The World Today for February 24, 2017


The Trouble with Monks

The idyllic Thai island that Leonardo DiCaprio made famous in the 2000 film “The Beach” is as picturesque as ever.

But that doesn’t mean all is right in the Southeast Asian kingdom.

While tourists in beautiful Thailand enjoyed the sun and fun this past week, the country’s military junta had dispatched 4,000 soldiers and police to the Dhammakaya temple on the north side of Bangkok because the Buddhist monks there practice a form of their religion that rubs officials the wrong way, Reuters reported.

In response, thousands of worshippers have surrounded the temple in a human shield.

Thai leaders believe the monks have links to the “red shirt” populist movement of Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister overthrown in a 2006 coup that put the country’s current military junta into power. Disputes between the red shirts and “yellow shirts” who opposed Shinawatra led to years of political instability that reached a climax when the current military junta assumed power in another coup in 2014.

More than 10 times the size of the Vatican, the temple is the largest in Thailand. It’s also the headquarters of a massive organization of around 3 million followers around the world. Critics say the sect’s television stations and fundraising activities flout the Buddha’s teaching to renounce material goods. Others have alleged that the temple has engaged in criminal activity, including accepting donations from embezzled funds, according to the Economist.

The monks don’t see anything wrong with raising money. “Buddha never taught us to live in hardship,” a temple spokesman told the Sydney Morning Herald.

Ordered to hand over their former abbot, 72-year-old Phra Dhammachayo, the monks said he left last week and now is in hiding due to ill health.

Al Jazeera’s correspondent wondered if the standoff was a sign of renewed political instability in Thailand or the end of the same.

Shortly before security forces showed up, King Vajiralongkorn rejected the expected nominee to become Thailand’s next Supreme Patriarch, or top Buddhist monk, who had ties to the Dhammakaya Temple. Instead, he appointed a member of the country’s mainstream Buddhist sect.

Known for his jet-setting days as a playboy prince, the king succeeded his late father in December. Many wondered how he might rule. His appointment suggests the monks don’t have a friend in the monarchy.

Whether the allegations against the monks are true or not is unclear. But they are disobeying the authorities, albeit authorities who maintain power by force. The question is whether the military will eventually quash the monks’ resistance and consolidate power further or if the monks might inspire others to resist the junta and ignite a new period of turbulence in the country.


Daily Grind

Iraqi troops continued their push into Mosul, seizing most of the airport on Thursday in what marks a significant advance in the drawn-out battle to take back Iraq’s second-largest city from the Islamic State.

It took Iraqi forces 100 days to seize the eastern half of Mosul, and about 500 Iraqi military personnel were killed and about 3,000 were wounded in that operation. The troops then took a three-week pause before pursuing the complete expulsion of the remaining jihadists.

The renewed offensive was preceded by a week of American-led airstrikes, during which 158 bombs were dropped on 33 targets, including what was believed to be the headquarters of the commanders of the Islamic State.

“They are ahead of schedule of where we thought they would be,” said Brig. Gen. Hugh McAslan of New Zealand.

Shoot the Messenger

Philippine authorities arrested a senator who has been a leading critic of President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal war on drugs on Friday on charges that she took bribes from drug traffickers.

“These are all lies,” the New York Times quoted the senator, Leila de Lima, as saying before being led away by police. “The truth will come out at the right time. If they think they can stop me from fighting these daily murders, they are wrong.”

Last year, de Lima chaired a senate panel probing Duterte’s crackdown on users and sellers of narcotics, under which thousands of people have been killed by the police or by vigilantes since Duterte took office in June. Before being removed as head of the panel, de Lima heard testimony from a self-professed hit man who claimed he belonged to a death squad that had been overseen by Duterte when he was mayor of Davao City.

Subsequently, a separate House of Representatives panel heard testimony from imprisoned drug kingpins who said that they had bribed de Lima through her driver.

On the High Seas

The Guatemalan army detained a boat carrying a shipment of abortion pills and offering to ferry women into international waters to undergo abortions, blocking the efforts of a Dutch nonprofit called Women on Waves.

The vessel remains in military custody with some of its seven crew members still aboard, after landing at a private pier at the Port of San Jose, 75 miles south of the capital, Reuters quoted a spokeswoman for the group as saying.

The organization provides free abortion services for women pregnant up to 10 weeks, beyond the territorial waters of countries like Guatemala, where abortion is illegal.

The trip was the first made by the organization since Morocco blocked a ship from entering one of its harbors in 2012. The group chose Guatemala for this effort because its abortion laws are among the world’s most stringent, resulting in some 65,000 illegal abortions a year.


Somewhere Out There

Scientists just discovered seven Earth-sized reasons to think that we’re not alone in the universe.

In a paper published recently in the journal Nature, astronomers confirmed the existence of not one, but seven exoplanets roughly the same size as our Earth orbiting a dwarf star some 235 trillion miles away named Trappist-1. The star is about half as hot and eight percent of the size of our sun.

While scientists have discovered some 3,400 new planets over the last few decades, this find marks the first time so many have been discovered at one time, the New York Times reported.

Based on observations, scientists speculate that the fourth, fifth and sixth planets in the star’s orbit are in a sweet spot that could allow them to support oceans and, therefore, life.

Scientists’ next step will be to measure the wavelengths of light reflecting off of the planets in order to discern their atmospheric make-up.

The observation of oxygen, together with methane, ozone and carbon dioxide “would tell us there is life with 99 percent confidence,” said Michael Gillon, an astronomer at the University of Liege in Belgium and the leader of the international team who made the find.

It might be time to start assembling the welcome committee. Click here to for a visual breakdown of the scientists’ find.

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