ISTANBUL â€" The end of the ceasefire between Turkey and the PKK (The Kurdistan Worker's Party) is a development that will undermine both sides' bigger plans in the region.
The Turkish government may be hoping to gain the nationalist vote and weaken the legal pro-Kurdish party (The People's Democratic Party or HDP) by going after the PKK, but it will go a long way in damaging key foreign policy objectives in Syria and Iraq. Likewise for the PKK, a new clash with Turkey could mean losing the credibility the insurgent group had won in both the region and the international arena since 2014.
Turkey has been bombing PKK targets in northern Iraq for days. Weakening the PKK and its Syrian arm, the PYD, is bound to strengthen the Islamist ISIS troops across the region. The most effective resistance against ISIS has been carried out by Kurdish troops under the command of the PKK. The Kurds acted like the de facto land force of the anti-ISIS coalition led by the U.S.
Aiming at the PKK and the PYD will also be a boost for Bashar al-Assad's regime, which the Turkish government has been trying to topple for years. How is that related? Let us go back to the beginning.
The Syrian Kurds of the PYD have been accused of neither targeting the Damascus regime nor even allying with it. But one of the important reasons the PYD did not join the anti-Assad opposition is Turkey. Ankara exercised its influence on the Syrian opposition to keep out the PYD, working instead with the Kurdish National Council, founded by the support of Iraqi Kurd leader Masoud Barzani.
Robert Ford was the U.S. ambassador to Syria back in 2012 and is one of the experts at the Middle East Institute where I also work. "The PYD said they want to join the Syrian opposition ranks at the Syrian meeting we organized in Europe in 2012," Ford recalled recently. "We did not allow the PYD to join due to pressure from Ankara. Now, we face a completely new Kurdish reality.â€
The state of the war might be different if the PYD had been allowed to join at the beginning. Now, Ankara is insisting on making the same mistake again, pushing the Kurds towards the regime and Iran by trying to isolate the PYD.
Kurdish news sources have reported about a meeting that took place in Suleymaniyah last June between the PYD's military wing, Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Iran's Revolutionary Guard. According to the reports, Iran promised the PYD that they would receive whatever support the regime gets plus autonomy if they accept to fight on the side of the regime.
President Hassan Rouhani recently declared: "Iran protects Erbil and Baghdad the same as it protects Iranian Kurdistan â€¦ Without Iranâ€™s help, Erbil and Baghdad would be in the hands of terrorist groups right now. The way we protect Sanandaj, we also protect Sulaimani and Duhok."
This is a dangerous development. The PYD joining the regime is bound to only prolong the war in Syria, and strengthen radicals like ISIS. Turkey is uneasy about American cooperation with the PYD against ISIS, even if the PYD turned out to be a constructive actor in Syria, managing to move closer to the West and allowing cooperation with the Free Syrian Army that Turkey supports.
But there is short-sightedness on both sides. If the PKK/PYD deepens its clash with Turkey, it risks undoing all the good will it received from its struggle against ISIS after the radical group captured Mosul. Western media was busy publishing picture after picture of the female militants in the PYD, describing the group as a progressive Kurdish movement that is secular and respectful of the rights of minorities and women. There were discussions in the European Parliament and the U.S. Congress about removing the PKK from terrorism lists.
The PKK is endangering all this progress by fighting Turkey once again. Not only do the Kurdish forces destroy its credibility gained in the fight against ISIS, but it serves the interests of both Tehran and Damascus.
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.
"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.
Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release
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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