eyes on the U.S.

After Brexit And Trump, Italy's Urban-Rural Divide Deepens

Like the the UK and U.S. election surprises before, Italy's recent populist triumphs marked a revolt by voters outside the major urban centers.

Florence or bust? Separate ways in Italy
Florence or bust? Separate ways in Italy
Alberto Rollo


TURIN — After the final votes were tallied following Italy's March 4 election, I hung a map with the results on the wall above the desk where I work. Now that a couple of weeks have passed, it's time to step back and take a deeper look.

It's also time to ask questions. The map of the vote shows different shades and colors covering the entire country — the blue and green of right-wing parties in the north; the yellow of the Five Star Movement in the south; and a smattering of Democratic Party red in central Italy and major urban centers. With such a dramatic divide at hand, are these just political opinions or are they the sign of something worse: a kind of undeclared civil war?

I don't think so, and not because I'm particularly optimistic. To the contrary: I'm convinced that Italy is dealing with a cultural war that has already been lost. The red dots of Milan and Turin, surrounded by the blue of right-wing parties, remind me of San Francisco, New York, and London. What did New Yorkers know about the concerns of voters in Rock Springs, Wyoming, where the veterinarian Rex Rammell runs for office brandishing his Trump-loving credentials? Did Londoners pay any attention to the issues troubling their Brexit-supporting compatriots in Birmingham, Preston, and Lancashire?

These cities are similar in that they all live in worlds largely isolated from the rest of the country. In Milan and Rome, people discuss human rights and value socially progressive policies. They are home to movie stars, major newspapers, the fashion industry, charity organizations, and endless foundations set up by wealthy benefactors. Despite all the contradictions, the inclusion of outsiders feels possible here, just as it does in New York and London.

Residents in Italy's major urban centers care little about the problems facing people in towns like Novi Ligure, Castelfranco Veneto, Romano di Lombardia. And yet, Italy has always been a country of provinces, not cities. It's in the provinces that Italians developed their culture, monuments and traditions.

Sorry, Novi Ligure — Photo: greenland

A social and architectural shift has transformed provincial life, confining Italians to detached houses that isolate them from their communities. What was once a symbol of prosperity and independence has instead bred a climate of paranoia and conflict. Italians in rural towns have become socially segregated, ideologically suffocated, and hardened in their prejudice.

For better or worse, we've all become ignorant. Politicians that trumpeted social values for years became ignorant of these dynamics, unlike their rivals in the League and Five Star.

In the early 1960s, Truman Capote traveled to the town of Holcomb, deep in the High Wheat Plains of Kansas. He shone the spotlight on the rich social fabric of a neglected region where you could count the number of progressive voters on the fingers of one hand.

They seek comfort in talk shows and reality TV, shout opinions on social media.

The divide between Italy's urban centers and their industrial peripheries masks a wider divide with the emptying provinces, where people are growing poorer and more fearful. They seek comfort in talk shows and reality TV, shout their opinions on social media, and inveigh against immigrants seeking shelter in train stations. To them, they are all the same: they see no difference between the loiterers and those who show up for work every day at construction sites and retirement homes across the country, earning a pittance compared to their urban counterparts.

I'm curious to know what these Italians are thinking, and why they don't buy the narrative that we should all strive for a future that ends global poverty and brings prosperity to all. When people in cities talk about multiculturalism, their rural counterparts fear it will unnecessarily complicate their lives. In their eyes, even public schools cannot be trusted.

The time of experts and pundits is over. It's too early to truly understand the motivations behind this political earthquake, but it's time to start looking beyond the borders of our cities. We must acknowledge the reality, challenge our opinions, and even meet with our worst enemies so we can try to understand their concerns.

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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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