The World Today for December 23, 2022
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Taunting the Bull
Pakistani and Indian diplomats recently traded barbs over who is a sponsor of terrorism, the Associated Press wrote. The kerfuffle was important because, as the Council on Foreign Relations explained, the two South Asian countries are nuclear powers that have fought wars in the past, including numerous border clashes that have occurred as recently as early 2021.
Pakistan is also facing aggression on its border with Afghanistan. Sixteen Pakistani civilians were injured recently when clashes between border guards erupted at a crossing, Al Jazeera reported. Relations between the two countries have soured since the US quit Afghanistan and the Taliban took over.
Pakistani officials have accused the Taliban of giving safe haven to Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a militant group. The TPP has been fighting Pakistani forces to instigate an orthodox Islamic government in Pakistan similar to the one that now rules Afghanistan, explained a CNN analysis.
Meanwhile, the economy is on the brink. Inflation in Pakistan exceeds 25 percent. Severe floods recently affected over 30 million people, Reuters wrote, and caused $30 billion in damage.
This context is important in understanding Imran Khan, the former cricket star who served as prime minister of Pakistan from 2018 until a no-confidence vote in parliament forced him out in April 2022. Pakistan faces chaos within and without, say analysts. Khan is now fighting to return to power on the potentially outrageous promise that he can make things right.
Khan lost his job when it became clear he had lost the support of the Pakistani military following a number of disputes with its generals, who have an outsized say in Pakistani politics.
In his bid to return to power, Khan hasn’t flinched from attacking the commanders, in fact he relishes it.
That in itself is unusual in Pakistan.
As think tank Stratfor wrote, he openly accuses the military and its backers in the US government of conspiring to keep him out of office. Ordinarily, the powerful Pakistani military would have been able to keep Khan quiet. But his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf political party controls important local legislatures. Pakistani President Arif Alvi, supreme commander of the armed forces, is a former party member, too, Washington Post op-ed columnist Hamid Mir added.
Critics contend that Khan wants the military to attempt to quell his supporters – he’s already riding on theories that the military is out to kill him – and blames it for a recent shooting that left him wounded. Regardless, if the military made such a move, it would help him win elections again if elections are held in the coming months. As Pakistani journalist Abbas Nasir argued in the New York Times, however, Khan failed to stop the army from appointing a new chief, a sign his influence might be waning. In response, he recently threatened to pull his party out of the provincial assemblies it controls, resulting in their dissolution, in a move to disrupt politics and potentially trigger new elections.
It’s a game of chicken – except the people with the most to lose aren’t in control.
THE WORLD, BRIEFLY
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confirmed the formation of a new government this week, which analysts described as the most right-wing cabinet in the history of the Jewish state, the Financial Times reported.
The new government came more than a month after Israel held its fifth election in more than three years, which saw the return of Netanyahu and his Likud party to power: Likud and its far-right allies gained a clear majority, a result that follows a coalition deal between Netanyahu and the parties of Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich.
According to the deal, Smotrich – a strong supporter of Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories – will become finance minister. Smotrich’s Religious Zionism group will also hold a second ministerial post in the defense ministry, which will give him sweeping administrative control of the occupied West Bank.
Ben-Gvir of the Otzma Yehudit party, meanwhile, will become the new national security minister, and with expanded powers. He remains a divisive figure in Israel and was convicted of the incitement of racism in 2007.
Ben-Gvir has demanded a loosening of the rules governing the use of live fire by Israeli soldiers and lifting restrictions on Jewish prayers at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, known to Jews as the Temple Mount. The site – sacred to both Jews and Muslims – has been a flashpoint in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Another major player is Avi Maoz of the Naom party, who was appointed to a deputy ministerial post responsible for education curricula in secular schools. Maoz has faced criticism over his anti-LGBTQ views.
The incoming government has also proposed steps to limit the independence of the judicial system, including the supreme court.
The new coalition comes as Netanyahu – Israel’s longest-serving prime minister – faces an ongoing corruption trial. While he denies any wrongdoing, analysts suggested that he may try to halt the proceedings or throw out the indictments via legislation.
Some officials and analysts, meanwhile, have expressed concern that the new government could chip away at Israel’s democratic principles.
Netanyahu has vowed that he will maintain the “status quo” but analysts believe that he will be constrained by his coalition partners.
The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) passed a resolution calling for an end to violence in Myanmar and the release of political prisoners, including ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, in its first resolution passed on the Southeast Asian country since its independence, CNN reported Thursday.
UNSC Resolution 2669 on Myanmar expressed “deep concern at the ongoing state of emergency imposed by the military.”
The UK submitted the resolution, which was approved with 12 votes in favor, none opposed, and three abstentions from China, India, and Russia.
It comes nearly two years after Myanmar’s military staged a coup that removed the democratically elected government and arrested its leaders.
Since then, the junta has curbed civil rights and freedoms, while thousands of people have taken to the streets to demand the return of the civilian government. In response, junta officials have launched a bloody crackdown against protesters, imprisoning thousands and reintroducing state executions.
Courts have also arrested and jailed civilian leaders, including Suu Kyi who has been sentenced to 26 years in prison. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate was convicted on a slew of charges, including corruption and accusations of election fraud during the 2020 polls that saw her National League for Democracy defeat the military-backed party.
British and US diplomats to the UN welcomed the resolution but acknowledged that it only represents “a step toward ending the bloodshed.”
Meanwhile, human rights groups were divided on the resolution: While some suggested that the resolution will bring more scrutiny of the military government, others said it lacked “a mechanism for regular reporting on the situation in Myanmar.”
Too Little, Too late
Vandals destroyed 30,000-year-old rock art at a sacred cave in South Australia (SA), prompting condemnations from locals and scholars, as well as criticism against the state government’s lack of protection of the site, the Guardian reported.
Authorities said unknown individuals entered the Koonalda Cave and scrawled graffiti across the heritage-listed site, writing “don’t look now but this is a death cave.”
Archeologists said the artwork was “unique in Australia” and had been registered as a national heritage site because of its rarity. They added that the artwork was “very significant” to the Mirning people, the site’s Aboriginal owners, who have been visiting the cave for millennia.
Because the cave’s surface is very soft, it isn’t possible to remove the graffiti without damaging the rock art.
Officials explained the vandals had accessed the cave by digging under a steel gate and completely destroyed one area of the site. The gate was installed in the 1980s but many observers lamented that it had become “inadequate” over time. They said that many had previously gained access to the cave to scribble their names or dates.
SA Attorney General and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Kyam Maher condemned the vandalism and called for a “severe penalty.”
Even so, scholars and conservationists have criticized his comments, saying that they had informed Maher about the lax security at the site back in June.
Clare Buswell, chair of the Australian Speleological Federation’s Conservation Commission, said that more pressure should be put on the state government to improve security at such sites or more ancient work could be destroyed.
This week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made an official visit to the United States, meeting President Joe Biden and US lawmakers in an effort to urge bipartisan support for more aid to Ukraine, CBS News reported. In an address to Congress where he received multiple standing ovations, Zelenskyy thanked the US for its support against Russia’s invasion but urged lawmakers that “this battle cannot be frozen and postponed.” Following his US visit, European Union officials said Zelenskyy and the bloc’s leaders will hold a summit in February focusing on how the EU can further support Ukraine against Russia, Reuters noted.
In other Ukraine-related news:
- Zelenskyy’s visit to the US comes as his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, is visiting neighboring Belarus, which has sparked concerns that he is seeking to drag the country into his war on Ukraine, The Hill wrote. Analysts believe Russia may be attempting to drive Belarus into the war, or it may just be exploiting the fear of Belarus’s involvement to frighten Western nations and Ukraine. At the same time, China and Russia conducted naval drills this week, which Chinese officials said aim to “further deepen” cooperation between the two nations, according to the Associated Press.
- A number of European officials suggested that Russia may not be responsible for the attack on the Nord Stream pipelines in September, the Washington Post added. Officials noted that months of investigations have not produced evidence suggesting that Russia was behind the sabotage. The explosion prompted many world leaders to initially blame Moscow for sabotaging the undersea pipeline built to carry natural gas from Russia to Europe. Meanwhile, Kazakhstan intends to launch a test project next month to carry oil to Germany via Russia’s large Druzhba (“Friendship”) pipeline, despite an EU ban on the vast majority of Russian oil imports due to Moscow’s ongoing unjustified invasion of Ukraine, Radio Free Europe said.
- Japan approved a plan Thursday to extend the lifespan of nuclear reactors, replace old ones, and even build new ones, a dramatic turnaround in a country that previously vowed to phase out atomic power after the Fukushima accident more than a decade ago, the Associated Press reported. Japanese leaders have begun to return to nuclear energy in the face of global fuel shortages, rising prices, and pressure to decrease carbon emissions – but the announcement was their clearest pledge yet after remaining silent on building more reactors.
Blooming Through the Ages
The Christmas holiday season is often marked by the vibrant poinsettia plant that graces homes, churches, and offices across the world.
The plant blooms only for a few weeks in November and December but remains one of the best-selling flowers worldwide, especially in the US where the market was worth an estimated $153 million in 2020.
Ancient Mesoamerican civilizations understood why, Axios reported.
In the 14th century, the Aztecs used the plant for warrior rituals and dyes, while employing its latex sap to treat wounds and fevers. Prior to European colonization, the Aztecs called the bloom “leather flower,” while the Maya civilization dubbed it the “fire flower.”
It was after the arrival of Spanish settlers in the 16th century that the flower became associated with the Christmas season. Colonizers would use the flower – then known as the “Christmas eve flower” – to decorate nativity scenes and attract more people to Christianity.
In 1825, the United States appointed Joel Robert Poinsett as its ambassador to Mexico, four years after Mexico gained independence from Spain. Poinsett – also a botanist – admired the flower and sent some samples to his friends.
One of the samples eventually ended up in the Philadelphia Botanic Garden and slowly became known throughout the US and Europe as “poinsettia.”
A century later, the Ecke family patented the flower and mass-marketed it as the “California Christmas flower.”
But the Eckes’ move has made it a bit challenging for other growers, especially those in Mexico, who can’t grow and sell their poinsettia varieties without paying breeders’ rights fees.
Because the patent covers most varieties, Mexican botanists are developing others that won’t be subject to fees.
So far, they’ve registered seven types with Mexico’s regulatory body, which is the first step toward acquiring international protection.
Still, most buyers won’t know or care about such issues. They are too busy admiring the luscious red flowers.
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