With Crimea In The Balance, Tatars Fear The Worst - Again

Ethnic Tatars are deeply attached to their native Crimea, but risk again becoming the first victims of the maneuvering of greater powers.

Pro-Russia supporters celebrate the referendum Sunday
Pro-Russia supporters celebrate the referendum Sunday
Grzegorz Szymanik

SEVASTOPOL — They live in the midst of the world's central geopolitical showdown. But the Crimean Tatars, an ethnic minority that account for 13% of the region's population, are watching events unfold with a backseat view.

Persecuted during the eras of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, the Muslim group of Turkic descent have lived as Ukrainian citizens – and most say they don’t want to return to Russia.

Still, even after the overwhelming referendum Sunday in favor of Crimea seceding from Ukraine to become part of the Russian federation, the Tatar voice risks disappearing amidst the quarreling of the major world powers.

What country is this? Look to the right, and there is a Russian flag. Look to the left, and there is the Ukrainian one. During a rally last week in front of the parliament of the autonomous Crimean Republic, someone asked what country this is. “The strongest Orthodox Christian country in the world!” somebody screams back from the podium.

In the eye of the cyclone, Tatars are being ignored — again. They watch TV or fidget restlessly around the building of the Mejlis, the Tatars central executive body, and ask, “Russia?” Or “Ukraine?”

“Imagine a cow walking through a meadow,” says a 77-year-old Crimean Tatar named Izzet. “It left a patty behind. A man on a bike went through it and cut the dung in two. There is shit on one side, shit on the other and a border in the middle. That’s how our situation looks. It doesn’t matter — Russians or Ukrainians — they all care the same for Tatars.”

A long march

As a seven-year-old, Izzet survived the “sürgünlik,” the mass deportation of Tatars from Crimea that Stalin ordered in 1944. Approximately 200,000 people were forced to move inside the Soviet Union, most of them to Uzbekistan. A staggering 50,000 of them died on the way.

Izzet and his family were relocated to a sovkhoz, a state-owned farm, where they shared a room with four other families and slept on the floor. He recalls eating boiled beetroots in the morning, beetroot soup for lunch and smashed beetroots for dinner. Because of poor sanitation, all three of his siblings died of typhoid.

Tatars were not the only oppressed ethnic minority wiped from the Crimean landscape. A few weeks after sürgünlik began, Crimean Germans, Kurds, Romani, Armenians and Greeks shared the same fate. Cypresses, gardens and vineyards were destroyed, and cemeteries were plowed. Crimea was transformed into a land of summer resorts.

Izzet was able to return to his homeland only after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Under the Ukrainian governance of Crimea, he enjoyed freedom, but no recognition.

“For the last 20 years, no law regulating the status of the Crimean Tatars has been created,” he says. “They never admitted that we have been living on this land for centuries and that our language is one of the languages of Ukraine.”

Although disappointed by Ukrainian politics, Izzet has no desire to become part of Russia ever again. “On TV they say that Russia will bring us welfare,” he says. “I thank them very much for that, but I don’t need it. I’ve seen enough of it.”

Paradise lost

Zera was born in exile in Uzbekistan, but she always felt her home was Crimea. “We were all brought up that way,” she says. After studying Russian philology, she started working at a Tatar newspaper, first published in Crimea and reprinted in Uzbekistan. “We could write in the Crimean Tatar language, but terms like ‘Crimea’ or ‘Crimean Tatars’ were banned until the ’80s,” she says.

When Tatars were allowed to move back to Crimea, editors fought to transfer the newspapers’ headquarters “back home.” But they weren’t prepared for what they found there. “Our parents told us such stories about this land that we expected to see a paradise with thousands of palm trees,” Zera says. “Instead, we had to cope with poverty.”

Still, despite the initial disillusion, there were no regrets. “I am not a nationalist,” Zera says. “I do not deny rights to other ethnics. But I didn’t come back to Crimea to live again in Russia.”

Sergei Korenchenkov, a member of the pro-Russian voluntary self-defense unit in Crimea’s capital of Simferopol, says ethnic Russians "will somehow manage to live together with Tatars under the Russian flag.

He invokes his Tatar friend Beket, with whom he practices martial arts, to illustrate the point. The two recently saw one another on the street. Korenchenkov was with his pro-Russian unit, Berket with the Tatar pro-European self-defense troop. “We said hello to each other and each one went his way. That’s all.”

Korenchenkov often goes to a Tatar coffee shop in his neighborhood. “When they saw me there last time, everyone got scared because they knew I’m in the self-defense unit,” he recalls. But he told everybody that they needn’t be afraid, and that everything would be all right. “Ordinary people will always get along,” he says.

He acknowledges that concepts such as multiculturalism and tolerance are foreign to Russian people. They instead use a single word: “respect.”

“But that is something you have to earn, and that concerns Tatars too.”

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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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