The World Today for November 01, 2017



Jumping the Gun

One of the world’s few remaining communist states, Laos is also one of Asia’s poorest. It also holds the grotesque distinction of being the most bombed country in history.

From 1964 until 1973 – during the height of the Vietnam War – the CIA carried out large-scale bombing raids in Laos to prevent supplies from reaching communist forces in South Vietnam via the Ho Chi Minh Trail. In those nine years, 270 million cluster bombs were dropped on the country, killing 200,000 people, according to the Washington Post.

After the war, the country was devastated and, for the most part, remained internationally isolated for decades.

But in 1997, Laos became a member of ASEAN. Almost a decade later, Laos joined the World Trade Organization. It opened its first stock exchange a few years later and played host to both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in 2012 and 2016, respectively, the BBC reported. They were the first high-ranking American officials to visit in more than five decades.

Laos’ slow creep is giving way to rapid change.

With strong tailwinds, a different kind of Laotian leader is attempting to combat corruption and repair regional and international relationships. Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith is raising hopes that Laos may finally embrace the global community, the Diplomat reported.

He’s leading a personal crusade against corrupt officials who have stolen an estimated $123 million from the nation’s already bare coffers, spearheading new projects for energy independence, pacifying potential regional conflicts and seeking international aid.

Thongloun, who took office in 2016, has public support for his anti-corruption drive, according to Ian Baird, a Laos expert at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “There seems to be a lot of support for him since he’s creating a more transparent atmosphere for discussion and generally setting a more progressive agenda,” Baird told the Asia Times.

Laos, meanwhile, already has one of the fastest-growing economies in Asia – though admittedly it starts from a low base. That’s helping Thongloun in his mission, say analysts.

But in Laos – like elsewhere in the region – new markets and more wealth are bolstering rather than undermining the repressive regime, the Economist reported. Economic success is ironically lending legitimacy to the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, the notoriously opaque force that has ruled the country since 1975.

There’s no civil society in Laos. The state controls the media tightly and routinely jails opposition activists, Human Rights Watch reported. Authorities have clamped down on free speech on the internet, even though only 18 percent of the population is online.

Thongloun is Laos’ best hope for the party, observers say. There is rising public discontent with party officials and their “increasingly ostentatious displays of wealth” and he knows it, the Asia Times reported.

At the same time, the Laotian leader treads on tricky ground by targeting powerful party leaders. Baird says if he pushes too hard, it could cause a backlash that jeopardizes his own position. If he goes too soft, he risks frustrating voters.

Still, say analysts, it’s about the economy: If it continues to grow, no one will care much what he does.



Suspicious Minds

Russia has invited representatives of Syria’s Kurdish population to a planned congress of Syria’s rival parties in November in a bid to put an end to the Syrian civil war along with the fight against Islamic State.

It would mark the first time Syria’s main Kurdish groups have been included in peace talks, although they now control at least a quarter of the country, Reuters reported. Moscow has said the congress will focus on “compromise solutions” for ending the conflict, which began more than six years ago with street protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

After intervening to prop up Assad, Moscow hopes to keep him in power, while Washington says he’s got to go. So far, Russia’s efforts have had no more success than a parallel US- and United Nations-backed peace process in Geneva.

But the timing may be right for its “Syrian Congress on National Dialogue” on Nov. 18 in Sochi – even if Assad’s main opposition views the effort with suspicion.


Man in a Box

Refugees and asylum seekers at a controversial Australian detention center on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island are refusing to leave, saying they fear attacks from locals if they are relocated to the nearby city of Lorengau.

Australia cut off supplies of food and water to the detention center Tuesday and switched off the electricity in an effort to complete closure plans that have been in place since April, the New York Times reported.

The problem stems from an Australian law that prevents it from accepting refugees who arrive in the country by boat – which is designed to discourage human smuggling and dangerous sea crossings. But human rights groups object to its offshore detention policy, which effectively imprisons people who have not been convicted of any crime.

On Tuesday, however, detainees barricaded the camp with wire, claiming such measures were necessary to protect themselves from the same locals they’d be living among if the relocation plans come to fruition. Some of them have already been approved for asylum in the US, while others are in legal limbo.


Double-edged Sword

French President Emmanuel Macron has officially declared an end to the state of emergency imposed after a series of coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015.

Even so, human rights groups say a sweeping new counterterrorism law he signed on Tuesday enshrines the emergency measures indefinitely.

The law gives enforcement agencies greater authority to conduct searches, to close religious facilities and to restrict the movements of people suspected of extremist ties, the UK’s Independent newspaper reported.

Macron says those powers will allow the authorities to protect public gatherings like Christmas markets. But it will also allow them to shutter places of worship “for incitement to commit terrorist acts” and to set up police checkpoints for ID verification as far as 6 miles away from international airports and train stations.

Human rights groups argue that the measures could violate citizens’ rights to liberty, security, freedom of assembly and freedom of religion.


Roll Call

Skipping a college lecture is commonplace in the West. But a professor at the Communication University of China is employing Orwellian tactics to stop the practice: facial recognition software.

Before each class, the 300 students in Professor Shen Hao’s class have their pictures taken in front of his tablet computer and are matched with their enrollment photos in the school’s database, China Daily reported.

“The traditional way of tracking attendance is through a roll call. The new system saves time and reduces the workload of teachers,” said Shen.

The software is eerily accurate and can even identify students who change their hairstyle or wear heavy makeup, the BBC reported.

Some students boast that it’s a “novel idea,” but many are concerned about the controversial approach. Students around the country told the BBC they hope the technology won’t be emulated elsewhere.

It is not the first time that China has used facial recognition technology in public spaces, however. A few months ago, a tourist site implemented the technology to stop people from stealing toilet paper from public restrooms.

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