The World Today for April 03, 2019

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Devil’s Night

A Chinese oil tanker ran aground in the Solomon Islands in early February.

More than 80 tons of fuel have leaked from the wreck, threatening a UNESCO World Heritage site described as the “largest raised coral atoll in the world,” National Public Radio reported.

UNICEF, meanwhile, is working to reduce open defecation in the South Pacific country, where around a third of the people lack bathroom facilities, reported Radio New Zealand.

The two developments symbolize the major challenges that new leaders will need to address after voting in the Solomon Islands’ general election kicked off on April 3: Chinese influence and plodding economic development.

The latter problem stems from governance issues. The elections are the first since an Australian-led, 14-year-long international peacekeeping force left the archipelago in 2017. Those soldiers helped quell civil unrest that broke out in 2006 and 2014. At the time, island officials said the troops’ departure was causing “uncertainty and anxiety,” Nikkei Asian Review wrote.

Recent security measures reflect the unease. Australia and New Zealand have deployed around 250 troops to help keep order. Candidates’ supporters have reportedly intimidated and threatened voters with violence unless they cast ballots as they’re told. Locally, people call the evening before voting “Devil’s Night” due to the history of misdeeds that occur, reported the Island Sun. A ban on alcohol took effect on election day. A major market in the capital was also closed.

The question of Chinese influence is trickier.

The Solomon Islands is among 17 countries that recognize Taiwan’s government, which originates from the nationalists who fled the communists during the Chinese revolution in 1949. Others, including the US, accept that Chinese leaders in Beijing are the sole representatives of the Chinese people. (The US has a “robust unofficial relationship” with Taiwan, according to the State Department.)

But Chinese officials are allegedly paying off politicians in the Solomon Islands to switch their allegiances and isolate Taiwan. The islands are China’s largest source of hardwood, an export that generates foreign cash and environmental degradation.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen traveled to the region in late March to shore up support. But notably, the New York Times reported, she did not visit the Solomon Islands, where Prime Minister Rick Hou said he would review the country’s relationship with Taiwan if he wins re-election. Reuters declared that the “the loyalty of one of Taiwan’s few remaining allies is in the balance.”

Meanwhile, in a statement to the Guardian, the Hong Kong-based owner of the ship that ran aground apologized for the disaster.

But, as the economic giants jockey for influence, oil continues to threaten the coral and half of all locals live in poverty, talk is cheap.



Bowing Out

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika finally resigned after weeks of protests calling for him to step down, bringing a sudden end to his two-decade reign.

In a brief statement, the longtime leader said Tuesday he had “notified the president of the constitutional council of his decision to end his mandate,” the UK’s Guardian newspaper reported. The departure was barely voluntary: The 82-year-old leader stood down shortly after the army chief of staff demanded immediate action to remove him from office, reported Reuters.

Citizens celebrated in the streets, hailing a victory of the popular will, despite uncertainty regarding what might come next.

With Bouteflika’s resignation, the chairman of the upper house of parliament, Abdelkader Bensalah, will serve as interim president for 90 days until elections are held. But the emboldened protesters are now calling for more comprehensive changes to Algeria’s political system.

“I’m happy, I’m excited and I’m scared,” said Nourhane Atmani, a 20-year-old student from Algiers. “This is just a first step. We’ll keep going until we have fair, transparent elections and a new government.”


A Scandal, A Trial

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is set to appear in court Wednesday for the first of many trials connected with the notorious 1MDB case – which involves $4.5 billion embezzled from a state fund.

Najib is charged with seven of 42 corruption and money-laundering charges in relation to 1MDB. More importantly, the case will be a barometer on Malaysia’s readiness to investigate the crimes, Bloomberg reported.

When Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad assumed office last May, he vowed to recoup the money lost in the scandal and prosecute those responsible. But even though charges have been filed against dozens of individuals, Najib’s is the first case to go to trial – nearly a year later.

The seven charges relate to 42 million ringgit ($10.3 million) that Najib allegedly received in his personal accounts from SRC International Sdn, a former unit of 1MDB, Bloomberg noted.

Najib has pleaded not guilty to all charges.


Nobody’s Immune

Venezuela’s Constituent Assembly on Tuesday stripped opposition leader Juan Guaido of his parliamentary immunity, raising the specter of an imminent arrest.

Loyal to President Nicolas Maduro, the Constituent Assembly voted unanimously to strip Guaido of his immunity from prosecution following a Supreme Court order to do so: Guaido had ignored a warning not to leave the country while he remains under investigation, reported Germany-based Deutsche Welle.

It’s not clear if Maduro will seek his arrest – not least because of the public outcry likely to result. Under Venezuela’s constitution, the opposition-controlled National Assembly would have to approve the decision to strip Guaido of his immunity to make it valid.

Since declaring himself president on the grounds that Maduro’s recent re-election was a farce, Guaido has been recognized as the country’s legitimate leader by roughly 50 countries around the world.

Following the loss of his immunity, he dismissed the high court and Constituent Assembly as Maduro’s stooges, and continued his calls for the president to step down.


Skeeters Away

Future summers might become mosquito bite-free, thanks to genetic science.

Scientists are trying to find a way to prevent the little bugs from sniffing out people as potential hosts, Cosmos magazine reported.

Mosquitoes’ antennae are equipped with a cell-surface protein known as ionotropic receptor (Ir8a), which allows them to detect the scent of humans and their sweat.

In their study, researchers pinpointed that the pests are attracted to lactic and carboxylic acids produced by human sweat, and that these compounds may explain how the bugs distinguish humans from other vertebrates.

The scientists used gene-editing technology to disrupt the protein in Aedes aegypti specimens – known for producing the usual itchy welts, as well as deadly diseases like yellow fever and Zika.

The gene-edited mosquitoes became less inclined to go after human scent and showed no interest in lactic acid.

“Removing the function of Ir8a removes approximately 50% of host-seeking activity,” said senior author Matthew DeGennaro.

DeGennaro and his team hope that study of Ir8a can help create better mosquito repellents in the future.

Until then, other scientists recommend that people simply swat the little buggers away to prevent bites. The movement of arms and hands causes air vibrations that make the skeeters uncomfortable.

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