Scotland's Vote, Hitler's Food Taster, Monster Black Hole

Scotland's day of reckoning
Scotland's day of reckoning

The time has come for Scottish voters to decide whether they want to live in an independent Scotland or remain part of the United Kingdom. Polling stations will be open until 10 p.m. local time ,and the results are expected by tomorrow morning, though the counting could take longer than usual, as authorities believe the turnout will be historically high, with 97% of the electorate having registered to vote, the BBC explains.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko will be in Washington today for a meeting with President Barack Obama focused on economic and military aid, The Washington Post reports, although it is “far from clear” whether Poroshenko will obtain “a substantial new pledge” of U.S. support. This comes amid growing hopes that the conflict in eastern Ukraine might be nearing an end. A fragile two-week-old ceasefire is still in place, and Moscow has welcomed Kiev’s pledge to allow more autonomy to rebel-held regions, AFP reports. Meanwhile, a team of BBC reporters said they had been attacked in southern Russia.

The only survivor of Adolf Hitler’s 15 young food tasters has broken her silence on what life was like at “Wolf’s Lair” headquarters during World War II. “There were constant rumors that the British were out to poison Hitler,” Margot Wölk told a German television program of her job to make sure the Nazi leader’s food wasn’t poisoined. “Some of the girls started to shed tears as they began eating because they were so afraid. We had to eat it all up.” Read more in English from The Independent.

The U.S. House of Representatives yesterday approved President Obama’s $500 million plan to train and arm the “moderate” Syrian fighters who oppose both President Bashar al-Assad and ISIS forces, while the U.S. President renewed his promise that American troops would not be involved on the ground. Reuters reported this morning that ISIS fighters had seized 16 Kurdish villages in northern Syria in their march towards Ayn al-Arab, the third-largest Kurdish city in Syria.

As Caixin reports, while criticism of medical care in China grows, public hospitals are offering a solution that is laughably shallow: “‘stewardess nurses,’ sporting smart uniforms, pretty faces and nice airs while providing services such as greeting people with smiles at the entrance, offering cups of water or opening the elevator door for patients.”
Read the full article, A Bogus Cure For Chinese Hospitals: Airline-Style Hostesses.

Chinese President Xi Jinping began a three-day visit to India yesterday, the first by a Chinese head of state in eight years, aimed at boosting cooperation between the two countries through increased investment and trade, AP reports. This is a win-win situation for both, according to The New York Times, as China can “channel billions of dollars into Indian infrastructure and manufacturing projects, allowing Mr. Modi to pursue the jobs-creation agenda that was at the heart of his campaign.” The meetings between Xi Jinping and India Prime Minister Narendra Modi come amid ongoing reports in the Indian press of face-offs on the border. Read more from The Indian Express.

“Xi Jinping's thinking is more realistic and more open-minded,” Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama said of the Chinese head of state.

Apple released its latest iPhone operating system iOS8 yesterday, and in doing so the company announced that the new encryption system included in the software update makes it impossible for them to unlock iPhones and iPads to the police, even with a search warrant, The Washington Post reports. The move represents a big step away from what critics have denounced as Apple’s close collaboration with the U.S. government and the NSA in particular. Apple also published a new section on its website dedicated to privacy, defending its policy in the wake of the scandal that followed the leak of personal celebrity photos.

Astronomers using data from the Hubble Space Telescope have found what NASA calls “an unlikely object in an improbable place — a monster black hole lurking inside one of the tiniest galaxies ever known.” Read more here.

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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

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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