The World Today for May 18, 2023

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East of Eden


Timor-Leste, or East Timor, depends on an oil-funded sovereign wealth fund to finance 80 percent of its public spending. Now officials forecast they will deplete the fund in the next decade, raising serious questions about how the Southeast Asian nation will survive in the future, reported the Sydney Morning Herald.

Half the country lives on less than $1.90 a day, an amount indicating extreme poverty. Half of the country’s children under five years old suffer from malnutrition, added the Associated Press.

These issues and others will likely be at the forefront of voters’ minds on May 21 when they elect a new parliament to govern the former Portuguese colony, which won its independence from Indonesia in 2002.

These voters have a lot to parse when it comes to the candidates.

Xanana Gusmão, for example, an ex-guerrilla fighter who led the country’s independence movement since the 1970s and became its first president in 2002, is running on the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction party line with the promise of exporting $50 billion worth of natural gas from the Greater Sunrise fields on the country’s southern coast.

Australian energy giant Woodside, which is now slated to develop the natural gas fields, however, has sought to process that natural gas in Darwin, Australia – meaning Timor-Leste would benefit from exporting raw materials rather than more lucrative value-added products, wrote Agenzia Fides, the Vatican news agency.

Timor-Leste’s president, José Ramos-Horta, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996 for his nonviolent efforts to advance his nation’s independence movement, has said he would allow Chinese companies to develop Greater Sunrise if they agree to build refining and liquefaction infrastructure in the country, reported the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Gusmão’s main opponent is Mari Alkatiri, who served as Timor-Leste’s first prime minister from 2002 to 2006 when he resigned amid civil unrest stemming from an army mutiny. One might have thought that would be the end of his political career. But he became prime minister again from September 2017 until May 2018. His party, the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor, moreover, is considered to be exceptionally well-organized.

Gusmão, Alkatiri, and Ramos-Horta are among the so-called “1975 generation” of freedom fighters who have been running against each other for office since independence, wrote Inside Story, an Australian news magazine. In that time, clashes between protesters and security forces have become regular occurrences in the country’s streets – especially among poor folk who understandably demand a better quality of life.

In 1975, when the Portuguese withdrew, the country saw a brief civil war, an invasion by Indonesia, and “some of the “worst atrocities of modern times in their struggle for self-determination,” a struggle that killed more than 200,000 people, a quarter of the population, noted the BBC.

The older generation helped turn the page on these times, dreaming of a future of freedom, peace, and prosperity for their children. Now, it needs to move fast in order to make sure their grandchildren have the funding to make those dreams come true.


The Golden Handcuffs


A French appeals court upheld a prison sentence against former French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Tuesday on charges of corruption and influence-peddling, the Guardian reported.

The ruling confirmed a 2021 verdict from a lower court that sentenced Sarkozy to three years in prison, with two years suspended and one year that could be served at home with an electronic bracelet.

The higher court also upheld a decision to ban Sarkozy from public office for three years.

The case centers around allegations that Sarkozy and his lawyer Thierry Herzog had formed a “corruption pact” with a judge to gather and share information about a legal investigation into his campaign financing: Authorities had wiretapped the former president’s phone lines while investigating allegations of Libyan financing in Sarkozy’s 2007 presidential election campaign, according to Politico.

The influential politician, who served between 2007 and 2012, has denied the allegations. He plans to appeal the new verdict to France’s highest court.

But the case is only one of the many legal probes against Sarkozy since he left office.

He will face a retrial in November over his involvement in the Bygmalion case for which he initially received a one-year prison sentence. Prosecutors alleged that Sarkozy’s team exceeded the legal campaign expenditure limit during his 2012 re-election campaign by using false billing from the public relations firm Bygmalion.

Sarkozy maintains his innocence.

Meanwhile, French authorities called last week for Sarkozy to stand trial over new accusations involving illegal Libyan financing for his 2007 campaign.

Prosecutors say that Sarkozy and 12 others allegedly sought millions of euros from the regime of Libya’s late autocrat Muammar Gaddafi for the French leader’s presidential bid.

The Lonely Candidates


Cambodian election officials barred the country’s main opposition party from participating in upcoming elections in July, a move that critics said could guarantee a clear win for the ruling party of Prime Minister Hun Sen, Radio Free Asia reported.

The National Election Committee rejected the Candlelight Party’s application to register in the upcoming polls, citing problems with the party’s paperwork.

The opposition lamented that the decision was “politically motivated” and will try to appeal to the Constitutional Council, a judicial body that examines election disputes.

Candlelight Party officials added that they were surprised at the committee’s move because the party did not encounter any challenges when it competed in last year’s local elections.

Still, the decision could impact the outcome of the July 23 parliamentary vote, with Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) facing no clear challenger.

The Candlelight Party has gained support by vowing to improve social welfare benefits, including providing free check-ups, as well as increasing the minimum monthly wage for garment workers and civil servants.

Analysts noted that the committee’s decision is similar to what happened with the previous main opposition party in the run-up to the 2018 elections.

At the time, the Supreme Court ordered the dissolution of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, paving the way for the CPP to win all 125 seats in parliament.

The Lost and Found


Mexico will launch a new database later this month to help collect information on the tens of thousands of people that have gone missing across the country, a move that was cautiously welcomed by human rights groups, Reuters reported.

The federal prosecutor’s office said the new registry will gather information from different databases, including those that document mass graves and torture.

The database’s creation was first mandated by law in 2017 but had stalled until a judge ordered it to be implemented last October.

The ruling centered around a case brought by a woman whose brother went missing in Guanajuato state six years ago. The judge ruled that the woman’s right to truth and justice was being hindered by a lack of information.

The official number of missing people in Mexico is more than 112,000, which human rights advocates say is far too low an estimate.

Still, advocates and non-governmental organizations dedicated to searching for missing people said the government’s move was “a first step,” adding that the federal prosecutor’s office “has finally recognized its responsibility.”

Many NGOs have criticized public offices dedicated to investigating missing persons as ineffective, unresponsive, and underfunded.


Ant Theatrics

Many animals and insects play dead to escape predators – but one species of ant takes this defense mechanism to an entirely new level, New Atlas reported.

The entire colony plays dead.

Scientists at the University of South Australia said in a new paper that they accidentally came across the melodramatic performance by a colony of Polyrhachis femorata ants while investigating nesting boxes for wild animals on Australia’s Kangaroo Island, off the coast of Adelaide.

One of these boxes was filled with dead P. femorata ants – the researchers initially didn’t think much about it. Then, one of the little creatures messed up and the entire colony’s deception unraveled.

The team closely monitored the ants and repeatedly noticed this behavior, known as thanatosis.

“The mimicry was perfect,” said lead author Sophie Petit.

Petit and her colleagues noted that playing dead has been observed in other ant species – but mainly by individual ants, not the entire colony.

The study marks the first time this survival trick has been observed being pulled off by an entire colony, although scientists are still hunting for the triggers of this behavior.

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