June 19, 2020

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COVID-19 Global Update

More than 180 nations worldwide have confirmed cases of the coronavirus. The following have the highest numbers worldwide as of 4 a.m. ET*:

    1. US: 2,191,200 (+1.29%)
    2. Brazil: 978,142 (+2.38%)
    3. Russia: 568,292 (+2.85%)
    4. India: 380,532 (+3.70%)
    5. UK: 301,935 (+0.41%)
    6. Spain: 245,268 (+0.24%)
    7. Peru: 244,388 (+1.44%)
    8. Italy: 238,159 (+0.14%)
    9. Chile: 225,103 (+2.03%)
    10. Iran: 197,647 (+1.33%)

Source: Johns Hopkins University

*Numbers change over 24 hours

NEED TO KNOW

SRI LANKA

A Tiger By the Ears

Sri Lankan officials held a mock election recently to test whether they could run polls amid the coronavirus pandemic. The South Asian country has postponed its parliamentary elections twice since its initial date of April 25, reported the Press Trust of India.

The vote is now scheduled for Aug. 5. Lockdown restrictions have slowly but steadily been lifted, with the crucial tourist industry ready to reopen on Aug. 1, Al Jazeera wrote.

The elections come at a sensitive time. The coronavirus has understandably heightened fears on the island off the Indian coast. But politics are the real issue.

Elected in November, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa dissolved parliament six months ahead of schedule in the hopes of helping his party win seats. His brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was president from 2005 to early 2015 and is currently prime minister. Opposition parties control parliament. But, in Sri Lanka, the president appoints the prime minister. If their party can win most of the seats in the legislature, the brothers will wield total control over the country’s government.

Under the Sri Lankan constitution, however, the country can’t operate without a parliament for more than three months, wrote the Associated Press. President Rajapaksa could have convened parliament due to the coronavirus health emergency but chose not to do so.

The country’s economic headaches and security instability have led many to express skepticism of the Rajapaksa brothers’ designs.

The county has massive debt payments due, Bloomberg noted. But the president has cut taxes. An opposition-led parliament might make it harder for him to pursue fiscal chicanery to paper over the country’s plight with creditors. Plans for a massive cricket stadium have already been shelved, the Hindustan Times wrote.

Sri Lanka has a history of violence, too, that haunts the country’s politics. A 30-year civil war between the country’s Buddhist-Sinhalese majority and Hindu-Tamils ended in 2009. But terror attacks last Easter when suicide bombers from a local militant group linked to Islamic State killed 269 people reminded the world that some Tamils are not yet ready to bury the hatchet.

President Rajapaksa has portrayed himself as a strong man, putting military commanders in top government positions, the Economist wrote. “The entire narrative had been security-driven, starting from the Easter attacks until the elections,” intelligence analyst Tarun Nair told Deutsche Welle.

But, as the Indian newspaper the Hindu reported, the president and prime minister haven’t shirked from deploying their security forces on demonstrators calling for solidarity with Black Lives Matter protests in the US, either. Human rights activists fear their policies will stall reconciliation efforts lingering since the civil war, the New Humanitarian warned.

As some observers say, the Rajapaksa brothers are holding a tiger by the ears.

WANT TO KNOW

CHINA

Res ipsa loquitur

China lashed out against the United States Thursday over a bill that would impose sanctions on Chinese officials allegedly responsible for human rights abuses against the country’s Uighur Muslim minority, NBC News reported.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry urged the US to “immediately correct its mistakes” and vowed to “take countermeasures” without providing details.

China has denied mistreating Uighurs in the Xinjiang province and rejected allegations that it has sent millions to detention camps – which Beijing calls reeducation camps meant to provide vocational training and fight extremism.

Meanwhile, new allegations over the Uighur issue emerged as US newspapers began writing details from a new book by former National Security Advisor John Bolton.

Bolton’s book – which is due out Tuesday but is the subject of a complaint seeking an injunction to halt its release – alleges that Trump supported Chinese leader Xi Jinping regarding the treatment of the Uighurs. Bolton also said that Trump asked his Chinese counterpart for his help in the upcoming US elections.

Chinese officials and the US president have denied those allegations.

The countries are locked in a trade war.

Relations between the world’s largest economies, meanwhile, have soured since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus.

EUROPEAN UNION

Taking On Giants

The European Union vowed to continue to pursue its plan to impose a digital tax on major tech companies – Google, Facebook and Amazon – after the United States pulled out of the negotiations over taxation of the digital economy, Financial Times reported Thursday.

EU economy commissioner Paolo Gentiloni said that the bloc would negotiate its own proposal, but stressed that the EU Commission was seeking a global solution. Meanwhile, French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire called the pullout a “provocation” and warned that his country would impose taxes on tech giants “whatever happens.”

For years, the European Union has complained that the tech companies were making billions but not paying their fair share of taxes. Over the past three years, they have created various proposals to remedy the situation, with a preference for a global solution. Currently, the taxation of digital companies is a patchwork of rules and regulations across the bloc.

The OECD process needed US agreement to make any deal legally watertight, the newspaper wrote. Instead, the likely result is that “the process falls apart, and we see a plethora of unilateral digital services taxes,” which would turn into “an unprincipled mess” followed by US countermeasures.

US officials said, meanwhile, that the negotiations had reached an “impasse” and warned they will impose retaliatory tariffs if nations go ahead with their digital tax plans.

Analysts say the move escalates transatlantic tensions and could result in a trade war.

JAPAN

The Plot Thickens

Japanese authorities arrested a high-profile political couple on charges of vote-buying in last year’s elections, a move that promises to test the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the Japan Times reported.

The couple, former Justice Minister Katsuyuki Kawai and his lawmaker wife Anri Kawai, is accused of allegedly paying millions of yen to nearly 100 prefectural and city assembly members in Hiroshima ahead of parliamentary elections last summer in which Anri Kawai won a seat.

The arrest deals a severe blow to Abe’s administration which has faced criticism from the opposition of its handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Opposition parties are now demanding an explanation as to why Abe appointed Kawai as his justice minister, a position that oversees prosecutors and the judiciary.

The arrest also further strains relations between Japanese prosecutors and the prime minister’s office after the latter’s attempt to replace the country’s top prosecutor.

Critics say that attempt would have helped shield Abe’s government from damaging investigations – including the investigation on the Kawais.

DISCOVERIES

Hiding in Plain Sight

Archaeologists recently discovered what is possibly the largest and oldest Mayan structure in existence ‘hiding’ as a gigantic plateau in southern Mexico, Science Alert reported.

In their study, researchers wrote that the ceremonial complex was easily missed by the naked eye. They used a laser scanning technique known as LIDAR – or light detection and ranging – to create a 3D map of the site.

Known as Aguada Fenix, the site is more than 4,600 feet in length and extends nearly 50 feet above the ground. The authors believe it was built between 1,000 and 800 BC.

Until now, the site of Ceibal was thought to be the oldest ceremonial complex, dating back to the mid-ninth century BC.

The team noted that the size and age of the new find could recalibrate the timeline of the architectural skills of the ancient Maya that lived in what is now Central America. It could also help archaeologists understand what kind of social organization the Maya employed.

Lead author Takeshi Inomata said that the complex lacked “clear indicators of marked social inequality,” such as human-shaped statues, which suggests that they might have rejected hierarchal forms of societal structure.

“This kind of understanding gives us important implications about human capability, and the potential of human groups,” he said.