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Refugees, The Moral Failure Of Poland’s Leaders

The recent visit by Pope Francis highlighted how little Polish leaders care about the emergency of Europe's refugee crisis.

Anti-immigration protests in Warsaw last February
Anti-immigration protests in Warsaw last February
Jakub Halcewicz

-OpEd-

WARSAW â€" The current Polish government is not fit to have talks with the leaders of the modern world â€" be it Barack Obama or Pope Francis.

While on board his plane to Poland for last month's World Youth Day celebration, the pope told journalists â€" not for the first time â€" that "the world is at war" because it has lost the way to peace. Can he count on the Polish people as allies to find that peace?

During his first speech at Wawel Castle in Kraków, Francis said the world needs "a spirit of readiness to welcome those fleeing from wars and hunger, and solidarity with those deprived of their fundamental rights, including the right to profess one’s faith in freedom and safety.”

Now let's go back to reality. Our reality.

Are we Poles and the Polish political elite ready to accept those people fleeing from wars and hunger? We are one of the biggest European Union countries â€" for many, a symbol of freedom and democracy regained, belonging to the happy and wealthy part of the world. Are we aware of the responsibility that this entails?

Unfortunately, it's highly doubtful. The refugee crisis did not begin yesterday, yet until now we as a country and as citizens did not do much to prepare for it, or in any way tried to resolve it. During parliamentary debate over the past four years, development assistance has barely ever been mentioned (as verified by the fact-checking website MamPrawoWiedzieć). Not once did members of Parliament discuss the main aim of the development assistance, which is fighting poverty.

Under the current government, anger towards foreigners has multiplied, and our involvement in crisis solution has been nearly non-existent. At a global conference aimed at helping territories around Syria hosting refugees, we pledged less financial assistance than Hungary, the Czech Republic or Slovakia. And the Polish officials sometimes explain that instead of accepting refugees, they should be helped at places from which they are coming.

On his recent trip here, the pope tried to bring us closer to the problems of war, refugees and migration. Regardless of how we interpret his words, he said much worth remembering. President Andrzej Duda and his government have thus far shared no insights into how Poland can take part in resolving the problems of Europe and the world. Perhaps there isn't any plan to do so.

Luckily a country is something more than just the government. Francis urged young people to get involved and try to change the status quo. ""People may judge you to be dreamers, because you believe in a new humanity, one that rejects hatred between peoples, one that refuses to see borders as barriers and can cherish its own traditions without being self-centered or small-minded. Don’t be discouraged."" What will Poland do now that the pope has returned to Rome?

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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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