Why The Mali Coup Threatens All Of West Africa

Following the March 22 coup that ousted President Amadou Toumani Touré, the north of Mali is in the hands of a Tuareg rebellion. It is a rolling series of events that has leaders across the region worrying about similar threats.

Tuaregs, like this man in Algeria, live in several different countries in North and West Africa (Garrondo)
Tuaregs, like this man in Algeria, live in several different countries in North and West Africa (Garrondo)

The very existence of the West African country of Mali is currently under threat. The whole of the north of the country is in the hands of a Tuareg rebellion, which nothing seems able to stop.

President Amadou Toumani Touré was ousted on March 22 by a junta of captains calling themselves the National Council for the Recovery of Democracy and the Restoration of the State (CNRDRE). Taking advantage of the ensuing power vacuum in the capital Bamako, the rebels have gained possession of northern Mali at lightning speed.

The rebels, the majority of whom are members of the nomadic Tuareg people, refuse to be called Malian, and they want to establish an independent Tuareg state called Azawad.

Currently the rebels only hold the northern part of Mali, but with potential reinforcements arriving from other areas of the Sahel, a transition zone between the Sahara in the north and the savannahs to the south, and in particular from neighboring Niger, that could all change. In the meantime, the Malian army is falling apart.

The captains who overthrew the president justified their actions by claiming to be working to end the decline of Mali. However, the coup has had precisely the opposite outcome. Despite the fall of city after city in the north over the past few days, the CNRDRE has not sent any troops north to defend the country from the rebels.

Quick response, deep concerns

West African leaders are responding quickly to try and avoid an outright collapse of the Malian state, and they have reacted with commendable promptness. At the impetus of, in particular, Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara, a diplomatic emergency committee has been formed that is threatening the junta with heavy sanctions if it does not relinquish power.

However, none of the heads of states involved is entirely blameless. Some, like Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaoré, have faced mutinies in their own countries. The desire of the presidents of the region to return constitutional order to Bamako is therefore influenced by a certain degree of self-preservation. Who can blame them? Only recently emerging from the Ivorian crisis, with Guinea still fragile and Senegal only just managing to avoid serious upheaval following its electoral turmoil, West Africa could do without the collapse of Mali.

In Bamako, regional pressures run counter to public opinion; Mali has developed a strong dislike for its neighbors' interference. But at this stage the only options left are likely to be hard to implement, not least the junta stepping down as Sanago, president of CNRDRE, holds tight to power.

The West African heads of state will need plenty more energy to achieve their joint objectives: firstly, getting the Malian military back to their barracks; and secondly, helping them to launch a counter-attack. If this doesn't happen, the North will quickly be lost and the division of the country becomes an ever-growing threat.

Until now, West Africa's efforts have met with relative indifference from the international community. It is imperative that the outside world offers its support and realizes that the situation in Mali will have significant consequences for the whole of the Sahel region.

Read more from Le Monde in French.

Photo – Garrondo

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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

"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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