The World Today for February 16, 2018



White Sands and Despots

The Maldives is a lush place, a high-end vacation destination with white sands, turquoise waters, rich reefs and small, quiet islands that attract travelers and honeymooners from around the world.

These days, though, there is trouble in this Indian Ocean paradise – for the second time in a decade.

On Feb. 5, Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen declared a state of emergency after the country’s Supreme Court ordered the release of several opposition lawmakers, saying their trials were politically motivated, CNBC explained.

Yameen then sent security forces into the Supreme Court building to arrest a few justices on the pretext that they were planning a coup.

At the same time, police arrested ex-President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who coincidentally is Yameen’s half-brother. Gayoom ruled the Maldives for 30 years before the country moved to democracy in 2008.

Gayoom was considered a despot. But since he gave up power, he’s restyled himself as a liberal democrat and has been highly critical of Yameen – apparently with good reason.

“President Yameen has systematically alienated his coalition, jailed or exiled every major opposition political figure, deprived elected members of parliament of their right to represent their voters in the legislature, revised laws to erode human rights … and weakened the institutions of government,” the US State Department said.

Since he assumed power in 2013, Yameen has become a “full-blown” dictator whose quest to remain in power is presenting the worst characteristics of that kind of ruler, the Economist reported. “Grievance and paranoia come naturally to the president,” the British magazine wrote.

Meanwhile, the country’s political establishment is rising up against Yameen.

Former President Mohamed Nasheed resigned in 2012 amid civil unrest and at gunpoint, he claims. Now in exile in Britain, he has called on the president to release Gayoom. Nasheed is reputed to be considering running against Yameen in presidential elections later this year. Gayoom ordered Nasheed tortured when the latter was a political activist under the former’s regime, by the way.

Yameen has reached out to China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia for diplomatic support during the crisis. The Associated Press noted that critics like Nasheed have complained that Chinese support for Yameen comes with strings attached, like accepting a greater Chinese presence in the region. China dismisses those claims.

Writing in the Guardian, author J.J. Robinson blamed the judiciary for much of the current and previous contretemps on the islands. Many of the country’s judges and magistrates were appointed during Gayoom’s autocracy and given life tenure – and half them have less than seventh-grade educations.

Regardless, it’s clear that the problems of this island nation go deeper than a stacked judiciary. What comes next is anyone’s guess.



Non-Consenting Adults

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has officially been accused of “causing further harm” with a formal ban on sex between government ministers and their subordinates.

Announced Thursday, the ban was meant to defuse a scandal caused by Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce’s revelation he is expecting a baby with his press secretary, the Associated Press reported. But a day later Joyce himself attacked Turnbull in what The Australian billed as a “dramatic press conference,” accusing the PM of an “inept” response that has worsened a political crisis that threatens to derail the coalition between their Liberal and National parties.

Refusing what he took as a veiled request for him to resign, Joyce, who is married with four daughters, instead accused the Liberal Party’s Turnbull of meddling in National Party affairs, the Guardian reported. Observers suggest the relationship between the two leaders, if not their respective parties, is “terminal,” the paper said, quoting an unnamed MP as calling it “a political marriage where they are only staying together for the kids”.


Bad Fences, Good Neighbors

On a brief stopover in Beirut, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called on Israel to stop construction of a wall on its frontier with Lebanon until the two countries agree on the actual border.

The US is attempting to mediate a dispute between the two neighbors over maritime drilling rights and the demarcation of the border, but he also called on Hezbollah to curtail its activities outside Lebanon in a bid to defuse regional tensions, the Associated Press reported.

There are more than 300 square miles of waters claimed by the two countries, where Lebanon recently signed a deal with an international consortium to start exploratory offshore drilling next year.

Considered a terrorist group by the US, Israel and others, Hezbollah’s political wing has 12 seats in Lebanon’s 128-member parliament and two ministers on Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s cabinet.

That did not stop Tillerson from accusing the group of perpetuating bloodshed in Syria by helping to prop up President Bashar al-Assad and fueling violence in Iraq and Yemen.


The Center Cannot Hold

Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn resigned Thursday, following violent protests that forced his government to release several high-profile political prisoners.

The resignation was “just a matter of time” following the release this week of two prominent journalists who spent seven years in prison and Bekele Gerba, one of the country’s most important opposition figures, who was jailed in 2015, the New York Times quoted a local political analyst as saying.

A regional powerhouse and US ally in the war on terror, Ethiopia has faced violent unrest for more than two years, as protesters demand economic and political reforms.  Hailemariam had attempted to ease some of the pressure by releasing hundreds of political prisoners in January, but his government had continued to hold some of the most high-profile leaders in detention.

Earlier this week, as many as 20 people were killed during protests in the province of Oromia intended to speed further releases, while a broader crackdown on protesters has killed at least 669 people over the past two years, according to the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission.


The Ultimate Headbanger

Football season may be over but researchers are still trying to investigate the extent to which players suffer from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurological condition caused by repeated head injuries that can lead to behavioral change or dementia.

And they’re looking to nature’s headbanger, the woodpecker, to develop a possible treatment.

According to a study recently published in the journal PLOS One, researchers at Boston University examined the development of CTE in the brains of 10 downy woodpeckers and compared them to the brains of five control birds that don’t engage in high-impact pecking.

The researchers looked for accumulations of “tau,” a protein that builds up in the brains of individuals with neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and of athletes in high-impact sports.

The presence of accumulations of the protein in woodpeckers would indicate that their bodies haven’t evolved to protect themselves against daily pecking, despite their thick necks and skulls.

In a twist of fate, researchers found that eight out of the 10 woodpeckers had the protein clumps in their brains, Deutsche Welle reported, whereas none of the control birds did.

Researchers are now hoping to find out whether the presence of tau clumps is pathological, neutral or advantageous.

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