This must have been the moment he was waiting for: an energetic handshake with Donald Trump, with a smile and a deep look into his eyes to top it off. The two men seemed to be sealing a fresh pact. Cameras flashed, capturing the important moment for newspapers and history books — the five seconds that made Giuseppe Conte a part of world politics.
The U.S. president welcomed the Italian prime minister at the White House. For Conte, the invitation is "a sign of the special attention to Italy," he said during their joint press conference. "And to me as well," the Italian leader added after a short pause.
That sentence says a lot. It's an indication of how Conte feels on the home front. Overlooked. Overshadowed. After all, Italian media reports mostly focus on Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who repeatedly grabs the attention with xenophobic remarks. It almost seems as if Salvini, not Conte, is the one running the government.
Italy and the United States are almost like "twin countries."
In Washington, Trump and Conte demonstrated harmony. Their meeting was a win-win situation: The Italian showed himself off as a statesman, while the American gained an ally. Conte is now Trump's man in Europe. His best friend on a continent he just called an enemy. A new axis seems to be emerging: Washington-Rome. One that could counter the old Berlin-Paris axis — a partnership against the dominance of Germany and France, of Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron.
"We're partners now," Trump said.
Macron and Trump in Washington in April — Photo: Ron Sachs/CNP/ZUMA
Trump and Conte have a lot in common. They both have a Russia-friendly policy and are sceptical about European sanctions. They don't think much of free trade and wish to overturn international treaties: Trump grumbles against NAFTA, while Conte has spoken against CETA, a trade deal between the EU and Canada. And they both stand for a tough immigration policy. Recently, Trump separated families who had crossed the Mexican border illegally. Over the past couple of weeks the government in Rome has prevented several ships carrying rescued refugees from entering Italian ports.
"I really, honestly, believe the prime minister is going to do a tremendous job," Trump said of Conte. "I hope more leaders will follow this example, including leaders in Europe," he added, in what was perhaps a reference to Chancellor Merkel, whose refugee policy the U.S. president finds too liberal.
Conte may prove to be a useful tool for the U.S. government, to widen the gap within the European Union. Trump is the first American president since the end of World War II who wants a weak, rather than strong Europe. Conte, it seems, shares this goal. And Italy is not just any country on the continent: It's a founding member of the EU and the third largest economy in the eurozone. Rome, therefore, does have influence and can hamper European integration in many respects.
So far, the Italians haven't met the powerful in Berlin and Paris entirely at eye level — but now they have Trump at their side. During the meeting, he drew several parallels between himself and Conte. Both are political outsiders and stand for change in their countries, the U.S. president said. And they fought against the same challenge, namely to protect their citizens from terrorism and "uncontrolled" immigration. The Italian people have borne a large part of the European burden in the refugee crisis. "There's so many things that bring us together," Conte said, before adding that Italy and the United States are almost like "twin countries."
We're partners now.
But what is Trump hoping to gain by allying himself with Conte and thus pushing forward a fragmentation of the EU? Above all, advantage in trade policy. So far, the U.S. government has had to negotiate its contracts with the EU Commission — which is very self-confident, since Europe is an important market for American companies. If Trump could sign agreements with individual European countries instead, he would probably be able to impose significantly tougher conditions on them. For a president who sees the world through the eyes of a businessman, this is an important point.
Initially, things were good between Trump and Macron. Now Conte has replaced the Frenchman. A few weeks ago, at the G7 Summit in Canada, it was clear for the first time that the two were like peas in a pod. It was there that Trump proposed bringing Russia back into the group, after it was expelled in 2014 following the annexation of Crimea, in violation of international law. Everyone was outraged, except for one: Conte.
Merkel and Macron were quickly able to talk the Italian out of the idea — after all, he had only been in office for a few days, at that time. But it's quite possible that those times are now over. And that Conte, now that the alliance with Trump is solidifying, no longer listens so quickly to his fellow Europeans.
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.
"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.
Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release
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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