Milena Rachid Chehab
March 01, 2013
LONDON – If there is one thing the world should be grateful to the Polish people for, it is Q-tips.
The world just wouldn’t be the same if Leo Gerstenzang hadn’t invented them in 1923. With his invention, he joined the ranks of other famous Poles such as John Paul II, Scarlett Johansson, Lech Walesa and Roman Polanski. Or so says a hastily written fact sheet published recently in the Times of London.
A new census showed that for the first time in a thousand years, Polish was the second most used language in the United Kingdom after English (and Welsh). Polish is spoken by 546,000 people in Britain, but this doesn’t mean that Poles have dethroned the biggest minorities – Pakistani and Indian. It is just that they speak many dialects, creating a confusion in the statistics.
To find out how we Poles are perceived in the UK, I headed to a pub near London. As if on cue, a Polish song was playing, meaning the bartender is Polish. He doesn’t speak Polish though, even when he knows he is serving compatriots.
Malcom, a faithful Daily Mail reader starts by saying, “No offense, but the Poles…” and goes on with a long litany of complaints about what he calls “the immigration disaster:” Polish people stealing jobs from crisis-stricken Britons, and who send the money they earn back to Poland. The Daily Mail recently calculated Western Union money transfers to Poland at around one billion pounds – $1.5 billion.
Even though some work hard, says Malcom, many are unemployed and on welfare benefits, costing British tax payers around 24 million pounds ($36 million) a year. Because of this, the government is going to have to cut benefits for everyone. But don’t take it personally, he adds. The man sitting next to Malcolm tries to comfort me by saying that many Poles work really hard, like plumbers (even though they charge 50 pounds – $75 –just for walking in the door). Also, recently he saw on National Geographic that Polish and British pilots saved England during WWII, even though he can’t remember the details.
They’re just like us, adds another man, they just drink more vodka.
Do British people like Polish people? It’s difficult to know. British people are an extremely diverse society in regard to ethnicity, language and class. The British middle-class sees Poles as hard-working people, while British immigrants of Indian or Caribbean origin see them as intolerant and racist.
This is how Malcolm and his friends say they can recognize a Pole (or at least an Eastern European):
- He has a moustache.
- He’s a queue jumper, especially on the bus, as opposed to British people, who will queue even if there is only one person.
- When they are in a bad mood or they feel unwell, they blame it on the atmospheric pressure.
- They drink herbal teas or sour lemon tea and eat sour pickles. And dumplings. And sausage.
- They prefer to go to the dentist or doctor in Poland (which is understandable when considering the quality of the National Health Service).
One of the things Malcom and friends found most shocking about Poles is that they hardly ever meet friends in a pub. They always invite you to their house, which means hours spent talking at the kitchen table – something usually reserved for tea with an old aunt, not a drink with friends.
But what disgusts them most is that Poles eat carp for Christmas – a Polish delicacy that in the UK enjoys similar esteem to that of pigeons or rats. Also, this has led to the decimation of the carp population in England. So much so that the Environment Agency has had to put up posters in English and Polish to warn people against fishing without proper permits and licenses. A special patrol has also been set up to keep a close eye on rivers and lakes across the UK.
Carp endangerment is not the only scandal. Poles also pick mushrooms, to eat them. That is pretty baffling to English people, who only know two kinds of fungi: cultivated mushrooms that are edible, and wild mushrooms. The Daily Telegraph’s culinary critic once explained that Poles and Italians have mushrooming in their blood, because they come from poor peasant stock whose main source of food was the forest.
(credit: Robert Scarth)
The British are also offended by our manners – our moodiness and rudeness. Even on good days, we hardly ever chirp, “How are you?” The issue was clarified thanks to Doctor Jorg Zinken from the University of Portsmouth, who said this unfortunate habit was actually do the differences in the English language and Polish grammar. Zinken spent two years recording conversations in Polish and Polish-English homes to analyze how they communicated with each other. His research showed that the way Polish people address their friends or family – saying “Pass the milk” instead of “Could you pass the milk, please?” – wasn’t rudeness, just good intentions lost in translation.
An analysis of the perception of Poles by the British press shows, however, that the immigrant wave from Poland was initially greeted with enthusiasm. "The Polish people are among the most likeable in Europe – friendly, hard-working, freedom-loving bunch of grafters," wrote The Mirror. They quickly adapt to the environment and learn English, and go largely unnoticed. They do not want to kill us and work very hard, said The Times.
But when the wave of immigration got "out of control" (according to The Sun), they rapidly changed their tune: They sit at home all the time, don’t have English friends, do not go to the movies nor restaurants. They are obsessed with saving money, do not pay the bills and are in debt. And when things get rough, they can disappear as quickly as they had arrived, wrote The Daily Telegraph.
Meanwhile, as soon as there is a little snow, the British close schools and offices citing “extreme weather conditions”. Even though there are only a few centimeters of snow, a public transport and road Armageddon begins. But despite this, the heroic Pole continues to go to work in the morning. If the bus or the trains don’t come, the heroic Pole will walk several miles on foot. It doesn’t occur to the heroic Pole that the factory is closed.
Interestingly however, in spite of the cultural differences, a study conducted by the Institute of Public Affairs in 2010 showed that a third of Britons believe that the Poles are like them, while a fourth believe they are just slightly different.
This does not mean that everyone would like a Polish boss (only 53%), or a Polish daughter in law (only 21%). But sooner or later, they may have one.
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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.
October 22, 2021
"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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