Geopolitics

In British "Little Poland," Where Anti-Immigrant Party Rising

A Polish reporter checks out sentiment in the heart of UKIP country after the anti-immigration party's success in recent European elections.

Aylesbury, another British town with a sizeable Polish community
Aylesbury, another British town with a sizeable Polish community
Katarzyna Brejwo

BOSTON (UK) — Laura, a member of the UK Independence Party from Southampton, makes her point with a touch of irony: "We should be protected like aborigines ...”

Like me, Laura had come to Boston, Lincolnshire, on the east coast of England, for the party’s recent congress. We just got off the train, unsure where to go. It has been pouring rain since this morning and all the “aborigines” are in the Jolly Crispin Pub, finishing off their first beer.

When I suggest asking for direction, Laura laughs: “Go ahead. I am curious if anybody speaks English here.”

In her native Southampton, Laura lives in between an Indian and a Polish neighborhood. And while she got used to the first one, the second remains a tough nut to crack if for no other reason than she cannot communicate with its inhabitants. She also feels constrained to constantly mute her frustrations: “Imagine that your neighbor slips his garbage into your can”, says Laura, “If he is English, you can at least go and call his or her names. If you deal with an immigrant, God forbid, you can be accused of racism!”

Political correctness is surely not the leitmotiv of the congress. We are entertained by a comic poking fun at immigrants from the new member-countries of the European Union: “At the Olympics, Poles got the golden medal, the silver one, the brown one, the lead one, the copper one and everything else that they could get their hands on!"

The victory of the UKIP in the recent European elections was a sensation for British politics, and Boston was their greatest field of glory. In the city where every fourth inhabitant is an immigrant, (the ratio in the whole country is one to eight), they got 52% of the ballots.

When Bob McAuley moved in to Boston, in 1995, the little town with a population around 50,000 was “very British.” Wherever he went, he saw familiar faces. Evenings were quiet, and any would-be troublemaker would be easily identified.

In 2004, Britain opened its borders and people from the new EU began to populate the town. The native inhabitants complained that the new residents parked in forbidden places, drank on the streets, took away student places in local schools and opened stores with unpronounceable names.

Peace disturbed

Seven years later, the town now includes 7,000 immigrants from Eastern Europe and makes headlines in the British press as “Little Poland.” Those who do not understand the origin of the nickname are advised to stroll down West Street — unofficially referred to as East Street. On their way they will pass “Baltic Goods,” a Polish bakery, a Polish restaurant, a shop with Polish beer and vodka, “Transfers to Poland” and “Polish Meat”.

Bob tolerated all of it with patience and dignity, until the day an explosion ignited in an illegal bottling plant run by Lithuanians. The tragedy took five lives and pushed him to call for the first demonstration against immigration. In 2013, he was elected to the town council as a member of the UKIP.

Nobody knows how many immigrants now live in the town. The official number is 9,000, but Mike Gilbert, a conservative member of the town council, mentions 14,000. He also quotes some additional data: “70% of antisocial behaviors registered by police is committed by immigrants.” The most common issues are drinking or urinating in public spaces and disturbing the peace.

When approached, the British inhabitants are very careful with their gripes. “When my sister wanted to register her child to school, she was told there were no places left," said one local. "I have nothing against immigrants, but why can't the government take care of the British children as well?”

The resident says that the day before, he saw three men, drunk and urinating, who appeared to be foreigners. "I have nothing against the hard working immigrants but could the others not be sent back?”

Another great source of contempt against immigrants is well illustrated by the electoral flyer of the UKIP: “There are 26 million people in Europe looking for work. And whose jobs are they after?"

British companies are not very willing to talk about immigrants. A human resources specialist from a big factory in the city of Newark says that half of the employees are Polish and she would be happy to see it at 100%. “A Pole starts his work on Monday at 7.30 a.m. and finishes on Friday at 5.30 p.m.,”, she says. “If I hire an Englishman, he will go on sick leave the next day.”

Longtime resident Bob McAuley makes clear that he doesn't fault the immigrants themselves. "If I had a wife and children to feed, I would have come here too.” The blame, instead, lies with European Union and British politicians. “They opened the borders and now there are too many applicants for every new job position posted. That only means that conditions will get worse for all workers."

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Geopolitics

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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