The World Today for March 14, 2024

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Old Wine, New Bottle


American diplomats recently registered their “serious concerns” about Chinese investments in the Ream Naval Base in southern Cambodia, the South China Morning Post reported. They fear the base could become part of China’s strategic network in the Indo-Pacific, according to the Diplomat.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Manet likely ignored the complaints, instead celebrating the “ironclad friendship” between Cambodia and China when he met Chinese President Xi Jinping in October, wrote Xinhua.

Then again, Hun also met with French and Japanese officials in recent months. As the East Asia Forum explained, the Cambodian leader was likely trying to establish ties with leaders in Paris and Tokyo to cultivate other diplomatic influence beyond the rivalry between China and the US. Cambodian and French officials recently inked a $235 million aid agreement to improve Cambodia’s drinking water, energy systems, and vocational education, for example, added Voice of America.

These international developments have yet to satisfy pro-democracy activists and opponents of Hun’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party, however.

Hun became prime minister last year after his father, Hun Sen, who had been running the Southeast Asian country since the mid-1980s, stepped down following elections in July. The vote was a landslide victory for the Cambodian People’s Party, which won 120 of the legislature’s 125 seats. But it wasn’t fair. The country’s main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, was banned from the ballot on technicalities.

“That electoral exercise was the latest in a series of falsified elections which serious independent observers have long since stopped bothering to observe,” argued the Geopolitics.

Hun Sen, incidentally, remained president of the senate, president of the king’s top council, and retained his position as president of the Cambodian People’s Party. His youngest son, Hun Many, became deputy prime minister. His other sons occupy key positions in the military while his daughters control vast shares in the country’s largest corporations, noted the Middle East and North Africa Financial Network.

Critics wondered aloud if Cambodia was not only a one-party state but also a one-family leadership in government, wrote the Union of Catholic Asian News.

“There is no democracy in Cambodia,” said Teav Vannol, president of the Candlelight Party, a successor to the Cambodia National Rescue Party, in an interview with Nikkei Asia. Government critics based in Australia who advocate for democracy also claim the Cambodian government has targeted them, reported SBS News, a quasi-public Australian broadcaster.

That shouldn’t surprise anyone, wrote Human Rights Watch, which added that the transition from father to son was expected to retain the status quo. Meanwhile, the situation has actually become worse.

Attacks against opposition and government critics continued after the election and were similar assaults in 2023 against Candlelight Party members. On March 3, a court found political opposition leader Kem Sokha guilty of treason and sentenced him to 27 years in prison and indefinitely suspended his political rights to vote and run in an election.

“The political transition to Prime Minister Hun Manet,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, is just putting ‘old wine in a new bottle’ when it comes to human rights and democratic freedoms in Cambodia.”


Unburying the Past


Swiss prosecutors this week indicted the uncle of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Rifaat Assad, on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity over his alleged role in a massacre in western Syria in the early 1980s, Voice of America reported.

On Tuesday, Switzerland’s attorney general office said the former Syrian vice president is accused of “ordering homicides, acts of torture, cruel treatments and illegal detentions” when he led troops in the city of Hama in 1982.

At the time, Assad was sent to the city to suppress an Islamist insurgency, a campaign that resulted in the deaths of as many as 60,000 people – mostly civilians – according to Swiss authorities.

Prosecutors added that he can still be held accountable because the charges have no statute of limitations. But even if convicted, it’s unclear whether he will serve time in Switzerland.

Rifaat Assad – who later became known as the “Butcher of Hama” – has denied the charges.

The war crimes probe against him began in 2013, while he was living in France: Assad had been living in exile for more than 30 years following a coup attempt on his brother, then-President Hafez Assad.

In 2021, he was allowed to return to Syria by his nephew, Bashar, shortly after a French court sentenced him to four years in prison for illegally using Syrian state funds.

Despite the low chances of the former vice president appearing on trial, human rights groups hailed the Swiss indictment as “a victory for all the victims” of the regime.

A date for the trial has not yet been confirmed.

Staying In Line


Thousands of Slovaks protested in the country’s capital this week to show support for Ukraine and denounce the government’s foreign policy shift that critics say has veered too close to Russia, Reuters reported.

Around 5,000 people took to the streets of Bratislava on Tuesday, chanting slogans against the government of Prime Minister Robert Fico and holding signs calling Russia a “terrorist state.”

The demonstrations follow a meeting between Slovakian Foreign Minister Juraj Blanar and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov earlier this month – a rare high-level encounter between a European Union nation and a country the bloc has sought to isolate.

Blanar has defended the meeting, saying it came at Lavrov’s request and that a diplomatic solution was needed for the Ukraine conflict.

His comments echo many of the statements by Fico, who has panned Europe’s military aid to Kyiv and called to revive ties with Moscow, prompting concern among Slovakia’s Western allies.

The prime minister has rejected sending Ukraine weapons and criticized sanctions against Russia – although he has stopped short of blocking EU sanctions against Moscow or aid to Ukraine.

Following an election win in October, Fico and the government have faced a number of opposition-led protests against his policies, including a planned overhaul of Slovakia’s criminal code that opponents say weakens the fight against corruption.

Long Live the King!


Sixteen years after mass protests led to the downfall of Nepal’s monarchy, Nepalis frustrated with the republic are demanding that the former king be reinstated, the Associated Press reported.

Protesters took to the streets of the capital, Kathmandu, to ask that Gyanendra Shah return as king of Nepal and that Hinduism become the state religion again.

They blame the current political system, a federal secular republic established in 2008, for the country’s economic and political woes. Amid a troubled economy, the Nepalese Republic has seen 13 governments in nearly 16 years.

These successive administrations failed to address the issue of political stability in a country battered over the past three decades by a series of protests that led to the transformation of government.

For example, demonstrations in 1990 pushed for the democratization of Nepal, giving the monarch only ceremonial status. Then, amid riots involving Maoist factions, King Gyanendra Shah in 2005 cracked down on democratic institutions to claim absolute power. The move triggered mass protests that forced him to backtrack the following year. Eventually, in 2008, Maoists in parliament enabled the transition to a republic.

Now, many Nepalis are disillusioned with the system, say analysts. They accuse politicians of corruption and power-grabs, leading to nostalgia for the monarchy. A growing number of homes and businesses now display portraits of the royal family again.

“Without a king, we have no identity as Nepalese,” said Pashupati Khadga, one of the leaders of the royalist movement. Others argued that Nepal needed a monarchy to stand on its own and face global powers such as neighboring India and China, and the US.

Meanwhile, a first wave of pro-monarchy protests in November last year was met with tear gas and a water cannon fired by the police, the Hindu reported.

Still, the royalist movement is represented in Parliament by the Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP), which holds 5 percent of the seats.

Other parties, including those in government, rejected the possibility of the restoration of the monarchy. Nonetheless, the RPP noted that the political climate in Nepal had “never been so (ripe) for this agenda.” Representatives of the movement met with the prime minister last month.

Shah himself has not commented on the protests.


The Grieving

Indian scientists recently discovered that Asian elephants bury their dead, shedding light on the complex social dynamics of these majestic creatures, New Scientist reported.

In their study, researchers discovered five buried calves in drainage ditches on tea estates in north Bengal, India. The buried mammals had their feet and legs protruding from the ground.

Study authors Akashdeep Roy and Parveen Kaswan explained that they also found footprints and dung droppings of various sizes, which indicates that the burial was a collective effort by herd members.

Night guards at the estates also told the researchers that animals would produce loud vocalizations for up to 40 minutes. Roy suggested that these sounds could signify mourning and that the herds showed “helping and compassionate behavior” during the burials.

“Calf burials are extremely rare events in nature,” said Roy.

The team noted that the calves were buried feet up, possibly due to the accessibility of this position for the elephants to place the carcasses in the drainage ditches.

Examination of the calves’ bodies showed signs of malnourishment and infections, indicating potential struggles faced by the young elephants.

The authors noted that this behavior from Asian elephants differs from that of African bush elephants: The latter are known for covering dead bodies with vegetation and returning to the burial locations later.

Ecologist Chase LaDue of the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden, who was not involved in the study, welcomed the findings, but cautioned on “how we interpret these results, especially as the mental and emotional lives of elephants are still largely mysterious to us.”

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