Vladimir Putin Dives Into History

Up close as the Russian Prime Minister takes an archaeology tour, by land and by sea -- and resurfaces with some loot. A surreal snapshot of the spectacle of contemporary Russian politics.

After the dive (MyPlanet TV)
After the dive (MyPlanet TV)

On Wednesday the Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin visited the ancient Greek town of Phanagoria near Taman in the Krasnodar region of southern Russia. For years, archaeologists have been trying to excavate it for ancient treasures on land and at sea. To the astonishment of everyone present Putin put on a wetsuit and dived into the Sea of Asov to have a look for himself.

TAMAN - Prime Minister Vladimir Putin flew into this coastal town on a helicopter and arrived behind the wheel of a dust-covered jeep at the burial mound Boyur.

Boyur is the biggest mound in Taman, and has long been the object of archaeologists' eyes, far and wide. It's not quite clear who was buried there -- and on the whole, as I discovered, archaeology is a rather uncertain science. Still, everyone seems to agree that it must have been the final resting place of somebody seriously important.

This is also why the mound has often been the target of thieves throughout the centuries. But never before has there been such systematic digging on the mound as there is currently. Several bulldozers and tractors are methodically leveling it. Of course there's still enough work for students and their shovels. And a single one of them was introduced to Vladimir Putin.

Professor Kusnetsov, who heads the excavation efforts, explained that when the team was digging they found tunnels created centuries ago by thieves. He said the team was hopeful for some important new discoveries, even if: "99.9 percent of the site is completely plundered."

The Prime Minister asked when the site was robbed. "That's something we don't know," Kusnetsov admitted, though he added that "the Genoese came here once, and we don't trust them with anything."

"Oh, let's blame everything on the Genoese and the problem is solved!" Putin quipped back.

Something to take home

At the same time, the president of the Russian Geographical Society Sergei Shoigu found a small pottery chip while walking around the excavation site. "It'll come in handy in the house," Putin said, as if jealous of the find. He, too, seemed to be on the look out for something to take home.

After visiting the mound, Putin went to the ancient living quarters in Phanagoria. He was particularly fascinated by the remains of a vase that had been lodged in a wall for centuries. A student showed the prime minister how to use a scraper. Putin took it and touched the vase. It chipped immediately.

"Oops!" Putin said.

"Don't worry about it," said the student. "We'll fix it later."

Back in his jeep, the Prime Minister drove up to the beach. He put on a wetsuit and together with Shoigu and professor Kusnetsov approached the small pier.

It seems, at least underwater, Vladimir Putin has done it all. He's chased whales in the Sea of Japan; he's been on a submarine and various warships; he descended to the bottom of Lake Baikal in a deep-sea capsule. He's demonstrated his fishing skills in Tuva and the Altai region. But as it turned out, there was one more task at hand: scuba diving in an ancient Greek town at the bottom of the Sea of Asov.

It was 40 minutes before the boat made a triumphant return. Putin walked down the beach carrying two ancient vases. With no less pride, Sergei Shoigu had another one in his hands. It is of course difficult to verify where the vases are from - the bottom of the Sea or from a museum collection. But of course the Prime Minister insisted that the vases were waiting for him down there, ever since the 6th century. That's what Prof. Kusnetsov had told him.

He looked at the vases, and lifted them up for the photographers who had gathered around. Some ancient vases that help complete a perfect snapshot of Russian politics, circa 2011.

Read the original article in Russian

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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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