Royal Father-Son Rift Adds To Belgium’s Leadership Woes

Belgium’s political parties have failed for nearly a year and a half to form a working government. Now its royal family is fueding as well. King Albert II gave his youngest son, Prince Laurent, a public slap on wrist this week by barring him from National

King Albert II of Belgium
King Albert II of Belgium
Stefanie Bolzen

These days, Belgium's king has plenty to worry about. For one thing, his country has been without a government for over 400 days. The Flemish and the French-speaking Walloons cannot agree on a coalition. And now Albert II, 77, has family troubles too. In an unprecedented move in the 181-year history of the Belgian royals: his youngest son, Prince Laurent, was excluded from this week's July 21 National Day festivities.

No military parade in front of the royal palace, no Te Deum in the cathedral for Laurent, 47, or his wife Claire. They won't be there. And, snipes the local press, they're not likely to be taking it in on TV either.

The big rift between father and son in the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha House of Belgium goes back a few months. When Laurent's eldest daughter Louise, 7, recently made her First Communion, King Albert -- according to the newspaper La Capitale – was present at the ceremony only to please his wife, Queen Paola. He didn't exchange a single word with Laurent.

The latest bone of contention was a trip Laurent took to Congo last March. The former Belgian colony was a source of vast riches for the kingdom from the late 19th century until after the Second World War. The human rights abuses perpetrated by Belgians against the Congolese during that period have yet to be properly researched, and for the time being the subject lies dormant.

The political situation in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is in any case extremely tense. Elections are coming up this fall, Brussels, as a result, is walking on eggshells trying to keep its political distance from the African nation. Albert II asked Laurent, therefore, to cancel his trip several times. Prime Minister Yves Leterme also wrote him a letter. And before the date of his departure, there was even a crisis meeting. Laurent got on the plane to Kinshasa anyway. The trip had to do with reforestation projects -- nothing to do with politics, he said.

The word on Laurent is that he perceives himself as misunderstood. He's seeking to win the affection of a father who prefers his first-born son, Philipp, it is said.

As a child, Laurent ran away from the Jesuit boarding school he attended. Later, his love of fast cars earned him the nickname "Full Throttle." He was once stopped by police in Brussels for doing 137 km an hour in a 50 km zone.

The prince rubs many the wrong way. At the newspaper kiosk in the posh Brussels suburb of Tervuren, where he lives, people complain that he pushes past them instead of waiting his turn. Others look askance at the way he parks in the space reserved for the disabled at the British school that his three children attend.

Bigger woes

His exclusion from National Day festivities, which he described on Belgian TV as part of a "palace conspiracy" against him, might have prompted him to throw in the towel -- were it not for the 300,000 euro apanage he receives from state coffers every year for fulfilling his princely duties. As number 12 in line for the throne, Belgium would hardly fall apart without him.

The country is perfectly capable of doing that on its own. The situation has never before been this fraught, and the King's traditional speech reflected that. Belgium's cultural diversity once offered a model for all of Europe. But now the divided Flemish and Walloon camps "could put a spoke in the wheels of European construction, which has already been negatively impacted by Euroskeptics and populists," said the King, who, palace officials say, they have never seen so serious and wound up.

If Flemish nationalist Bart De Wever continues to refuse suggestions put forth by socialist Walloon Elio Di Rupo, members of all the other parties saw in far-reaching compromises made by Di Rupo earlier this month a possible way forward to creating a government.

Or nearly all parties: the sticking point is the Flemish Christian Democrat party, which has so far not taken a stance because it fears compromise could result in a major loss of votes in Flanders. The Christian Democrat party leader is Yves Leterme, who is also acting head of the government.

Read the original article in German

Photo - saigneurdeguerre

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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

"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.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

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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