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The Latest: Myanmar Coup, Russian Protests, Messi Money

Thousands of protesters took to the streets Sunday across Russia in support of detained Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.
Thousands of protesters took to the streets Sunday across Russia in support of detained Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.

Welcome to Monday, where the army seizes power in Myanmar coup, weekend protests rock Russia and it's revealed that Messi scored really big in Barcelona. We also take a look at Big Brother in China, and how citizens have had enough of the country's ubiquitous surveillance system.

The fragility of American democracy is nothing new

For many people, the lesson from the assault on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 — and more broadly from the experience of the last four years – is that American democracy has become newly and dangerously fragile.That conclusion is overstated, writes Professor Alasdair S. Roberts, in The Conversation.

In fact, American democracy has always been fragile. And it might be more precise to diagnose the United States as a fragile union rather than a fragile democracy. As President Joe Biden said in his inaugural address, national unity is "that most elusive of things."

Certainly, faith in American democracy has been battered over the last year. Polls show that 1 in 4 Americans do not recognize Joe Biden as the legitimate winner of the 2020 election. The turn to violence on Capitol Hill was a disturbing attack on an important symbol of U.S. democracy.

But there are four other factors that should be considered to evaluate the true state of the nation. Taking these into account, what emerges is a picture of a country that, despite its long tradition of presenting itself as exceptional, looks a lot like the other struggling democracies of the world.

Democratic fragility is not new

First, fragility is not really new. It's misleading to describe the United States as "the world's oldest democracy," as many observers have recently done. By modern definitions of the concept, the United States has only been a democracy for about 60 years. Despite constitutional guarantees, most Black Americans could not vote in important elections before the 1960s, nor did they have basic civil rights. Like many other countries, the United States is still working to consolidate democratic ideals.

Similarly, the struggle to contain political violence is not new. Washington has certainly seen its share of such violence. Since 1950, there have been multiple bombings and shootings at the U.S. Capitol and the White House. Troops have been deployed to keep order in Washington four times since World War I – during riots and unrest in 1919 and 1968, economic protests in 1932, and again in 2021. The route from the Capitol to the White House passes near the spots where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, James Garfield was fatally shot in 1881, and Harry Truman was attacked in 1950.

Political instability is also a familiar feature of economic downturns. There were similar fears about the end of democracy during the 1970s, when the United States wrestled with inflation and unemployment, and during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Of course, those fears had some justification. Many people wondered whether democratic governments could rise to new challenges. But there is evidence from historical episodes like this that democracies do eventually adapt – indeed, that they are better at adapting than non-democratic systems like the Soviet Union, which collapsed in 1991.

Finally, the debate about American democracy is fixated excessively on politics at the national level. This fixation has been aggravated by the way that the media and internet have developed over the last 30 years. Political debate focuses more and more heavily on Washington. But the American political system also includes 50 state governments and 90,000 local governments. More than half a million people in the United States occupy a popularly elected office. Democratic practices may be imperfect, but they are extensive and not easily undone.

On balance, claims about the fragility of American democracy should be taken seriously, but with a sense of proportion. Events since the November 2020 election have been troubling, but they do not signal an impending collapse of America's democratic experiment.

A crisis of unity

It might be more useful to think of the present crisis in other terms. The real difficulty confronting the country might be a fragile national union, rather than a fragile democracy.

Since the 1990s, the country has seen the emergence of deep fissures between what came to be called "red" and "blue" America – two camps with very different views about national priorities and the role of federal government in particular. The result has been increasing rancor and gridlock in Washington.

Again, this sort of division is not new to American politics. "The United States' did not become established in American speech as a singular rather than a plural noun until after the Civil War. Until the 1950s, it was commonplace to describe the United States as a composite of sections – North, South and West – with distinctive interests and cultures.

In 1932, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Frederick Jackson Turner compared the United States to Europe, describing it as a "federation of nations' held together through careful diplomacy.

It was only in the 1960s that this view of the United States faded away. Advances in transportation and communications seemed to forge the country into a single economic and cultural unit.

But politicians overestimated this transformation.

Return of old divisions

Since the 1990s, old divisions have re-emerged.

America's current political class has not fully absorbed this reality. Too often, it has taken unity for granted, forgetting the country's long history of sectional conflict. Because they took unity for granted, many new presidents in the modern era were tempted to launch their administrations with ambitious programs that galvanized followers while antagonizing opponents. However, this winner-take-all style may not be well suited to the needs of the present moment. It may aggravate divisions rather than rebuilding unity.

Only 20 years ago, many Americans – buoyed by an economic boom and the collapse of the Soviet Union – were convinced that their model of governance was on the brink of conquering the world. President George W. Bush declared American-style democracy to be the "single sustainable model for national success." By contrast, many people today worry that this model is on the brink of collapse.

The hubris of the early 2000s was misguided, and so is the despair of 2021. Like many other countries, the United States is engaged in a never-ending effort to maintain unity, contain political violence and live up to democratic principles.

Alasdair S. Roberts / The Conversation


• Myanmar coup: Myanmar's military has taken control of the country in a coup and declared a state of emergency after detaining civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other senior government leaders in early morning raids. The coup follows a landslide victory by Suu Kyi's party last November in an election the army claims was marred by irregularities.

• COVID-19 latest: With more than 95,000 deaths, January was by far the deadliest month in the U.S. Meanwhile, Israel has announced it will send 5,000 vaccine doses to Palestinians to inoculate medical personnel; and the European Union announces that AstraZeneca will supply nine million additional vaccine doses, amid criticisms over the bloc's vaccination program.

• Russian protests: More than 5,000 people were arrested across Russia following nationwide protests in support of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny. His wife Yulia Navalnaya was fined 20,000 roubles ($265) for taking part in the protests.

• Attack in Somalia: At least nine people were killed in an attack carried out by al-Qaeda-linked militant Islamists at a hotel in Somalia's capital city Mogadishu, which began with a car bomb and was followed with a shootout with security forces.

• Trump's new defense: Donald Trump has named a new legal team after several members of his defense decided to leave, one day before the deadline for the former U.S. president to deliver his formal response to the impeachment charge.

• After GameStop, silver: Prices of silver are surging to a five-month high after thousands of Reddit posts encouraged small investors to buy — the latest focus of a retail-trading frenzy after GameStop, which saw Redditors drive up the share price that fund managers had bet against.

• Snow day for the pandas: Two giant pandas from the Smithsonian Zoo were caught having a ball in Washington, D.C."s winter wonderland. Aw.


French daily Libération is wondering how the country will be able to pay back its COVID-19 debt, as the health crisis is estimated to have cost the country 150 billion euros in 2020 alone.

In China, how people are pushing back on surveillance state

Facial recognition cameras have imposed themselves in every nook and cranny of Chinese life — to the point where a concern is growing within the population and certain cities are reacting, reports Frédéric Schaeffer in French daily Les Echos.

Escaping Big Brother is a nearly impossible mission in China. In the name of counterterrorism, the number of surveillance cameras are exploding. The country counted some 350 million in 2018, according to IHS Markit. This number could reach 560 million next year, half of the estimated one billion surveillance cameras in use around the world. Eighteen of the world's 20 most monitored cities are in China, according to the British company Comparitech.

These cameras are also getting more and more sophisticated. Many are equipped with facial recognition technology, a sector heavily invested in by Beijing in its quest to be the world leader in artificial intelligence. The communist regime, which has excelled in monitoring its people for 70 years, is a well-known proponent of this technology. But public and private institutions are also regular users: On public transportation; at the entryways of university residences, residential complexes and offices; checking into a hotel or paying for a drink at a vending machine … facial recognition is everywhere.

But much of the population is starting to be fed up. "The widespread use of facial recognition in everyday life is accompanied by a growing concern about the use of citizens' data, especially biometrics," says Ma Ce, a lawyer in Hangzhou and a specialist in facial recognition issues. "People are also worried that facial recognition is often obligatory for accessing a service, with no alternative, and this technology isn't foolproof."

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com


In Stockholm, camel man returns with chainsaw

It was quite an entrance earlier this week in Stockholm, when a man came rushing into a local bar holding a revving chainsaw. The guests managed to flee through the backdoor and no one was harmed, reports Swedish daily Expressen.

Following the suspect's arrest on Tuesday, it was revealed that he had a history of bad first impressions. Last summer, the same Swede rode a camel into a hotel in Turkey, attacking guests and staff with a wooden club. "I have no idea why he's doing this," commented prosecutor Sonja Seligmann.

Expressen suggests one possible clue: during the hotel incident in Turkey, the man had a blood-alcohol concentration of 3.5.

€555,237,619

On Sunday morning, Spanish daily El Mundo leaked details of soccer icon Lionel Messi's four-year contract with Barcelona, which the Argentine striker signed back in 2017: a whopping 555,237,619 euros, confirming it as the biggest deal in sports history. On Sunday night, Messi scored his 650th career goal for Barcelona.

The actions of the military are actions to put the country back under a dictatorship.


— In a statement reportedly prepared before she was arrested in early morning raids, Myanmar ruling party key figure Aung San Suu Kyi urged people "not to accept this, to respond and wholeheartedly to protest against the coup by the military."

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Expressen
One of Sweden's two nationwide evening newspapers, it was founded in 1944. Its symbol is a recognizable wasp with the slogan "it stings." The paper is owned by the Bonnier Group and is considered center-left leaning in its politics, though it often features tabloid-style features.
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Libération is a French left-leaning daily. Co-founded by Jean-Paul Sartre in 1973, it later moved away from its original far-left and anti-advertising stance to embrace a social-democrat view. It was acquired by Israeli businessman Patrick Drahi in 2014.
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Geopolitics

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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