The World Today for September 21, 2018

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Paradise Lost

The turquoise waters, white sand and glorious flora and fauna of the Maldives – an archipelago in the Indian Ocean home to around 400,000 residents – is truly a tropical paradise.

That’s why tourism accounted for almost one-quarter of the nation’s gross domestic product in 2016, and why thousands submitted applications to become a “barefoot bookseller” for the islands’ wealthy visitors earlier this month.

But don’t be fooled by the beauty: When it comes to democratic freedoms, the Maldives is paradise lost.

Take the nation’s flagship industry. Much of the development contracts on once barren islands over the past years have been awarded in no-bid deals to firms that line the pockets of political elites, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project recently reported.

The nation’s controversial president, Yameen Abdul Gayoom, who’s up for re-election on Sunday, is also accused of having received patronage from development deals that were never realized – casting doubt on how legitimate this weekend’s presidential elections will actually be.

That’s because, with the tourism industry in his pocket, Yameen can influence some 28,000 Maldivians working in the country’s resorts, the Maldives Independent reported. The digital newspaper wrote that workers in remote resort destinations are often bribed to vote for the ruling party, and their ballot boxes surveilled to guarantee their allegiance.

And that’s not the only trick Yameen has pulled.

The half-brother of the Maldives’ former dictator, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, Yameen came to power in 2013, after the nation’s first elected president, Mohamed Nasheed, resigned in disputed circumstances, the Associated Press reported.

Since then, Yameen has focused his energy on securing quick influxes of cash from China and other foreign developers to subsidize popular infrastructure projects, while steamrolling the opposition by way of political and judicial arrests, media blackouts, ballot-stuffing and even bizarre claims of sorcery, wrote Human Rights Watch.

The tactics have prompted international condemnation from both the US and the EU, which have threatened sanctions should elections fail to be free and fair Sunday.

But the threats are of little consequence to Yameen, who’s chosen the route of Chinese and Saudi development money in lieu of the democratic stipulations tied to Western investment, the Parliament Magazine wrote.

It’s why Human Rights Watch’s Asia Associate Director Patricia Gossman believes that President Yameen is all but assured a victory on election day, only cementing the nation’s slide back to authoritarian rule.

And no amount of beauty can turn such a reality into a paradise.



Return to Sender

The US-backed Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said they’re holding around 500 foreign jihadists who traveled to Syria to fight for Islamic State and insisted they must be repatriated to their home countries.

Kurdish foreign affairs official Abdel Karim Omar told Agence France-Presse that “around 520 Daesh [IS] mercenaries, as well as 550 women and around 1,200 children from 44 countries” were in the SDF’s custody, the BBC reported.

“For us, it is a very large number because these Daeshis are dangerous and they committed massacres, and their presence in our detention is an opportunity for the international community to put them on trial,” Omar said, according to Reuters.

Sending any of them home will likely prove difficult, however, as other nations are reluctant to accept the captured militants, according to the BBC’s Middle East analyst, Alan Johnston. Notably, the SDF also has considerably less bargaining power than Washington, which struggled to find countries willing to take prisoners held in Guantanamo.


Show Me the Money

Police in Nigeria have recovered nearly half a billion dollars as part of President Muhammadu Buhari’s nationwide anti-corruption drive.

Police confiscated some $470.5 million in alleged stolen funds from bank accounts related to the state oil company, Reuters reported. The money will be placed in a Treasury Single Account (TSA) at the central bank, as per Buhari’s anti-corruption scheme.

The funds were recovered from the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation’s (NNPC) Liquefied Natural Gas business unit.

Nigeria, Africa’s largest producer of crude oil, has long battled with endemic corruption. By some estimates close to $400 billion was stolen between 1960 and 1999, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Buhari’s pledges notwithstanding, Nigeria fell 12 places in Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perception Index in 2017, partly because other countries improved. Earlier this summer, the BBC reported that Nigeria would dole out to the public more than $300 million that was stolen by former military ruler Sani Abacha in the 1990s after it was recovered from Switzerland.


Powerful Euphemisms

Under fire for interning the Muslim minority in “re-education camps” and separating Uighur children from their families, China announced it is investigating one of the few Uighurs to hold a top position in the government on charges of breaking the law and violating party discipline – a phrase that is usually a euphemism for graft.

Under investigation is National Energy Administration Director Nur Bekri, who is also a deputy head of China’s powerful state planning agency, the National Development and Reform Commission, Reuters reported.

Nur Bekri was also the governor of Xinjiang – the restive province where most of the mainly Muslim Uighur people live – from 2008 until 2014. He advocated the restriction of religious activities as part of an effort to curb ethnic violence there, including deadly rioting in the provincial capital of Urumqi in 2009.

He also pushed bilingual education as a path to integrating the Uighur population, though critics said it was, in reality, an effort to further marginalize the Uighurs’ own language and culture.


The Running Man

A new study in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B revealed that humans owe their ability to run and endure long marathons to a broken gene that surfaced in human DNA millions of years ago.

Scientists believe that this genetic change distinguished the hominid species from other primates and helped establish their supremacy on the planet.

“It’s a nice piece of the puzzle about how humans came to be so successful,” biologist Daniel Lieberman, who was not involved in the study, told Science magazine.

The gene – called CMP-Neu5Ac Hydroxylase (CMAH) – is present in both humans and other primates, but the human version is different. Researcher Ajit Varki and his team previously discovered that it lacked the ability to produce a sugar molecule believed to be involved in inflammation and resistance to malaria. The absence of this molecule might have made humans’ muscles more efficient.

Recently, Varki and his team tested the impact of human and primate CMAH in mice and recorded considerable increases in speed and endurance. Mice injected with the human gene could run 12 percent faster and 20 percent longer.

“Nike would pay a lot of money” for a performance increase like that, Lieberman joked.

His team believes the variant gene appeared around three million years ago and benefited humans at a time when climate change was transforming forested landscapes into savannas.


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