The Latest: AMLO & COVID, Rescued Miners, Godzilla v. Kong

Eleven gold miners in Qixia, China were rescued yesterday after being trapped underground for two weeks following an explosion.
Eleven gold miners in Qixia, China were rescued yesterday after being trapped underground for two weeks following an explosion.

Welcome to Monday, where AMLO gets COVID, Chinese miners are rescued, and King Kong finds a worthy opponent. Les Echos also takes us to Syria, where coronavirus and a crumbling economy are wreaking havoc in a country already devastated by 10 years of civil war.

Viktor Orban, Xi Jinping and a simple question for the West

The basic precepts of democracy, recently on the line in Washington, have long been discarded by Europe Union member country Hungary. But, columnist Mattia Feltri asks in Italian daily La Stampa: Is anyone pure on such questions these days?

As the world watches Joe Biden's first days in the White House, Viktor Orbán is going strong in Hungary. You may remember he forced the liberal Central European University, founded by his favorite super-villain, George Soros, to leave Budapest between 2017 and 2018, in his quest to create an "illiberal democracy." Now Orbán has recently welcomed a new university to its capital: the Chinese University of Fudan.

It's a prestigious university, as international rankings attest. It will finally have a seat in Europe: a beautiful campus that is expected to house some 6,000 students in economics, international relations, medicine — all trained according to academic criteria that exclude freedom of thought, expunged from the statute and replaced with loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party led by Xi Jinping. Orbán may be a right-wing populist, but when given the chance, he sure knows how to open borders. Orbán had also borrowed money from Beijing to renovate the Budapest-Belgrade railway line.

Now, he is negotiating the purchase of a million doses of the vaccine produced by the state-owned giant Sinopharm, too — because, apparently, Europe is not fast enough. The European Medicines Agency has not approved the Chinese vaccine, but these are trivial details: Orbán told the Hungarian drug agency to speed up with it, and to hell with everyone.

No, it's not just a matter of money: It is that delightful dictatorial approach to life of the Chinese that fascinates him. In fact, Orbán suspended the labor code and canceled collective agreements in his country. Every worker will now be required to observe the hours that the company assigns him or her — without discussion, without going through the fuss of involving a union.

But the real irony of it all is that the West seems confused. Take Italy, for example. Our center-left government led by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has very solid ties with China, while our right-wing opposition has excellent relations with Orbán. They're always arguing, but who knew they actually have so much in common.

Mattia Feltri

COVID-19 latest: Mexican President Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador tests positive for coronavirus, with mild symptoms and plans to continue working from home. Dutch police forces and protesters clashed in several cities over new lockdown measures, while Australia suspends travel bubble with New Zealand after a South African variant case was detected.

Biden's first full week: U.S. President Joe Biden is planning a new wave of executive orders this week, with expectations that he will continue to repeal former President Donald Trump's policies such as the ban on transgender individuals serving in the military.

Chinese miners rescue: Eleven miners trapped in a gold mine in eastern China for 15 days were rescued yesterday. Of the group of 22, ten are confirmed dead and one is still missing.

Bobi Wine freed: Ugandan court has lifted house arrest of presidential challenger Bobi Wine, ruling the move was illegal. The opposition leader has been blocked by security forces in his house since the Jan. 14 election where he had run against incumbent Yoweri Museveni.

Monday markets: Global stocks rise as optimism over Joe Biden's proposed $1.9 million rescue package offsets worries about rising COVID cases and delays in vaccine supplies.

Chinese drug lord arrested: 56-year old billionaire Tse Chi Lop, sometimes nicknamed "Asia's El Chapo" was arrested at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport over the weekend. Tse's drug syndicate is said to be responsible for up to 70% of all narcotics entering Australia.

Godzilla vs. Kong: Warner Bros has released a trailer for its upcoming beast of a movie: Godzilla vs. Kong, out March 26.

Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta features the violent protests in support of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny held in more than 100 cities across the country — an unprecedented geographic scale for opposition rallies.

10 years of war and one of COVID, Syria facing economic abyss

The economic crisis in neighboring Lebanon, coupled with COVID-19 travel restrictions, are causing the already war-ravished nation to drown in even greater misery, reports Laura-Mai Gaveriaux in French daily Les Echos.

For many Syrian residents, the 375 km-long border between Syria and Lebanon has always been an ecosystem where they earned their income. Back and forth trips between the two countries were common. But today, 10 years since the war that ravaged Syria began, the area is now mainly an observation post for all the upheavals that these two interlinked economies are experiencing — even if movements of goods and people have never been fully interrupted.

In recent months, the confluence of crises has increased poverty in Syria to an unprecedented level and has brought Lebanon's economy closer to the point of no return. One symptom of this tragedy: smuggling activities are surging in these traditionally porous border areas, and crime has never fared better. As Samir Aita, president of the Arab Economists Circle, explains: "Syria is on the brink of a massive humanitarian catastrophe."

On top of the war came travel restrictions, starting last March, to contain the spread of COVID-19. That's had the unintended consequence of preventing new currency from entering the country, leading to another fundamentally destructive effect: Essential goods are being diverted and stored, for speculative purposes. This includes flour, which is a huge problem when bread has become the primary food commodity — if not the only one — in some governorates.

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According to protests monitor OVD Info, Russian police arrested a record 3,324 people who took part in weekend protests across dozens of cities in support of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.

"We recognize that getting vaccines to people is a complex problem to solve, and we're committed to doing our part."

— Google and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai announces that Google Maps will begin to display vaccination locations.

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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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