Summer Plans? Russians Take Their Protests On The Road

More and more people are criss-crossing Russia to take part in protest actions, spawning a new breed of "political tourists" just in time for the summer travel season.

Combining activism with tourism (Person behind the scenes)
Combining activism with tourism (Person behind the scenes)
Maria Portnyagina

MOSCOW - "I specially planned my vacation so I could come to Moscow for the ‘March of the Millions," said Tatyana Ulyanovska, a preschool teacher from Stavropol with a menacing look.

"I wanted to show that there are people who care outside of Moscow." Pointing to Aleksei C., the Muscovite walking with her, she said: "I wouldn't have made it without him. He let me stay with him."

Tatyana and Aleksei met two months ago, when they were both in Astrakhan to support an anti-establishment mayoral candidate. Aleksei is also Tatyana's tour guide - like many visitors who come to Moscow for political activism, she wants to see the movement's "monuments," such as Chistye Prudy, where protesters camped ‘occupy"-style for days after protests in early May.

Of the 30 protesters arrested during the protests on May 16, only about half were from Moscow, police sources say. "Regional activists bring large-scale participation to the capital," says Aleksei Makarkin, vice-president of the Center of Political Technology. "For them, a trip to Moscow is a way to get to know Muscovites. They have their own strengths, like a strong presence on the Internet and ability to get the attention of the national press. But it goes both ways. The opposition members in Moscow, who are often accused of being out of touch with the rest of the country, are interested in visiting the rest of Russia, too."

Meeting Up Online

Nika Kakobyan, 25, and Stepa Perelyak, 22, both live in Stavropol, but they met for the first time when they went to Astrakhan together to support Oleg Shein, the opposition mayoral candidate. The two young women met online, bought their tickets together and traveled to Astrakhan together. When they checked into the hotel, both indicated "political tourism" as the reason for their visit. "It's unlikely that I would have come to Astrakhan otherwise," Step said. "Since I had the time, I decided to come to the protest and see the city at the same time. Of course, political motives are the most important reason for my visit. Tourism is second to that, but it's not unimportant. It's an opportunity to see the country."

"But this is serious business, without the carelessness of regular tourism, make sure to write that," Nika added.

Whether or not it is serious business, thousands of Russians have started traveling around the country - from the capital to the regions, from the regions to Moscow and from regions to regions. The first major attraction for political tourists was the mayoral elections in early April in Yaroslavl, where several hundred political tourists from Moscow and elsewhere acted as observers. The "March of the Millions' in Moscow on May 6 and June 12 both attracted thousands of participants from all around the country.

Like regular tourists, political tourists have to worry about transportation and accommodations. But they also have to worry about connections - calls to fellow protesters, Internet connections for blog posts, and in the worst-case scenario, calls to a lawyer. A specialized "travel agency" was created to try to meet some of those needs. Two photographers from Samara, in southeastern Russia, started an organization called RosDesant, to collect donations to help people who want to travel to "hot spots." The organization has already managed to send 200 people to protests, and the protesters have come from all over Russia. RosDesant has also started its own "security service," to weed out people who are just trying to get a free trip, as well as to make sure minors aren't participating.

Others have found ways to make trips possible on their own, even if they don't have the money. Muscovite Artyem Aivasov only had around $200 to his name, not enough for a protest trip to Astrakhan. So he put out a call on Twitter for financial help, and doubled his resources, allowing him to make him the trip. He got donations from people that he did not know.

Sometimes getting to the protest can be an adventure in and of itself. On the eve of the protests in Moscow on May 6, buses filled with political tourists from St. Petersburg and Ufa were delayed by police under the pretext of document inspection.

Not for everybody

On forums, political tourists trade information about the best places to stay and the cheapest ways to get to hot spots. There is an Internet forum specially dedicated to people looking for local hosts to stay with and hosts looking for guests. Most of the hosts offer to give the guests from out of town tours of the city. Hosts compete with each other to offer the best conditions, hoping to get the most interesting activists as guests.

Other forums offer advice, like how to behave if you are arrested and how to hitchhike.

Of course, this kind of travel is not for everyone. Political travellers are usually young people, without too many family or professional responsibilities, which allows them a flexible enough schedule to take off for a protest. And some protesters see it as less risky then taking part in protest actions close to home.

But there are others who believe that people moving around the country for political reasons is dangerous business. Aleksei Mukhin, director of the Center of Political Information, thinks the trend is risky not for individuals, but for the country's political system. "You can talk about the revolutionary virus. The countryside, even though it hates Moscow, copies Moscow." He is afraid that people from outside Moscow bring greater radicalization to the capital, making the situation much more volatile.

There is no doubt that political tourism has become a real phenomenon in Russia. The question, then, is whether or not that is a good thing. The answer might depend on your political point of view.

Read the original article in Russian.

Photo - Person behind the scenes

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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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