The World Today for April 15, 2024

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The Wedge Between Two Giants


In January, the president of the Maldives, Mohamed Muizzu, suspended ex-Deputy Youth Minister Mariyam Shiuna for her disparaging remarks about Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The move came as Muizzu was preparing to order Indian troops to leave his archipelago nation around 300 miles south of the Indian coast, as Al Jazeera explained.

Recently, Shiuna crossed India again when she doctored a campaign poster for the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party, including India’s tricolor flag and the logo of Modi’s political party, the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, on social media.

“I extend my sincerest apologies for any confusion or offense caused by the content of my recent post,” she wrote, according to the Indian Express. “Maldives deeply values its relationship and the mutual respect we share with India.”

The expression of regret might help improve relations between the Maldives and India, which have nosedived recently, reported Mint, an Indian publication. Maldivian voters, however, still have a chance to express their opinions about their country’s diplomatic relations with India as well as the other giant in the region seeking to influence the country – China – when they elect a new parliament on April 21.

Muizzu won office last year on a platform of ending undue Indian influence in the Maldives, saying Indian troops stationed in the country were undermining its sovereignty, explained the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom. The president has also signed an agreement to accept Chinese military assistance, however, leading observers to wonder if he’s trying to play one giant off the other. The Maldives traditionally is closer diplomatically to India. The Maldivian Democratic Party criticized the agreement.

“It’s surprising Muizzu has moved so quickly to establish military ties with China, because it’s clear this would upset New Delhi,” University of Western Australia political scientist Azim Zahir told the Guardian. “This is a very new direction that will definitely escalate tensions in the region.”

If candidates from Muizzu’s ruling People’s National Congress and their allied parties win at the polls, the president might want to expand his anti-India and pro-China policies, wrote the Wire. If opposition candidates win, they might blunt his pro-Chinese pivot.

Regardless, the election won’t alter the Maldives’ biggest challenges. Citizens are flocking to the capital city of Male for employment opportunities, but the small island city is already overcrowded, reported the New York Times. The country needs massive investment to help.

Repressive policies on human rights and towards civil society groups and journalists are concerns, as is Islamic extremism, wrote StratNews Global.

At the same time, climate change, particularly rising sea levels, are also placing enormous pressure on the country. China, for example, recently donated more than one million bottles of Tibetan water to the country to help mitigate water shortages arising from salt water commingling with fresh groundwater, added WION, an Indian news outlet.

Meanwhile, while the Maldives has been a strong voice in international forums on climate-related issues, its domestic environmental policies have been more lax, wrote Human Rights Watch (HRW) in a recent report. That’s not surprising, as HRW pointed out, because President Muizzu has expressed skepticism about the threat of climate change: Instead, he wants more development of land even though these have exacerbated erosion on islands already at risk from rising sea levels.


Of Empty Victories


Iran led its first-ever direct attack on Israel over the weekend, a retaliatory drone and missile strike that was contained by Israel and its Western allies, and threatened to widen the ongoing war in Gaza into a regional conflict, Reuters reported.

The attack, involving more than 300 missiles and drones targeting military sites in Israel, was in response to an airstrike, widely credited to Israel, on an Iranian diplomatic building in Damascus, Syria on April 1 that killed 12 people, including two senior Iranian generals. Israel said it and its allies, the US, France and the UK, downed 99 percent of the airborne weapons launched on Saturday. No casualties were reported.

Meanwhile, both sides claimed victory.

The Iranian army’s chief of staff, Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, said the attack “put out of operation” an airbase Tehran suggested had been used by Israel’s air force in its strike on the Damascus consulate, the Guardian reported.

Israel reported minor damage, praising the success of its multilayered air defense arsenal, developed with US backing, that includes the so-called “Iron dome” used to shoot down short-range missiles, the Associated Press explained.

Nonetheless, Tehran on Sunday morning insisted its military operation had been successful. “If the Zionist regime takes action against us, (…) our next operation will be bigger,” Bagheri added.

As Israel mulled its possible response to the attack, US President Joe Biden told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the US would oppose a counterattack on Iran, officials told Axios, preferring “a united diplomatic response.”

At a tense United Nations Security Council meeting held Sunday evening, the UN’s Secretary-General António Guterres condemned Iran’s attack but called on members not to escalate tensions with reprisals against Iran, the Guardian reported.

Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Gilad Erdan, called for “all possible sanctions” to be placed against Iran and to have the Iranian Revolutionary Guards designated a terrorist organization, while deputy US ambassador Robert Wood said the US would shortly “explore additional measures to hold Iran accountable here at the United Nations,” without providing specifics.

Iran’s UN ambassador, Amir Saeid Iravani, said his country’s action was necessary and proportionate and Iran had a right to defend itself. Iran has argued it used its right to self-defense because the Damascus strike violated the 1961 Vienna Convention prohibiting attacks on diplomatic premises. At the same time, after long acting behind proxies such as Hezbollah in Lebanon or the Houthis in Yemen, with Saturday’s attack Tehran essentially confirmed it was ready for a military clash with Israel, Haaretz wrote.

Israel has conducted hundreds of airstrikes against Iranian targets and its militia allies throughout the Middle East, a campaign that Israel rarely acknowledges but has long been an open secret, the Wall Street Journal wrote.

Meanwhile, because of the attack, Israel enjoyed a show of renewed support from its allies after its conduct in the war in the Gaza Strip had drawn growing criticism and isolation, including in the West, the Associated Press noted.

At the same time, some in Gaza celebrated the news of the strikes: “Whoever decides to attack Israel (…) when the whole world acts in its service, is a hero in the eyes of Palestinians regardless of whether we share their ideology or not,” one Palestinian man told Al Jazeera.

Hamas also welcomed the attack. The Palestinian group, backed by Iran, rejected a hostage release deal, Israeli intelligence said on Sunday.

The Emperor’s New Clothes


Protest broke out in Niger’s capital of Niamey over the weekend, with demonstrators demanding the departure of US troops, after the ruling junta shifted its strategy by ending a military accord with the US and welcomed its first delegation of Russian military personnel, Reuters reported.

The crowd waved Nigerien flags in a demonstration that recalled anti-French protests which spurred the withdrawal of the French military from Niger last year after Niger’s democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum was overthrown by the military, the newswire wrote. “We’re here to say no to the American base, we don’t want Americans on our soil,” said protester Maria Saley.

Last month, the junta revoked a deal that had stationed 1,000 US soldiers in two bases, to help the former government fight Islamist insurgents in the Sahel region. Niger has long been an important strategic partner in fighting Islamist extremists.

Mali and Burkina Faso – which also had military coups over the past few years and are run by military juntas – also have ended deals with their erstwhile Western allies, partnered with Russia, and quit the regional bloc, ECOWAS, which had also taken steps to oppose Niger’s junta following the coup.

On Wednesday, Russian military instructors and equipment arrived in Niger, part of an initiative by Moscow to boost its influence on the continent. According to the Institute for the Study of War, the Russians are part of the Africa Corps, the new paramilitary structure replacing the Wagner Group, the military contractor whose mercenaries spread in Africa until its leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, was killed last year.

Even so, the equipment that Russia is supplying isn’t likely to be used in the fight against the insurgents but more to protect the junta from ECOWAS, the BBC wrote.

At the same time, a senior US official said that despite the demonstration and public calls for US troops to leave, senior ministers in Niger’s government were privately requesting the US not to abandon the deal or Niger completely, the New York Times reported. As a result, there is no timetable yet as to when the US military personnel will leave.

Meanwhile, analysts told the BBC they fear that as Niger moves closer to countries outside the Western bloc including Russia, China and Iran, the alliance with Russia could encourage the junta to delay further a return to civilian rule, as has happened in neighboring Mali.

Still, protesters said they don’t want Russia to replace France or the US as “occupiers.”

Goodbye, Excuses


Poland enacted a ban against homework this month that has left children rejoicing but some teachers and parents are concerned, the Associated Press reported.

Under the decree, teachers are no longer to give required homework to kids in the first to third grades. In grades four to eight, homework is now optional.

Primary school students now have “an excess of things to learn, to memorize, also at home, at the expense of free time, at the expense of extra-curricular activities, at the expense of meeting friends,” said Education Minister Barbara Nowacka, according to Notes from Poland, a local news outlet.

The cutting of homework comes amid concerns about Poland’s “antiquated” educational system, with critics saying it puts too much emphasis on rote learning and homework, and not enough on critical thinking and creativity.

At the same time, children say they are overloaded. Last year, a 14-year-old Polish boy at a campaign rally said children “had no time to rest,” that children’s rights were being violated with so much homework on weekends, and so many tests on Mondays. As a result, it became a campaign promise of now Prime Minister Donald Tusk to do something about it.

Sławomir Broniarz, the head of the Polish Teachers’ Union, however, told the AP that while he recognized the need to ease the burden on students, the new homework rules are another case of change imposed from above without adequate consultation with educators. Parents, meanwhile, wondered if it would adversely impact learning.

Debates over the proper amount of homework are common around the globe, wrote the AP. While some studies have shown little benefit to homework for young learners, other experts say it can help them learn how to develop study habits and academic concepts.

Regardless, kids like 11-year-old fifth grader, Ola Kozak, of Warsaw, are happy to be free of homework.

“Most people in my class in the morning would copy the work off someone who had done the homework or would copy it from the Internet … so it didn’t make sense,” she said.


Four Eyes

Most spiders have more than two eyes – but not daddy longlegs.

These basement-dwelling arachnids – which are technically not spiders – are known to have only two forward-facing peepers.

However, this wasn’t always the case, the Smithsonian Magazine reported.

Daddy longlegs belong to an arachnid group known as “harvestmen,” which is comprised of more than 6,000 known species. A majority of them have only two eyes.

Recently, researchers studying embryos of Phalangium opilio – a daddy longlegs species – discovered four additional eyes that never fully develop.

They explained that these eyes were vestigial organs, which are remnants of body parts that no longer function and are considered “leftovers of evolution.” In humans, these organs include wisdom teeth and the appendix.

The findings showed that the P. opilio had an eye on each side of its head, including a pair that face forward. Although they don’t develop, the harvestmen could still gain some benefit from them, such as detecting differences in light, the researchers added.

They noted that their study and other research on fossilized daddy longlegs showed that the arachnid species are around 50 million years older than previously thought.

Their lineage tree now dates back more than 537 million years. with the new findings providing scientists additional insight into their mysterious evolution.

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