The World Today for July 19, 2022

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NEED TO KNOW

The Widening Sinkhole

SRI LANKA

Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was once a war hero, known for crushing the Tamil Tigers and putting an end to a brutal 26-year civil war and setting a course to make the country another Asian Tiger.

But last week, he was forced to escape the country after furious mobs, enraged over skyrocketing food, medicine, energy and other costs, took over the streets and broke into the residences and offices of the president and the prime minister, Reuters reported.

The atmosphere on the ground in the island nation off the southern coast of India has been chaotic, even revolutionary, as Rajapaksa’s government fell. That’s no surprise: He and his brother, ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the head of the Rajapaksa clan who was forced to resign in May, have been running the country with an “iron fist” for almost 20 years, CNN reported.

Between the president’s departure and the curfew that Acting President Ranil Wickremesinghe imposed, the streets of Colombo grew quieter briefly as anti-government protesters left the official buildings that they had occupied. Sir Lanka is far from stable, however.

Wickremesinghe, for instance, has instructed the Sri Lankan military to do “whatever is necessary to restore order,” according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, suggesting the government would be willing to shed blood unless protesters went home.

Protesters, while quieter, were not backing down, however. They want the acting president out. “We are peacefully withdrawing from the presidential palace, the presidential secretariat and the prime minister’s office with immediate effect, but will continue our struggle,” the protesters’ spokeswoman said on NDTV, an Indian news outlet.

Most don’t have a choice, like Imthiyaz Abubakr, 58, a tuk-tuk driver, who for 25 years has spent his days driving a tuk-tuk but now spends that time waiting in line for gasoline – it’s averaging five days, he told the Washington Post. Or like Sanjana Mudalige, 39, a former retail worker, who was doing fine but is now reduced to eating a small amount of rice and a biscuit for dinner. She goes to the protests so she can get the free food passed out there.

“The Rajapaksa family is responsible for this – they did not care for the people,” she said. “I went to see the president and prime minister’s homes, and I was amazed to see their grandness. Did they never think of the inequalities when they lived in such luxury?”

Meanwhile, Wickremesinghe has signaled his openness to a new coalition government that would include opposition leaders, Voice of America wrote. Fractures are already appearing in that alliance, as the opposition has asked Wickremesinghe to resign so that the parliamentary speaker can become acting president, as the country’s constitution dictates.

Meanwhile, the main opposition leader, Sajith Premadasa, is preparing to launch his bid for the presidency in hopes of capitalizing on discontent with Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe’s regime. His critics say that he had a chance to improve the country when he was offered the prime minister’s post in April. But he refused to work with the now-disgraced president, explained the BBC.

In a preemptive move to demonstrate his leadership and perhaps to curry favor with nearby India – Sri Lanka’s massive neighbor – Premadasa recently thanked Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the financial help that India has given Sri Lanka, India Today wrote.

That move was a marked departure from Rajapaksa’s ties to China. Rajapaksa pursued significant infrastructure projects that have heavily indebted Sri Lanka to China, the Indian news outlet the Print noted. Surviving that debt has drained the island’s economy, arguably precipitating the crisis.

Opposition supporters who think Premadasa represents a revolution might be disappointed, however. He is, after all, the son of Ranasinghe Premadasa, who served as Sri Lanka’s president for four years through 1993, before he was assassinated.

But in Sri Lanka, unfortunately, it’s usually all in the family.

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

Yes, We Can

IRAN

Iran is capable of building a nuclear weapon but will not do so, according to an Iranian official, whose comments came after US President Joe Biden visited the Middle East in an effort to boost ties in the region and address Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, CBS News reported Monday.

Kamal Kharrazi, who heads an advisory board linked to Iran’s leadership, said the country has the “technical capability to build a nuclear bomb,” but added it has “not made a decision” to do so.

The senior official added that Iran had conducted extensive drills to be able to strike deep inside Israel “if sensitive (Iranian) installations are targeted.” He did not specify when these drills took place.

His statements follow Biden’s visit to the Middle East last week, where he signed a security pact with Israel pledging to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Under the “Jerusalem Declaration,” the US “is prepared to use all elements of its national power to ensure that outcome.”

Tehran accused the US of stoking tensions in the region after Biden said Washington would not “tolerate efforts by any country to dominate another in the region through military buildups, incursions, and/or threats,” in a reference to Iran.

Meanwhile, the US and other world powers have for months been trying to revive the 2015 nuclear deal that put a limit on Tehran’s nuclear prospects in exchange for sanctions relief.

But the Trump administration withdrew from the agreement in 2018 and reimposed sanctions, prompting Iran to violate some of its commitments under the deal.

Last year, Iran said it was enriching uranium to 60 percent at one of its facilities, going beyond the agreed 3.67 percent under the 2015 deal. However, it is short of the 90 percent required for military-grade uranium.

Kharrazi said the country could easily produce 90 percent enriched uranium but emphasized that Iran wants “a Middle East without any nuclear weapons.”

Leverage

PAKISTAN

The party of former Prime Minister Imran Khan secured a major win in Pakistan’s most populous province Monday, a victory that would allow him to push for snap parliamentary elections just months after being ousted from office, the Financial Times reported.

Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf – or the Pakistan Justice party – won 15 of the 20 seats in the Punjab local elections, amid voter fury over spiraling living costs.

Punjab is home to nearly 60 percent of the country’s population of more than 220 million. It has long been considered a stronghold of current Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and his brother Nawaz Sharif – also a former prime minister.

The PTI’s victory comes less than four months after Khan lost a no-confidence vote in what he has alleged was a foreign-orchestrated coup. On Monday, he and his allies renewed demands for Sharif to step down and called for early elections ahead of the scheduled vote next year.

Analysts said the election result stems from Sharif’s decision to introduce a series of belt-tightening measures required under a proposed $7 billion International Monetary Fund program.

As part of the deal, Pakistan has removed fuel subsidies causing a spike in prices. Inflation rose to 21.3 percent last month, the highest in nearly 13 years. The central bank’s US dollar reserves have fallen sharply, too.

Government officials have blamed the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine for the high costs. Meanwhile, economists worry that the situation in Pakistan could resemble the crisis in Sri Lanka, with the former possibly defaulting on its foreign loan repayments.

What About Us?

HUNGARY

Thousands of anti-government protesters marched in the streets of the Hungarian capital Monday, the latest in a series of protests against changes to the country’s tax code, the Associated Press reported.

Since last week, demonstrators, most working as food delivery couriers and independent entrepreneurs, have been blocking major roads and bridges in Budapest. The demonstrations have taken a more anti-government stance since they began when the ruling Fidesz party of nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban used its parliamentary supermajority to pass a law amending a popular tax scheme.

Known as KATA, the scheme benefitted small businesses and freelancers – such as delivery drivers – by allowing them to pay a low, flat tax rate.

But the changes will force the majority of about 450,000 workers who use the scheme out of business. Many protesters said the amendment will result in major tax hikes or a loss of work when it takes effect on Sept. 1.

The new law comes as the country grapples with a weakening economy and currency and the highest inflation in nearly 25 years.

UKRAINE, BRIEFLY

  • The European Union inked a new gas agreement with Azerbaijan on Monday, as officials scrambled to guarantee future supply amid mounting worries of a Russian cutoff, CNBC reported. The European Commission said in a statement that Azerbaijan has agreed to provide at least 20 billion cubic meters to the EU annually by 2027.
  • Russia has promised hundreds of teachers large sums of money to go to occupied Ukraine and teach pupils there a “corrected” history of Ukraine in the coming school year, according to the Washington Post.
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy sacked the country’s top prosecutor and the head of its security services, saying that suspected Russian collusion among employees in their offices generated “very serious questions” about their leadership, the Hill wrote. The change was the most significant in Zelenskyy’s government since Russia invaded Ukraine about five months ago.
  • Marina Ovsyannikova, a former editor at a Russian state TV station who put up an anti-war banner during a live news broadcast in March, was briefly detained in Moscow, CNN noted. Her lawyer, Dmitry Zakhvatov, said police detained Ovsyannikova for “actions aimed at discrediting the Russian army” after she taped a video statement on Wednesday.

DISCOVERIES

The Hunger Effect

Scientists recently proved that there is a strong correlation between being hungry and becoming easily irritated, according to New Scientist.

Colloquially known as “hangry,” previous studies have shown the link between hunger and anger but most were conducted in laboratory settings.

In their paper, a research team surveyed 64 people across the globe to monitor their emotions and how hunger affected them.

The participants had to fill in short surveys about their feelings and how hungry they were five times every day for three weeks.

Not surprisingly, the results showed a direct link between an individual’s hunger levels and self-reported feelings of anger and irritability: Hunger was linked to 56 percent of the variation in feelings of irritation, for example, indicating that the impact was substantial.

“The hungrier you are, the more likely it is that you will also feel irritability and anger, and experience less pleasure,” said lead author Viren Swami “It’s a robust, valid effect.”

Swami and his team added that feeling “hangry” causes people to “interpret (potentially) negative contextual cues as negative,” such as being bumped into by other people in crowded places.

Other researchers suggested that “hangry” feelings can arise because of low blood sugar, which causes the body to release hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol – the latter raising stress levels.

The team also quipped that the study could have also contributed to these feelings of irritability because participants would receive reminder messages to complete the survey.

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