The World Today for January 24, 2023

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Twixt the Bear and the Dragon

MONGOLIA

In Mongolia, Dulamsuren Demberel worries about her family’s budget. The price of coal has increased by 40 percent in recent months as post-pandemic inflation and the Russian invasion of Ukraine have roiled energy markets. Nomadic herders like her live in tents that use coal stoves for warmth when winter temperatures in the landlocked Central Asian country’s vast plains can dip to minus 24 degrees Fahrenheit, Al Jazeera reported.

As a result, it’s easy to imagine why frustration among herders like Demberel and other Mongolians – one-third of whom live in poverty – boiled over after hearing how corrupt Mongolian officials allegedly stole almost 400,000 tons of coal that they then sold in China for $120 million. The scandal involves three state-owned coal companies that are now under investigation, added the Associated Press.

Last month, protesters stormed government buildings in the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar, Reuters wrote, giving vent to their frustration over the twin banes of unsustainable price increases and greedy political cronies profiting off their hardships. The protests evinced problems in Mongolia but also showed how its voters actively participate in their democracy, argued Modern Diplomacy.

“A lot of government members are richer and live (more) luxurious lives than the citizens, and how could they just be so calm when the citizens are buying bread by (the) slice, not by the loaf?” said one protester. “That’s the reason why I’m protesting today, for the good of the people.”

It’s no surprise that energy is stoking civil unrest in Mongolia. A former Soviet satellite that, like much of Eastern Europe, was communist until the early 1990s, the country still imports all of its gas from its neighbor, Russia. Mongolian officials are now seeking to reduce that dependence, noted Sky News, but progress has been slow because it has few other options.

Mongolia also produces oil. But because it has no refineries, it must export its black gold to its other gigantic neighbor, China. The country similarly depends on coal exports to China, wrote the Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party-owned newspaper.

That relationship goes back centuries. Chinese emperors ruled the country for 300 years until Mongolia gained independence in the early 1920s. Pursuing a self-described “third-neighbor” foreign policy, Mongolian leaders recently sealed a deal with India to finance a proposed oil refinery, for example, added the Diplomat.

Mongolian officials can’t do much more, it seems, given their historic and geographic position. Demberel will have to wait longer for relief.

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

Steering Repression

IRAN

The European Union approved new sanctions targeting Iranian officials alleged to be involved in the ongoing crackdown against anti-government protesters in the country – but stopped short of labeling Iran’s elite military branch as a “terrorist” organization, Al Jazeera reported Monday.

The new sanctions will hit an additional 37 officials and entities “driving the repression” in Iran.

These sanctions follow ones agreed last week by the European Parliament on Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Ebrahim Raisi over the government’s violent response to the mass protests that have swept the country since September.

The protests ignited following the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who was detained by Iran’s morality police in September for allegedly failing to abide by the country’s strict Islamic dress code – the hijab law.

Since then, thousands of Iranians have marched in the streets of cities across the country to protest the hijab law and the country’s ruling clerics.

The parliament’s resolution also called for labeling Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a “terrorist” organization, prompting criticism from Tehran.

But the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, explained that blacklisting the IRGC would not be possible without a court decision first.

Meanwhile, Iranian officials warned that blacklisting the IRGC was illegal under international law, noting that the branch significantly contributes to the security of Iran and the region.

They threatened that such a move would mean the death of stalled talks with world powers to restore the country’s 2015 nuclear deal.

Iran and Western nations have been trying to revive the deal following the United States’ exit in 2018. If it is reinstated, the agreement would relieve sanctions against Tehran while reintroducing severe limits on its nuclear program.

The Scab

CANADA

The Canadian government agreed this week to pay more than $2 billion to settle a class-action lawsuit seeking compensation for the loss of language and culture caused by the country’s controversial residential school system, the BBC reported.

The lawsuit began in 2012 when 325 First Nations sought reparations from the government for the abuse Indigenous Canadians faced at the residential schools.

Funded by the government, the residential school system aimed to assimilate Indigenous children into Canadian society. From the 19th century until the 1970s around 150,000 children were forcibly taken from their families and placed in these schools, where they suffered physical, emotional and sexual abuse.

Thousands of children are believed to have died attending these schools as a result of the abuse and poor facilities.

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller said that while the settlement would not “erase or make up for the past,” it could help “address the collective harm caused by Canada’s past.”

Indigenous leaders welcomed the settlement, which still needs to be finalized and approved by a court.

Officials said the funds will be paid to a non-profit trust independent of the government over the course of 20 years.

Over the past few years, Canada has faced a reckoning with its past over the residential school system. In 2015, the landmark Truth and Reconciliation Commission released a report concluding that the controversial system amounted to “cultural genocide.”

In recent years, Indigenous groups have discovered evidence of hundreds of mass graves on former residential school campuses. These findings have reignited the fury over the mistreatment of Indigenous children.

Equality, By Fiat

SIERRA LEONE

Sierra Leone passed a law that would require public and private entities to allocate 30 percent of their jobs to women, a move aimed at tackling the gender imbalance in the West African nation, Radio France Internationale reported.

The new Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Act requires employers to also ensure the 30 percent quota applies to management roles. In addition, it gives women at least 14 weeks of maternity leave, equal pay, and training opportunities.

The quota also applies to the 146-seat parliament and the civil service. At the same time, the legislation also aims to ameliorate women’s access to finance in a country where they have often been unable to obtain credit.

Employers failing to abide by these new rules could face fines of up to $2,600, a large sum in one of the poorest countries in the world.

President Julius Maada Bio said the law would “address the gender imbalances in this country comprehensively.” He added that it will help tackle the issue of violence against women.

Human rights organizations said women face steep barriers professionally in Sierra Leone, adding that it is common for employers to fire pregnant women.

They added that the country has a high rate of sexual assault, owing in part to the use of rape as a weapon during the 1991-2002 civil war.

Meanwhile, Sierra Leonean women are also poorly represented in politics: There are only 18 female lawmakers in parliament – and only four members of Bio’s 32-member cabinet are women.

DISCOVERIES

A Spoonful of Taste

Adding salt and sugar is often necessary to make food tastier, but too much of either can be unhealthy.

Enter scientists, who are coming up with novel utensils that can stimulate the tongue’s taste buds without any additives, Scientific American reported.

Recently, a group of students unveiled their “Sugarware” spoon concept to help people with diabetes, which is made up of bumps on its underside that create a greater surface area to press up against the tongue.

The bumps can be covered with a permanent layer of molecules known as ligands, which bind to taste-cell surface receptor proteins that normally react to sugar molecules or artificial sweeteners.

This binding then triggers nerve signals and causes the brain to think it’s tasting something sweet.

The student researchers said they still need to come up with a Sugarware prototype, but added their project was inspired by past studies on taste-boosting utensils.

In one such study, Japanese researchers developed chopsticks that can emit a weak electrical current that shifts sodium ions in a mouthful of food to excite the tongue’s salt receptors.

While flavor-enhancing utensils seem like a healthy alternative, analysts and food executives explained that the products’ success would require major behavioral changes among consumers.

Still, previous research suggested that the weight, color, and shape of dining utensils can alter the perceived flavor of food.

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