The World Today for August 10, 2016

NEED TO KNOW

Going Missing

Malaysia has become notorious for losing things.

First, it was Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, a Boeing 777 that disappeared with 239 people on board while flying to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur in March 2014. Then it was a billion U.S. dollars – or at least $731 million – missing from a government investment fund called 1 Malaysia Development Berhad, or 1MDB.

The prevailing suspicion is that MH370’s pilot deliberately flew the plane into the sea, and the country’s Prime Minister Najib Razak deliberately made the 1MDB money disappear into his pockets.

Neither mystery looks likely to be resolved to universal satisfaction. But the 1MDB scandal, far from ending Najib’s 40-year career in politics, looks to be propelling him to grab more power, according to the New York Times.

For his part, Najib admits that hundreds of millions of dollars moved from the government fund to his personal account. But he insists he has done nothing wrong or for personal gain. His lawyers maintained in January that $681 million of the funds in question comprised a gift from Saudi Arabia and he’d returned all but $61 million. Few were convinced.

Described by U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch in July as “the largest kleptocracy case” in U.S. legal history, the story is reminiscent of one of the shady conspiracies at the center of an airport thriller.

The justice department alleges that along with the money found in Najib’s account at least $3.5 billion was stolen from 1MDB – which was set up in 2009 to promote economic development. Instead of being used to build roads or hospitals, an unknown amount of the missing cash was channeled through the accounts of various associates back to the PM, who “embarked on a lavish spending spree across the world,” writes the Guardian in an excellent long read about how the alleged heist was first uncovered.

Najib is not named in the justice department’s case – which centers on Malaysian financier Jho Low, a friend of his stepson – though the case documents refer to the PM obliquely as “Malaysian Official 1.” It’s also not clear what it may cost him.

The civil case is aimed at seizing the assets associated with the missing $3.5 billion, the Wall Street Journal reported recently in another lengthy article that lays out the money trail. That booty includes luxury real estate in Manhattan, Beverly Hills and London, as well as a private jet and $200 million worth of artworks by artists like van Gogh and Monet. Other funds, ironically, went to the production of the Wolf of Wall Street – whose protagonists Low, and perhaps Najib, might have recognized as kindred spirits.

At home in Malaysia, however, the public embarrassment has encouraged Najib to consolidate his power, rather than tempting him to resign. That, in turn, has raised questions about the country’s democratic credentials and the supposed stability that made it a popular target for foreign investment in the first place.

Since the case first surfaced a year ago, the prime minister has used his powers to impede the domestic investigation into the matter and silence his critics, and he’s used money – ill-gotten or legitimate – to buy the loyalty of other party leaders by “making it rain.”

In recent months, the government has resorted more frequently to the colonial-era Sedition Law to muzzle free speech, and a new security law that gives Najib sweeping emergency powers came into force last week, prompting criticism from a United Nations human rights official that it may lead to “unjust restrictions” on freedom of speech and assembly, according to the Associated Press.

“The likelihood of the [National Security Council act] being utilized in order to crack down against any act of civil movement is likely to steadily increase as maneuvering space for the PM decreases,” Sevan Doraisamy, executive director at Suaram, a human rights NGO, told the Guardian.

WANT TO KNOW

Fun & Games in Brasilia

As the world watches the Olympic Games in Rio, the Brazilian Senate voted early Wednesday morning to indict beleaguered President Dilma Rousseff on charges of breaking the country’s budget laws.

The senators’ vote of 59-21 in the capital of Brasilia opens up the impeachment trial proceedings against Rousseff in a scandal that has rocked Brazilian politics since January.

If convicted, Rousseff would be definitively removed from office and interim President Michael Temer would be confirmed to serve out the rest of her term through 2018.

The vote Wednesday indicated that it might be game over for Rousseff, who has lost support among senators since an earlier vote last December, writes Reuters.

A final verdict in the impeachment trial is expected at the end of the month. Two-thirds of the 81-seat Senate will have to vote in favor of impeachment to convict Rousseff, five votes fewer than her opponents delivered Wednesday.

A Taste of Honey

Irom Chanu Sharmila, one of India’s most prominent activists, ended a nearly-16-year hunger strike Tuesday by licking honey off of her palm. She plans to run for political office in her home state of Manipur.

Sharmila, held in judicial custody for years in a hospital where she was force-fed through a tube in her nose to keep her alive, had been granted bail after she said she would end her hunger strike.

The 44-year-old activist carried out her hunger strike in protest against India’s 1958 Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which shields military personnel from civil prosecution in conflict-ridden areas across India. She began her hunger strike in November 2000 when soldiers killed 10 people in a village near Imphal in northeastern India.

At a press conference in Imphal Tuesday, Sharmila said she was ending her hunger strike to bring her fight into the political arena. She said she would run as an independent candidate for chief minister in the conflict- and corruption-ridden state of Manipur and attempt to remove the law via the democratic process.

Renewed Assaults

The military coalition led by Saudi Arabia has resumed airstrikes in Yemen following the collapse of UN-brokered peace talks in Kuwait, killing more than a dozen people in the capital of Sana’a.

Coalition jets bombed a potato factory situated inside an army maintenance camp in the first such attacks since April, when a shaky and often-violated ceasefire was put in place. Over half of the victims were women who worked at the factory, writes the Guardian.

Sana’a is currently controlled by Houthi fighters allied to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and in rebellion against ousted president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies consider the Houthi fighters, who belong to a sect of Shia Islam, to be proxies of Iran. The Saudi-led coalition has carried out airstrikes in Yemen since last March to reinstate Hadi, who is currently based in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, and roll back Houthi advances.

DISCOVERIES

Running Out Earlier

The world passed an ominous milestone earlier this week: Earth Overshoot Day, the date each year when humanity has used up as many natural resources as the Earth can provide in a single year.

Also known as Ecological Debt Day, Earth Overshoot Day fell on Monday, August 8 this year – its earliest yet.

“Earth Overshoot Day is computed by dividing the planet’s biocapacity (the amount of ecological resources Earth is able to generate that year) by humanity’s Ecological Footprint (humanity’s demand for that year),” says the Global Footprint Network, the international think tank that calculates the timing of Earth Overshoot Day, on its website.

That ratio is then multiplied by 365 to determine the date that Earth’s annual resources have been expended.

An earlier Earth Overshoot Day is nothing to celebrate – last year’s date was August 13, while in the early 2000s it fell in late September. But there is some room for optimism, say scientists.

While the date of Earth Overshoot Day has crept forward every year since its inception, the pace of the creeping has slowed down, indicating that humanity is making some efforts to live more within its ecological means.

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