The World Today for March 22, 2019

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A Big Show of Votes

A lot is riding on Thailand’s parliamentary elections on March 24.

It will be the first time that voters choose their leaders since a military coup in 2014.

“(The elections) are widely seen as an opportunity for a fresh start after a ‘lost decade’ of squabbling by political elites over the right to rule,” wrote analyst Scott Christensen for the Brookings Institution.

There’s only one problem. A lot of smart observers think the elections will be a joke.

“The vote does not mark a return to democracy but a new phase in military misrule,” the Economist opined.

Newly elected lawmakers won’t have anywhere to meet, for example, the British magazine noted. The king took over Thailand’s former parliament building. Current military leaders have yet to build a new one. The military junta will appoint all 250 members of the Senate. Courts have disqualified many candidates.

The moves symbolize how the generals who have been running the South Asian country for five years have undercut anyone who might oppose them.

The generals are especially working hard to make sure the followers of Thaksin Shinawatra don’t win office and, if they do win, can’t do much, wrote political scientist Brian Klaas in the Washington Post. Shinawatra won landslide victories in 2001 and 2005 but was ousted in a 2006 coup. He went into exile, but his influence continued. His sister Yingluck Shinawatra became prime minister in 2011. She lost her job just before the 2014 coup and later fled the country.

Thaksin Shinawatra is no saint. He’s an authoritarian populist billionaire whose brutal war on drugs reportedly killed thousands, noted the Council on Foreign Relations.

The result is voters splitting over whether they are pro- or anti-military junta.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, installed by the military but running to keep his job, is hoping to convince voters that he’s a steady hand. His allies are promising 6 percent economic growth, or around twice normal rates in recent years, if they are allowed to continue their economic reforms, reported Nikkei Asian Review.

Anti-junta candidates, meanwhile, are pushing policies like abolishing conscription, legalizing marijuana and protecting LGBT rights, in the hope that young voters who have never cast ballots but now comprise 10 percent of the electorate will be a wild card that brings Prayuth’s dreams of power to an end, the Financial Times wrote.

“Soldiers’ job is not to run the country,” said a 20-year-old voter. “Their job is to protect the country.”

She’s right. But she might have to wait for a few more elections for the generals to listen.



Trafficked ‘Brides’

China and Myanmar have failed to stop the trafficking of young women from conflict-torn Kachin state in northern Myanmar to China, where they are frequently sold as “brides” into a life of sexual slavery, according to a new report from Human Rights Watch.

The 226 known cases of such trafficking in 2017 represent a slim fraction of the total number, since many victims are afraid or ashamed to come forward, the rights watchdog group said, according to the Associated Press.

Based on interviews with 37 survivors, the report said the trafficked women were sold for the equivalent of $3,000-$13,000 each.

“Most were locked in a room and raped repeatedly as the families that bought them wanted them to become pregnant,” said Heather Barr, author of the report and a co-director for women’s rights at Human Rights Watch.

The women are lured to China with the promise of jobs – an offer that is especially enticing because of the desperate conditions facing displaced people in Kachin state.


No Quarter

Former Brazilian President Michel Temer was arrested Thursday morning in connection with corruption investigations that began while he was still in office.

Temer, 78, took over as interim president after the impeachment of former President Dilma Rousseff and held office from 2016 to 2018. Temer’s former Mining and Energy Minister Moreira Franco was also arrested, the BBC reported.

Temer has consistently denied any wrongdoing, but his arrest was widely expected once he lost the legal protections provided to serving elected officials in Brazil.

The televised perp walk came nearly a year after the country was obsessed with the trial of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was sentenced to 12 years in prison for corruption and money laundering, the New York Times noted.

Temer was the subject of at least 10 corruption probes in recent years, some of them associated with the notorious Operation Car Wash investigation involving the state oil company Petrobras. The flurry of accusations made him Brazil’s most unpopular leader in recent history and helped fuel the campaign of current President Jair Bolsonaro.


Brextend It

The European Union agreed Thursday to extend the deadline for the United Kingdom to leave the EU to allow Prime Minister Theresa May more time to push through a plan to avoid a chaotic departure. But the dreaded “no-deal Brexit” remains a very real possibility, albeit a little further down the road.

The EU leaders agreed to push the deadline back to May 22 if May can persuade Parliament to accept her Brexit deal, the New York Times reported.

But British lawmakers have already rejected her plan twice, each time by an overwhelming majority. If they reject her scheme again next week, Britain will have only until April 12 to leave the EU unless it opts for a more fundamental rethink of the decision to leave the bloc.

For her part, May offered little detail about how she would proceed if Parliament again rejects her plan and refused to rule out the possibility that Britain might leave the EU without a deal in place, prompting the Confederation of British Industry and the Trades Union Congress to issue a rare joint statement declaring that the “country is facing a national emergency.”


Yogurt, Gruel and Profanity

Human ancestors’ dietary choices might have helped shape the evolution of languages, according to a new study.

Scientists recently theorized that the “f” and “v” sounds emerged in human languages thanks to early processed foods, NPR reported.

The new theory suggests that the human bite started changing as hunter-gatherer societies engaged in agriculture and made softer foods.

This dietary shift favored the preservation of a natural overbite into adulthood – with the upper jaw teeth overlapping the bottom teeth, instead of an edge-to-edge configuration. This overbite made it easier to make “labiodental fricative” sounds like “f” and “v.”

Linguist and study co-author Damian Blasi highlighted this pattern in the evolution of Indo-European languages.

“It is very likely that the labiodentals emerged not much before the Bronze Age, in parallel to [the] development of new food processing techniques,” he said.

Blasi and his team also found evidence that adults in pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer societies did lose their overbite, making it harder to pronounce labiodentals. They also found that contemporary hunter-gatherer communities rarely use those sounds, though they do exist – mainly in words borrowed from other languages.

The team’s research, however, has received mixed reviews from the academic community due to the lack of hard evidence – since there were no voice recorders back then.

It’ll be amusing if future research confirms that eating yogurt and gruel contributed to the emergence of F-bombs in the English language.

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