Politics As Show Biz, From North America To North Korea

Essay: Politicians used to work behind closed doors, now their days are spent moving from one public appearance to the next. A glance at how leadership fashion sense matters more and more, from country to country, from East to West.

Dancing with the Stars: Nancy Pelosi and Donald Tsang
Dancing with the Stars: Nancy Pelosi and Donald Tsang
A Kuai

BEIJING - Film lovers owe a debt of gratitude to European politics. The Old Continent has provided plenty of real-life characters that have been fodder for great cinema.

In particular, there have been some great British politicians portrayed on the silver screen. After "The Queen" played by Helen Mirren, which won her the Oscar for Best Actress for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II, we now await the upcoming "The Iron Lady," the biopic on Britain's first female Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, whose 11 years in power left its mark on the United Kingdom.

Beyond the script and storyline, costumes are always an important element in shooting historical films. From the trailers, Meryl Streep looks fairly convincing, with meticulously set hair, fitting suits and a voice of authority.

Looking back, however, it must be noted that in Margaret Thatcher's time the public didn't seem to connect politicians too closely with what they wore, so long as it wasn't inappropriate.

Today is a different story. Politicians around the world are no longer simply political figures, but also stars and celebrities. They are required to appear in TV programs and make never-ending public presentations. Inevitably this means that they will wind up transmitting their policies through their appearance.

America is the world's best example of the importance of appearance for a nation's political leadership. In the past 30 years, one Hollywood star, Ronald Regan, was elected President, while an action hero, Arnold Schwarzenegger, became California's governor. During their campaigns, they had an advantage not only in their fame, but also in the clever ways they controled their image on TV. Americans joke that if Lincoln were to stand for office today, he definitely would not be elected -- with his messy beard and unpleasant voice.

But beyond Hollywood, more and more politicians are realizing how much appearance matters, and that every time they appear in public, it is indeed a public relations issue.

For instance, Donald Tsang, the Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, always wears a bow tie with a suit to hide the fact that he is not very tall.

Leaders in the West prefer to use their attire to try to transmit an image of being close to people and easy-going. Educated by television, most voters have no patience for listening to any party's policy agenda. They often vote simply according to a candidate's external presentation. Even if Americans complain about President Obama today, he originally won their hearts precisely because of his excellent speaking skills and comfortable appearance.

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel has not changed her outdated suits in the past 15 years. Although some criticize her lack of a woman's fashion sense, it's nevertheless not a bad thing for the Germans who care above all that she is vigorous.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, in a different way, captures the style of a new, energetic Britain, with his Polo shirts and open collars. Now even his rivals are imitating his dress code.

Some people say this kind of show politics based on looks will eventually turn serious political stands into slogans, or even totems. In this case, the original meaning of elections will become irrelevant. Leaders who once were busy getting policy advice will spend more and more time listening to fashion advisors.

Ironically, while politicians in democratic countries tend to be quite similar in their wardrobe choices, leaders in dictatorships generally dress up in a much more freewheeling fashion -- just like their talk. The former Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi was justly called a "fashion madman."

Then there is the recently departed North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il, who wore his khaki-colored jacket with his curly hair no matter how solemn the occasion. It was said to mean simplicity and modesty – he too trying to appear close to the people.

Read the original article in Chinese

Photo-Leader Nancy Pelosi

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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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