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Thai Pro-Democracy Protesters Shot After Clashes With Police and Royalists Near Parliament Grounds

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  • Dozens of pro-democracy protesters were hurt during clashes with police and royalist counter-protesters Tuesday night.
  • Protesters were demanding the removal of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-Cha and are frustrated that lawmakers hadn’t voted on draft amendments to the constitution.
  • Other demands included calls for widespread electoral reform as well as changes to Thailand’s notoriously draconian lese-majeste laws, which criminalize any speech about the royal family.
  • Thailand’s current electoral system was set up after a coup d’etat in 2014, which led to a military-drafted constitution in 2017 that left the army with many executive and legislative powers.
  • The system led Prayut, the leader of the 2014 coup, to retain the Prime Ministership in 2019, despite only getting about 24% of the votes.

Thai Protests Dramatically Escalate

Nearly 50 protesters were injured in Thailand Tuesday night after police used tear gas, water cannons, and allegedly fired shots into a demonstration attempting to enter Parliament grounds.

Police say they never fired any shots into the crowd, neither live ammunition nor rubber bullets, despite a viral video indicating they may have. Regardless, police promised to investigate the shooting.

Pro-democracy protesters, police, and royalist supporters clashed over draft constitutional amendments that Thai lawmakers agreed to debate between Tuesday and Wednesday.

Royalists say these changes to the constitution would undermine it and the stability the Thai military sought after initiating a coup d’etat in 2014. Pro-democracy protesters were frustrated both because the amendments don’t go far enough to address their concerns over the current electoral system and because lawmakers didn’t put any of the amendments to a vote last night.

The Party King of Thailand

At the heart of the protest are two issues: the monarchy and democracy itself.

In Thailand, the monarchy is generally well-liked and highly revered, with the royal court refusing to interfere with politics as it is ‘beneath’ them.

However, there are still things for Thais to criticize that they can’t because of extremely strict lese-majeste laws. These laws criminalize any speech about the royal family, particularly the king, with hefty fines and upwards of 15-years in prison.

To understand how strictly these laws are adhered to, take the story of the first wife to the current king, King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun.

He sought a divorce, and she refused to agree to it, so he took her to court and blamed her for the dysfunctionality of the marriage. Because of the lese-majeste laws, she couldn’t defend herself as it would mean accusing the then-crown prince of doing something wrong, meaning she lost by default.

A dissolved marriage is hardly a rallying cry for protesters, but his other actions have led many Thais to say he debases the monarchy and is an embarrassment. In particular, King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun has a reputation as a partier and womanizer. He rarely spends time in Thailand, and in 2020 has spent just about 16 days in the country, despite widespread unrest and destabilization. He spends most of his time in Germany.

He has been married multiple times, not uncommon in traditional royal marriages as alliances with lords and dukes are reforged. However, that system of marriage hasn’t been necessary or used for about 100 years, since Thailand transformed from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional one.

Even so, the king has brought back another relic from Thailand’s royal past; a Royal Noble Consort. In the past, such a consort was another method (and form of polygamy) that allowed the royalty to retain alliances with important families in Thailand. His current consort isn’t generally disliked as a person herself, but the institution is considered backward in modern Thailand and a possible way for the king to assert his royal authority.

The Royal Noble Consort, Sineenat Wongvajirapakdi –a former army officer– gained the role shortly after his coronation and just months after the king married Suthida Bajrasudhabimalalakshana, another former army officer. Sineenat faced trouble at court, was exiled, and completely disappeared from the public eye, sparking rumors of imprisonment or death before reappearing in the king’s good graces in August 2020 and regaining her titles.

His treatment of the consort has led Thais to wish they could criticize such actions without facing severe jail time. On top of this, the king has been known to take photos that don’t look “kingly.” For example, he was filmed in Germany shopping in a crop top and was later photographed in Germany with Queen Suthida, before their marriage, in a short crop top and pants low sitting pants.

King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun (then Crown-Prince) and soon-to-be Queen Suthida Bajrasudhabimalalakshana on the tarmac in Germany.

Is Thailand Democratic?

Despite the king’s antics, the fulcrum of the protests is really the issue of democracy in Thailand.

Currently, Thailand is ruled by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who protesters claim has an illegitimate hold on power and is incompetent.

Prayut is a former general and first came into power after he and the army staged a coup d’etat in 2014 after six months of political deadlock and tensions in the country. The army took over executive and legislative functions, and in 2017, they repealed almost all of the former constitution and made a new one.

In 2019, Thailand held elections for the first time since the coup, elections which were based on the 2017 constitution and decried as fundamentally undemocratic.

The 2017 Constitution, made by the military, changed how voting is done in Thailand. It made a system and gerrymandered maps that would heavily favor their preferred candidates. The system helped Prayut win the Prime Ministership with just under 24% of the votes and less than half of the seats in the House of Representatives.

Such a result was possible because the 2017 constitution still gives the military many overarching power, and part of that includes choosing all 250 members of the Senate. Those senators, along with the House’s representatives are who choose the Prime Minister, meaning that even though most Thais didn’t want Prayut in charge and his party didn’t hold the majority in the House, he was still the man who won.

This system has been the catalysts for the last five months of protests and calls for reform. Additionally, some groups also push for changes relating to education and LGBTQ+ rights.

Politicians are expected to continue debate over constitutional changes into Wednesday night. Any votes made won’t be confirmed until another vote a month from now, which gives times for lawmakers to reconsider and will likely sparking further protests.

Another possibility is that lawmakers set up a committee to draft a new constitution, which could take between months and a year. Such a move could sap the energy from pro-democracy protests as such committees often take between a month and a year to release a draft version.

See what others are saying: (DW) (Associated Press) (The Guardian)

International

New Zealand Considers Banning Cigarettes For People Born After 2004

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  • New Zealand announced a series of proposals that aim to outlaw smoking for the next generation with the hopes of being smoke-free by 2025.
  • Among the proposed provisions are plans to gradually increase the legal smoking age and possibly prohibit the sale of cigarettes and tobacco products to anyone born after 2004; effectively banning smoking for that generation.
  • Beyond that, the level of nicotine in products will likely be significantly reduced, setting a minimum price for tobacco and heavily restricting where it can be sold.
  • The proposals have proven to be popular as one in four New Zealand cancer deaths are tobacco-related, but some have criticized them as government overreach and worry a ban could lead to a bigger and more robust black market.

Smoke Free 2025

New Zealand announced sweeping new proposals on Thursday that would effectively phase out the use of tobacco products, a move that is in line with its hopes to become a smoke-free country by 2025.

Among a number of provisions, the proposals include plans to gradually increase the legal smoking age and bar anyone born after 2004 from buying tobacco products. Such a ban would effectively end tobacco sales after a few decades. The government is also considering significantly reducing the level of nicotine allowed in tobacco products, prohibiting filters, restricting locations where tobacco products can be purchased, and setting a steep minimum price for tobacco.

“We need a new approach.” Associate Health Minister Dr. Ayesha Verral said when announcing the changes on Thursday. 

“About 4,500 New Zealanders die every year from tobacco, and we need to make accelerated progress to be able to reach [a Smoke Free 2025]. Business-as-usual without a tobacco control program won’t get us there.”

The proposals received a large welcome from public health organizations and local groups. Shane Kawenata Bradbrook, an advocate for smoke-free Maori communities, told The Guardian that the plan “will begin the final demise of tobacco products in this country.” 

The Cancer Society pointed out that these proposals would help combat health inequities in the nation, as tobacco stores were four times more likely to be in low-income neighborhoods, where smoking rates are highest.

Not Without Flaws

The proposals weren’t completely without controversy. There are concerns that a complete ban could bankrupt “dairy” store owners (the equivalent to a U.S. convenience store) who rely on tobacco sales to stay afloat. 

There are also concerns that prohibition largely doesn’t work, as has been seen in other nations with goods such as alcohol or marijuana. Many believe a  blanket ban on tobacco will increase the incentive to smuggle and sell the products on the black market. The government even acknowledged the issue in a document outlining Thursday’s proposals. 

“Evidence indicates that the amount of tobacco products being smuggled into New Zealand has increased substantially in recent years and organised criminal groups are involved in large-scale smuggling,” the document said.

Some are also concerned about how much the government is intervening in people’s lives.

“There’s a philosophical principle about adults being able to make decisions for themselves, within reason,” journalist Alex Braae wrote. 

The opposition ACT party also added that lowering nicotine content in tobacco products could lead to smokers smoking more, a particular concern as one-in-four cancer cases in New Zealand are tobacco-related.

See what others are saying: (Stuff) (Independent) (The Guardian)

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International

Egypt Seizes Ship That Blocked Suez Canal Until Owners Pay Nearly $1 Billion

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  • Egyptian authorities seized the Ever Given, a mega-ship that blocked the Suez Canal for nearly a week last month, after a judge ruled Wednesday that the owners must pay $900 million in damages.
  • The ship was seized just as it was deemed fit to return to sea after undergoing repairs in the Great Bitter Lake, which sits in the middle of the Suez Canal.
  • The vessel’s owners said little about the verdict, but insurance companies covering the ship pushed back against the $900 million price tag, saying it’s far too much for any damage the ship actually caused.

Ever Given Still in Egypt

An Egyptian court blocked the mega-ship known as the Ever Given from leaving the country Wednesday morning unless its owner pays nearly $1 billion in compensation for damages it caused after blocking the Suez Canal for nearly a week last month.

The Ever Given’s ordeal started when it slammed into the side of the canal and became lodged, which caused billions of dollars worth of goods to be held up on both sides of the canal while crews worked round the clock to free the vessel. An Egyptian judge found that the Ever Given becoming stuck caused not only physical damage to the canal that needed to be paid for but also “reputational” damage to Egypt and the Suez Canal Authority.

The ship’s Japanese owner, Shoei Kisen Kaisha, will need to pay $900 million to free the ship and the cargo it held, both of which were seized by authorities after the ship was transported to the Great Bitter Lake in the middle of the canal to undergo now-finished repairs. Shoei Kisen Kaisha doesn’t seem to want to fight the judgment in court just yet. It released a short statement after the ruling, saying that lawyers and insurance companies were working on the claims but refused to comment further.

Pushing Back Against The Claim

While Shoei Kisen Kaisha put in a claim with insurers, those insurance companies aren’t keen on just paying the bill. One of the ship’s insurers, UKP&I, challenged the basis of the $900 million claim, writing in a press release, “The [Suez Canal Authority] has not provided a detailed justification for this extraordinarily large claim, which includes a $300 million claim for a ‘salvage bonus’ and a $300 million claim for ‘loss of reputation.’”

“The grounding resulted in no pollution and no reported injuries. The vessel was re-floated after six days and the Suez Canal promptly resumed their commercial operations.”

It went on to add that the $900 million verdict doesn’t even include payments to the crews that worked to free the ship, meaning that the total price tag of the event could likely be far more for Shoei Kisen Kaisha and the multiple insurance companies it works with.

See what others are saying: (Financial Times) (CNN) (The Telegraph)

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Treated Radioactive Water From Japanese Nuclear Power Plant Will Be Released Into Ocean

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  • The Japanese government confirmed Tuesday that it will officially move forward with plans to dump millions of gallons of radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant into the ocean.
  • The government spent a decade decontaminating the water, only leaving a naturally occurring isotope in it that scientists recognize as safe for people and the environment.
  • Despite the safety claims, protesters took to the streets in Tokyo to show disapproval of the decision. Local business owners, in particular, have expressed fears that more municipalities worldwide could ban Fukushima products, including fish, because of distrust in the water.
  • Meanwhile, officials have insisted that the dump is necessary as the water takes up a massive amount of space, which is needed to store highly radioactive fuel rods from the remaining cores at the now-defunct nuclear facility.

Editor’s Note: The Japanese government has asked Western outlets to adhere to Japanese naming conventions. To that end, Japanese names will be written as Family Name followed by Given Name.

Radioactive or Bad Publicity?

After years of discussions and debate, the Japanese government announced Tuesday that it will dump radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant into the ocean.

Government officials consider the move necessary, but it’s facing backlash from local businesses, particularly fisheries, over potential consequences it could have. Many are especially concerned that the decision will create bad press for the region as headlines about it emerge. For instance, a headline from the Guardian on the issue reads, “Japan announces it will dump contaminated water into sea.”

While the water is contaminated and radioactive, it’s not nearly what the headlines make it out to be. The government has spent the last decade decontaminating it, and now it only contains a trace amount of the isotope tritium. That isotope is common in nature and is already found in trace amounts in groundwater throughout the world. Its radiation is so weak that it can’t pierce human skin, meaning one could only possibly get sick by ingesting more than that has ever been recorded.

According to the government, the decontaminated water at Fukushima will be diluted to 1/7 of the WHO’s acceptable radiation levels for drinking water before being released into the ocean over two years.

Something Had To Eventually Be Done

Over the last decade, Japan has proposed this plan and other similar ones, such as evaporating the water, which the International Atomic Energy Agency said last year met global standards.

The water has been sitting in containers for years, so why is there a push to remove it now? Space and leakage seem to be the primary reasons.

The water containers are slowly being filled by groundwater, and the government expects to run out of space relatively soon. Space is sorely needed, as Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide has pointed out in the past that the government wants to use the space to store damaged radioactive fuel rods that still need to be extracted from the plant. Unlike the water, those rods are dangerously radioactive and need proper storage.

Regardless, Suga reportedly recognizes that removing the water is going to end up as a lose-lose situation.

“It is inevitable that there would be reputational damage regardless of how the water will be disposed of, whether into the sea or into the air,” he said at a press conference last week. As expected, the government’s decision did trigger backlash, prompting many demonstrators to take to the streets of Tokyo Tuesday in protest.

To this day, eleven countries and regions still ban many products from the Fukushima prefecture despite massive clean-up efforts that have seen people returning to the area to live.

See what others are saying: (NPR) (KBS World) (NBC News)

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