association of 750 lawyers. "Even children are detained: 300 minors have been arrested for throwing stones."

On a plastic chair, in his Baramulla farm, Nisar looks at his children, who speak to each other in Urdu. As many others, Nisar (not his real name) crossed the border in 1999 to take up arms when he was 21. But this "war of liberation" from Pakistan was not his war. He gave up the kalashnikov to become a fruit and vegetable seller, and started a family.

One day, he heard of an Indian rehabilitation program for former Kashmiri mujahedins to return home. Fourteen 14 years later, he is back in his homeland. "Everything's changed," says the former mujahedin, with a forlorn smile, "But at least, war is over." Peace, however, has yet to arrive.

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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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