The World Today for April 02, 2024

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Blazing Furnace


Although the president of Vietnam, Vo Van Thuong, resigned on March 20 for undisclosed reasons, he allegedly ran afoul of corruption laws. He is Vietnam’s second president to leave office early in two years. Former President Nguyen Xuan Phuc resigned from the presidency in 2023 amid graft scandals related to his underlings. Other top-level officials have also left office recently due to allegations of graft.

Vice President Vo Thi Anh Xuan is now acting president, wrote the Associated Press. She is the country’s first female head of state, a role she played after Xuan departed, too.

These changes are signs of instability in a country that has become an important counterweight to China and a potential American friend in Southeast Asia – as the RAND Corporation think tank discussed late last year – as well as a growing global manufacturing hub. RAND also raised questions about Nguyen Phu Trong, the leader of the ruling Communist Party, who really holds the reins of power in the country.

Companies that have sought to avoid American labor costs and Chinese government control in their operations invested almost $37 billion into the country over 2023 alone, according to Bloomberg. Foreigners plowed nearly $4.3 billion into the country’s economy in January and February, an increase of 39 percent compared with last year.

Trong has vowed to root out corruption that has accompanied this investment into Vietnam, wrote World Politics Review. Currently, for example, prosecutors are seeking to imprison – or put to death – a tycoon who allegedly stole $12 billion from the country’s largest financial institution gauged by assets, the Saigon Joint Stock Commercial Bank, reported Reuters. Ninety people have been implicated in the case. Two hundred lawyers are working on it. Thousands are expected to be summoned.

It’s the biggest fraud trial in Vietnam’s history and the biggest to date in Asia.

At the center of the trial is real estate tycoon Truong My Lan. In addition to charges of embezzlement, Lan is also accused of paying bribes and of breaching banking regulations. She risks the death penalty. Other defendants include 15 central bank officials, among whom is a senior inspector accused of taking bribes worth $5.2 million from Lan.

The crackdown on graft in a campaign known as “Blazing Furnace” reflects public discontent over crooked bureaucrats and a lack of transparency in Vietnam, added the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada. The Vietnamese routinely pay bribes for everyday needs such as medical services or land permits, the UN said in a report.

As a result, fed up Vietnamese protesters have taken to the streets recently to express their frustration over the government’s failure to regulate companies that pollute the environment, for example.

Meanwhile, Thuong was Trong’s ally. Some analysts therefore contended that the president’s resignation was a sign of Trong’s weakening grasp at the top of the Vietnamese political hierarchy. As Voice of America explained, if Trong and his current team in the Communist Party can’t keep a president in office, Trong’s rivals might want to try their hand at running things.

Investors don’t like corruption or protests or infighting among communist leaders, however. But as analysts predict, they will likely have to settle for some instability, however, as Vietnam grows.


Sticks in the Wheels


An Indian court on Monday jailed the capital’s mayor for two weeks for bribery, charges the opposition says are part of a crackdown on rivals by Prime Minister Narendra Modi ahead of this month’s national election, the Associated Press reported.

New Delhi’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, from the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), is one of India’s most influential politicians. On March 21, the federal financial investigation agency, the Enforcement Directorate, took him into custody, accusing him of receiving $12 million worth of bribes from liquor contractors.

After his 10-day custody period expired, the capital’s court sent him to judicial custody until April 15. The agency argued Kejriwal’s “conduct has been totally non-cooperative.”

Thousands of supporters of the opposition’s coalition – the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) and includes the AAP – demonstrated in New Delhi over the weekend to protest the chief minister’s arrest, warning that India was headed toward “autocracy,” Al Jazeera reported. The Enforcement Directorate is under the authority of Modi’s branch of government.

The AAP said Kejriwal would remain chief minister during his court proceedings, adding he now has a right to apply for bail.

According to the agency, Kejriwal is the first sitting chief minister to be arrested. For the opposition, this marked the deepening of the so-called bullying campaign led by Modi against his opponents in the run-up to the general election starting on April 19.

In the past weeks, key opposition figures have been subjected to investigations, including members of the Gandhi family who used to lead the Congress party.

Last month, the Congress party had its bank accounts frozen amid a tax dispute and said the government was trying to cripple it. Tax authorities on Monday postponed the payment of the party’s $420 million penalty until after the election, Reuters reported.

In a few weeks, nearly a billion Indians will vote over a period of six weeks to elect a new parliament, in the world’s largest democratic exercise. Analysts predicted Modi would easily win another term thanks to his nationalist rhetoric appealing to India’s Hindu majority.

Rage on the Street


Tens of thousands of Israelis staged the largest anti-government protest since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, calling for new elections and a cease-fire deal that would free the remaining Israeli hostages held in Gaza, Haaretz reported.

Protesters on Sunday took to the streets of central Jerusalem, some marching toward Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s residence, others demonstrating in front of parliament. Some blocked major highways and lit fires.

After the Palestinian group Hamas killed about 1,200 people in Israel and took 250 others hostage on Oct. 7, a majority of Israelis united in support of the war in the Gaza Strip. However, six months later, Netanyahu’s failure to bring home all the Israeli hostages has provoked rage and doubts about his leadership.

Some Israelis accused him of failing to prioritize the hostages. “I did not believe that I would have to fight against government officials for my brother’s right to return home,” one relative said at the rally in front of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.

Protesters also criticized a decision to continue a parliamentary recess and also a proposed bill to exempt Orthodox Jewish students from military conscription. Anti-government activists clashed with members of Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox communities.

Speaking in a televised address before undergoing hernia surgery on Sunday, the prime minister addressed protesters’ demands for a snap election, arguing it would bring the country to a standstill for six to eight months and accomplish one of Hamas’ wishes.

Despite naysaying from the United States, Israel’s closest ally, Netanyahu reiterated his ambition to launch a ground offensive in the southern Gazan city of Rafah. The city currently shelters more than a million Gazans fleeing a war that has killed over 32,000 Palestinians, according to the enclave’s Health Ministry.

Netanyahu, whose term should end in 2026 in the absence of an anticipated vote, faced overwhelming public disapproval and mass protests last year due to his government’s plans to reform the judicial system. The ensuing political instability facilitated Hamas’ surprise attack, opponents have said.

Protests had been paused after Oct. 7 but opinion polls show that Netanyahu and his coalition would lose a general election if it were held today, the Associated Press noted.

Equal Duties


Denmark is planning to extend military conscription to women, the third European nation to adopt such a measure, as part of a strategy to strengthen the country’s military in the wake of Russia’s war in Ukraine, the BBC reported.

Currently, military service is compulsory for men aged 18 and over. But starting in 2026, it will become a requirement for women aged 18 and above as well.

Prime Minister Metter Frederiksen said the move would help achieve full gender equality and bring the country in line with its neighbors, Norway and Sweden, which enacted female conscription in 2015 and 2017, respectively.

Meanwhile, women can already volunteer for military service and made up 25 percent of last year’s cohort. Despite military service being compulsory for men, the number of applications usually exceeds demand, and volunteers are chosen through a lottery, Politico explained.

Frederiksen’s administration also announced the lengthening of the conscription service from four to 11 months and plans to increase military spending. By injecting nearly $6 billion into the defense budget in the next five years, Denmark aims to meet NATO’s target of member states spending two percent of their national GDP on defense.

The effort is in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. One of Ukraine’s staunchest supporters, Copenhagen decided to supply Kyiv with F-16 fighter jets.

The overhaul of the military should help deter attacks from Russia, Foreign Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen said.

“We are rearming right now … (sic) in a world where the international order is being challenged,” Frederiksen said.


Got Milk?

Many mammals feed their young with milk – amphibians and other creatures, not so much.

Now, Brazilian biologists have discovered a species of amphibian feeding its offspring a milk-like secretion rich in nutrients, NPR reported.

In their study, they explained that the worm-like amphibian is a caecilian, an underground-dwelling creature descended from the same lineage as frogs and salamanders.

But unlike its relatives, it has a long segmented body without legs and functioning eyes – which makes them look a bit like earthworms with a head.

The research team was observing a particular species, Siphonops annulatus, when they came across their findings.

Mothers of this species give birth to wriggly babies, which later feed off the mother’s skin for nutrition. This process doesn’t bother the mother, but the team saw that at one point the entire brood would move to their parent’s tail.

That’s when they noticed a secretion coming from the tail, which they said resembled milk. Analysis of the substance showed it was rich in lipids and sugars – similar to mammalian milk.

Researcher Marvalee Wake of the University of California at Berkeley suggested that this species of caecilian evolved to deal with a problem human babies also face: The younglings are very vulnerable and can’t fend for themselves, so they need some mother’s milk to grow.

Wake, who was not part of the study, noted this is an example of convergent evolution, a process in which different species can evolve similar traits.

For lead author Marta Antoniazzi, the findings are a reminder of how different species can share commonalities to survive.

“Nature is very creative,” she said. “Sometimes it gives the same solution to different groups of animals.”

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