Open Wounds In Ukraine A Year After Losing Crimea

Separated families, refugees and a deeper sense of national loss for Ukrainians who saw an entire region of their country taken over by Russia last March.

Where to now?
Where to now?
Pavel Sheremet

KIEV — Every Sunday, in central Kiev's Saint Sophia Cathedral, Crimea is remembered. In March, for example, there was discussion about the town of Bakhchysarai. Beautiful photographs were displayed, legends retold, and a round of historical trivia. Then everyone was taught a traditional Crimean Tatar dance.

In February, they talked about Alushta and Armyansk. They plan to continue through all of the Crimean cities and places where Crimean Tatars live. The sessions are led by professional historians and migrants from those cities, who have left Crimea in recent months.

Watching these discussions is an emotional experience, the pain palpable amidst the loss of these people's homeland and the loved ones who stayed on the other side of the new border.

Tamara, a young Ukrainian journalist who works for a fashion magazine, visits her parents once a month in their small Crimean village. Last time, she walked five kilometers in a frigid wind between the two checkpoints on the new border, because the trip is significantly longer by car, in which those sad five kilometers can take as long as 10 hours to cross.

There are no planes that fly between Ukraine and Crimea, she explains. The train, which is packed even on weekdays, is the most reliable transportation, but it only goes to the border, stopping 20 kilometers from the end of Ukrainian territory. There isn't even a bus from the train station, just a crowd of taxis to transport the many passengers.

They travel silently, afraid to let something slip that would run afoul of the Ukrainian or Russian military. Tamara and her sister moved to Kiev several years ago, and now they worry about their parents. Their mother has gotten sick from all the stress.

"I finally understood the feeling that I get from Crimea today," Tamara recalls. "It's a feeling of total isolation from the world, which is almost like a feeling of being protected. It's like being under a dome that both suffocates and protects at the same time."

Though she says she's grateful to live in Kiev, the usual feelings of upheaval and fear return on her way back to the city. "The taxi driver talks about how he has to stoop to driving people between the border," she says. "Then you spend several hours waiting for the train in this tiny town, where they don't even have a normal toilet. You see all this poverty, and for a minute you want to go back under the dome. Then you remember how hard it is to breathe there. And that deceptive feeling of safety turns into total despair."

Separated families. That's the most immediate tragedy. Tens of thousands of separated families. Active, upwardly mobile youth looking to improve their careers moved to Kiev. Now the kids are in Ukraine and the parents are in Crimea, and between them there's an increasingly hard-to-scale wall. Even if the children and parents look at the events through a purely political lens, they all suffer personally from the destruction of the previously common territory.

Sevgil Musaeva, editor-in-chief of Ukrainian Pravda, can't visit her parents in Crimea. She was active in the volunteer organization "Crimea SOS" and protested the annexation. Now she's on the enemies list created by the Crimean special services. "I remember Crimea every day," she says. "I dream of our home. I haven't been home in eight months."

Her mother won't take Russian citizenship on principle, and she has to travel to Kiev soon for medical treatment because the local hospital refused her for lack of Russian documents. Musaeva wants her parents to move to Kiev, but they don't want to leave the home that they built after returning to Crimea from Uzbekistan in the 1990s.

Lost Crimeans

According to official statistics, 20,000 people have fled Crimea, 10,000 of them Crimean Tatars. In reality, experts say, the number of refugees is many times higher, because most people don't apply for refugee status. It's a lot of trouble and the benefits amount to almost nothing. Most assistance comes from volunteer organizations that help refugees move from Crimea and establish themselves elsewhere. According to Crimea SOS, 110,000 former residents of Crimea have sought help from the organization.

Rustem Skibin was the first official refugee from Crimea. He was given that status on March 1, 2014. A well-known artist and Crimean Tatar, he has collected ancient and modern Crimean ceramics. "I'm an artist, and I study Crimean history and the history of Crimean Tatars," he says. "After armed individuals seized the High Council building and the police did nothing, I understood that there was no reason to wait, and I decided to bring my collection to the mainland."

Ukraine President Poroshenko last week. Photo: Aleksandr Osipov

Skibin opened a new studio and a new gallery in Kiev. He volunteers to help refugees establish themselves, and travels around Ukraine teaching people about the culture and traditions of the Crimean Tatars. Skibin is an optimist, and he thinks he'll be able to return home in a couple of years. Most Crimean refugees think they will be able to go home in a couple of decades.

The Kiev Institute of Sociology and the University of Maryland recently published the results of a major sociological survey titled "Ukraine in a Crisis Situation," and one of the questions was related to the Crimean problem. A third of Ukrainian citizens think Crimea is part of Ukraine and that its return should be a priority.

Polling Ukrainians

For 51% of the country, the territorial loss isn't something they're willing to accept. But neither is it a top national priority. On the other hand, 18% of the population has come to terms with the loss. There's a strong regional element, though. In the west and north, only 5% of the population accepts the loss of Crimea whereas in the east, 41% of Ukrainians do.

Politicians talk frequently about retaking Crimea, but that problem is less urgent than the war in the eastern part of the country and the economic crisis. "Unfortunately, our government doesn't have a strategy in the fight for Crimea," Musaeva admits.

Crimea will come back to Ukraine, President Petro Poroshenko said recently, but it will require several steps. "The first step is human rights," he said. "That is the first priority I have given to government services. Secondly, legal protection for property in Crimea, both government and corporate property. Third, we should collect all weapons that are in Crimea."

He said the most important thing was to show that people live better on "this side" of the border. He is convinced that Crimeans have had their eyes opened. "The sanctions work," he said. "People aren't going there on vacation, and the increase in pensions has been swallowed by the ruble's devaluation."

Government inaction

There is no indication that Poroshenko's theory is correct. And the idea of "opening their eyes" is a dangerous one. What might they see? For example, Crimeans might note that a year after the annexation, the Ukrainian government has yet to take a single official step towards protecting its interests in Crimea, despite the fact that many Ukrainian businesspeople, including the president himself, lost property there.

"In a year, not a single lawsuit about lost property has been filed in an international court," Musaeva says. "In the Justice Ministry they always have some sort of excuse for our questions. Maybe they don't feel like doing it or they don't have the specialists, it's not clear. Ukraine's prime minister is always promising to return Crimean businesses to Ukraine, but he doesn't do anything."

People say that a group of refugees plans to file a suit for lost property in the European Human Rights Court in an effort to fight Russia's annexation of Crimea and to demand compensation from Moscow for lost property. But whether the Ukrainian government will take any action remains to be seen.

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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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