Seeking Justice For South Korean Ferry's Lost Children

Kwon Oh-hyun, whose younger brother didn’t make it off the ferry.
Kwon Oh-hyun, whose younger brother didn’t make it off the ferry.
Jason Strother

ANSAN — It's been over three months since the South Korean Sewol ferry capsized, killing 300 passengers onboard. It was a tragedy that sparked government reforms and national soul searching. But understandably, it's been much more challenging for the families of the victims, almost all of whom attended the same high school.

The temporary memorial that was created after the April 16 ferry disaster is a giant, air-conditioned tent with an enormous alter that holds framed pictures of the high school students who died when the ship went down.

Flowers have been laid out in front of them, and there are packages of food. A note from a mother of one of the children says that she hopes to see her son again one day.

Here, 27-year-old Kwon Oh-hyun points to the portrait of his younger brother, pictured in his school uniform. His name was Kwon Oh-chun, and he was 16 years old.

"For about 15 years, we shared the same room, even the same bed," Kwon says. "Right after he passed away, it was very difficult for me to sleep in that room. For about a week or so, I ended up sleeping in my car. I couldn't bear to go back into that room."

The memorial here in Ansan is the center of grieving for the entire country. It's also the place where the families of the victims come to try to find solace. Tents are set up outside that offer various services for these relatives. Among them, legal advice.

"The parents who come here want to know how they can get support from the government, especially for single parents or how to take their childrens' pictures down off of websites," says attorney Jo Ah-ra.

But Kwon Oh-hyun, who acts as a spokesperson for families of the Sewol victims, says many of the relatives need more than just legal advice. Following the accident, many quit their jobs. He says some just stay home and mourn. The government is helping, but it might not be enough.

"The government is giving us some living support and psychological counseling," he says. "But this type of help is limited. We only get two months of stipend. And the trauma counseling is only for one year. Does that mean we re supposed to feel better a year from now?"

Some might not feel closure until it is finally determined what caused the ferry to sink. Kwon says they hope that some answers will come during the pre-trial court hearings now underway.

Making the crew accountable

South Korean television aired footage of Sewol captain Lee Joon-seok being led handcuffed into court. He and three other crew members have been charged with negligent homicide. If convicted, they could spend the rest of their lives in jail, or even face the death penalty.

Kwon Oh-hyun says family members have been attending the court hearings. And what they've seen so far isn't sitting well with them.

"Some of the defendants have been falling asleep inside the court," Kwon says. "I think some of us would really like to just beat them up."

But despite those emotions, he says he'll wait until all the evidence is in before making his own judgment, adding that he doubts the accident can be blamed solely on the captain.

"It's difficult to point to a single individual or entity to blame for this disaster," he says. "I feel that the fundamental fault lies with the government system. The coast guard wasn't properly trained to handle this emergency. The Chonghaejin Marine Company also didn't prepare their crew to respond properly to this kind of situation. It was an overall lack of safety standards in this country."

But perhaps the most significant evidence against the Sewol crew might come from the survivors themselves. Some have already testified confidentially in court about what they experienced when the boat went down.

Their experience was no doubt similar to that of 17-year-old Kwon Ji-hyuk, with whom I spoke shortly after the April disaster.

"I was on the fourth floor on the boat," he recalls. "There were 60 to 70 people with me. The water started rising. Since I was in front of the ship, I saw the water coming. When I saw it, I yelled to my friends to jump, and I jumped. Only about 10 people jumped. The rest stayed. The water came really fast. The ship sank fast."

For him, it's clear who's to blame.

"I'm really angry at the ferry crew. If we had had the right directions, then maybe more of my friends on the fourth floor would have survived. We had no idea what to do. All I could do was just jump off the boat."

As for Kwon Oh-hyun, whose younger brother didn't make it off the ferry, he says he and his family are doing the best they can to cope with their loss.

"It's not been easy for my family," he says. "Last year our father died, and we weren't even over that when my brother was killed. We have felt absolutely devastated. But now, our lives have been getting back to normal. My mother is working again, and I am doing what I can to work with the families of the other victims. I hope what I am doing helps the investigation into what happened. It was an accident that should have been prevented."

Kwon hopes that by doing his part for the victims' families, it will help his brother and all his classmates rest in peace.

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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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