April 29, 2021

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NEED TO KNOW

MYANMAR

Bullies: 1; Voters: 0

American oil giant Chevron is lobbying Congress hard to stop the US government from slapping new sanctions on Myanmar after United Nations officials said the southeast Asian country “is now effectively controlled by a murderous criminal enterprise,” the New York Times reported. Chevron has a stake in Myanmar’s oil industry.

As USA Today explained, Myanmar’s military leaders staged a coup d’état in early February, detaining civilian political leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi and members of the government. The coup followed a refusal by the military to accept the results of an election in November. More than 700 people have died in the crackdown against the protests that followed the power grab.

Dozens were killed in one city, Bago, where the New York Post described “piles of bodies.” In addition to shooting and beating protesters, the troops have also been robbing and extorting demonstrators at events, Radio Free Asia noted.

The European Union, the US and Britain have already slapped the country with economic sanctions. German leaders told Deutsche Welle that they hoped the measures would compel the junta to come to the negotiating table to discuss a transfer of power.

Regional leaders in the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations did find a way to get the junta to the bargaining table: Last week, Junta head, Min Aung Hlaing, and leaders of ASEAN, agreed to a five-point plan that called for an immediate end to violence and for “all parties” to exercise restraint, Al Jazeera reported. The agreement also included continuing talks between the parties, acceptance of aid and a special ASEAN envoy to facilitate discussions in Myanmar.

Human rights organizations and some Myanmar voters said the agreement fell short of restoring democracy and holding the army to account for killing hundreds of civilians. Human Rights Watch said the plan lacked a timeline and failed to mention the release of political prisoners including Aung San Suu Kyi. It added that representatives of Myanmar’s voters were not part of discussions or negotiations.

Some hope the agreement leads to relief for protesters and also the ethnic Rohingya community: The Myanmarese government was reportedly ethnically cleansing areas of the Rohingya at the same time it was sweeping internal dissent aside, reported the BBC.

Despite the agreement, analysts say the county is not out of danger.

Between rebels rising up to fight the Myanmarese troops that are trying to push them out, citizens standing up for democracy and human rights and the declining economy – more than three million people face hunger –  the country is at risk of becoming a failed state, warned the Financial Times.

“There are clear echoes of Syria in 2011,” said UN Human Rights Chief Michelle Bachelet, referring to the beginning of the bloody Syrian civil war. “There, too, we saw peaceful protests met with unnecessary and clearly disproportionate force. The state’s brutal, persistent repression of its own people led to some individuals taking up arms, followed by a downward and rapidly expanding spiral of violence.”

In the same manner that Russia saved the Syrian regime against rebels challenging the Syrian government’s forces, China is helping Myanmar remain viable, argued Guardian columnist Simon Tisdall, who wants the West to act more decisively to help pro-democracy activists.

An outbreak of war in Asia would be most unwelcome. Some say it’s possible that scenario has been averted – for now.

WANT TO KNOW

HONG KONG

Rock, Meet Hard Place

Hong Kong’s legislature passed a new immigration law Wednesday that would bar people from entering or leaving the city, raising concerns that the semi-autonomous territory will implement the infamous “exit bans” used in mainland China, Agence France-Presse reported.

The measure allows Hong Kong’s immigration chief to stop individuals from boarding airplanes departing from the city or arriving in it, without being able to appeal.

The city’s pro-China executive said that the new law was meant to address a backlog of non-refoulement claims – the forcible return of refugees or asylum seekers to a country where they are liable to be subjected to persecution – and to screen illegal immigrants before they depart their countries for the city.

Activists, lawyers and business leaders, however, noted that the legislation resembles the mainland’s “exit bans,” which are used by Beijing to prevent dissidents from leaving the country.

The bill was passed almost unanimously in the legislature, which is currently filled with pro-Beijing lawmakers after many opposition and pro-democracy politicians resigned en masse last year.

The legislation marks the latest move by China to quash dissent and assert control over the semi-autonomous territory, following huge and often violent protests in the city.

Last year, China imposed a new national security law that criminalized dissent and transformed the once politically pluralistic city. Many opposition and protest leaders in Hong Kong have since been detained or fled the city.

Meanwhile, Beijing is planning a new bill dubbed “patriots rule Hong Kong” to politically vet anyone running for office and reduce the number of directly elected seats in the legislature to a small minority.

SOMALIA

The Art of the Least Best

Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, also known as Farmajo, called for elections and a return to dialogue on Wednesday after a controversial decision to extend his mandate led to a violent political crisis in the East African nation, Bloomberg reported.

The announcement comes after some Somali soldiers abandoned their posts in the Middle Shabelle region this week and went to the capital of Mogadishu where they clashed with troops loyal to Mohamed.

The violence was sparked by a move this month by Mohamed to extend his mandate and those of lawmakers by up to two years because Somalia failed to hold elections as scheduled on Feb. 8 due to the inability of regional governments to reach an agreement about the voting process.

The United States and the European Union condemned the extension and threatened to impose sanctions and other measures against Somalia.

They warned that the president’s move constituted a reversal of the gains made in rebuilding Somalia following two decades of civil war and an ongoing insurgency by al Qaeda-linked militants, al-Shabaab.

The backlash emboldened an opposition which, before the extension, had asked Farmajo not to seek re-election as a condition for talks about voting progressed.

Mohamed said he will address lawmakers later this week to discuss the election process based on a Sept. 17 agreement between the federal and regional governments to hold an indirect election – through electoral colleges.

BRAZIL

The Blame Game

Brazilian lawmakers launched a probe into the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic this week, a move that could prove problematic for far-right President Jair Bolsonaro ahead of next year’s elections, Reuters reported.

The inquiry will investigate the government’s delays in securing vaccines, including drawn-out negotiations with foreign drug companies, as well as the situation in the Amazon, where an infectious new variant has emerged.

Brazil remains the third-most infected country on the planet with more than 14 million confirmed cases and nearly 400,000 dead – the second-highest death toll in the world.

Since the pandemic hit Brazil, Bolsonaro has been under constant fire for his lax policy and push for unproven remedies to control the spread of the virus.

The country has so far only vaccinated six percent of the population and the pace of vaccine deliveries is expected to drop in May by almost one-third of what was scheduled to arrive (32.4 million), according to Bloomberg.

Earlier this week, Brazilian regulators blocked imports of Russia’s coronavirus vaccine, Sputnik V, saying they found “worrying pieces of information” in the way the drug was manufactured.

Although the legislative probe could initiate calls for Bolsonaro’s impeachment, analysts say that outcome is unlikely. Instead, they think the government will try to deflect blame onto former Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello, who oversaw the chaos in Amazon and has been criticized for the slow pace of vaccine negotiations.

DISCOVERIES

Unicorns of the Sea

Scientists have recently discovered a time machine in the unlikeliest of places – the narwhal’s “tusk,” reported ScienceAlert.

Researchers say that like reading the rings of a tree, it is possible to read the layers on the unicorn-like protrusion of the northwest Greenland narwhals – medium-sized toothed whales which have a large protruding canine tooth in the form of a tusk.

It’s almost a biography, said researchers, who while investigating these rings on 10 tusks found more than half a century of data that shed light onto the entire life history of the owners – from what meals they consumed to their migration routes.

“It is unique that a single animal in this way can contribute with a 50-year long-term series of data,” said marine mammal researcher Rune Dietz from Aarhus University, Denmark.

Scientists don’t know much about narwhals – they spend most of their time under the ice in remote parts of the Arctic. They do believe that the “tusk” helps males attract females, mark their territory, defend themselves or hunt, and even navigate – it serves as a ‘bio sonar’ in the dark depths of the ocean.

Now, through the “tusk” rings, researchers are learning how this species is coping with a warming Arctic and other changes in their environment. For example, scientists noted a significant rise in the amount of mercury in the tusks since the turn of the century.

This jump in mercury levels might be due to the changes in the narwhal’s diet or more likely pollution from human activities like “mining, coal power production, cement production, or waste incineration,” scientists said. Apex predators, at the top of the food chain, usually accumulate more mercury making them further vulnerable to habitat fluctuations caused by climate change.

“They don’t get rid of mercury by forming hair and feathers like polar bears, seals and seabirds, just as their enzyme system is less efficient at breaking down organic pollutants,” said Dietz.

The scientists hope to study older narwhal tusks from museum archives to understand the effects of mercury accumulation and climate change over longer periods of time.

“The big question now is how these changes will affect the health and fitness of key Arctic species in the years to come,” said ecotoxicologist Jean-Pierre Desforges of McGill University in Canada.

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: 32,230,019 (+0.17%)
  2. India: 18,376,421 (+2.11%)
  3. Brazil: 14,521,289 (+0.55%)
  4. France: 5,626,985 (+0.56%)
  5. Turkey: 4,751,026 (+0.86%)
  6. Russia: 4,732,981 (+0.16%)
  7. UK: 4,427,394 (+0.05%)
  8. Italy: 3,994,894 (+0.34%)
  9. Spain: 3,504,799 (+0.25%)
  10. Germany: 3,366,827 (+0.85%)

Source: Johns Hopkins University

*Numbers change over 24 hours