The World Today for May 01, 2024

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THAILAND

A single clinic on Thailand’s border receives 500 refugees fleeing neighboring Myanmar’s civil war every day as Myanmar’s military fights pro-democracy and local ethnic rebels, reported Sky News.

Critics told Nikkei Asia that the Thai government was not prepared to handle the approximately 90,000 refugees that have sought refuge in the country’s eastern region since the fighting erupted in Myanmar in 2021.

But Thailand has not shirked from addressing the crisis diplomatically. As the Bangkok Post discussed, Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin has sought to partner with Indonesia, Laos and Malaysia to hash out a peace plan that would bring the fighting to an end.

These moves are occurring as Thailand tries to boost its soft power in the region and improve its standing abroad, while also attempting to address its sluggish economy.

Thavisin’s government, for example, has been focusing on the so-called five Fs – food, films, fashion, fighting (as in Muay Thai kickboxing), and festivals to grow the country’s economy, explained the East Asia Forum.

These policies might be working. Thai entertainment studios produce gay-romance TV dramas, for example, that are wildly popular throughout Asia, including in countries like China where legal bans, religious intolerance, and cultural disapproval prevent homegrown “boy-love” TV shows, wrote Deutsche Welle.

Still, commentators note that the prime minister doesn’t seem to be investing much in the democratic institutions that would likely help many of his cultural and diplomatic initiatives succeed. For the past 17 years, coups and other political crises have undermined the country.

Thai election officials have filed a petition with the country’s top court asking the justices to dissolve the Move Forward Party, the main opposition party, for instance. Move Forward won a majority of parliamentary seats in a May 2023 general election but faced too many hurdles to form a government, wrote Human Rights Watch. The party faces allegations of “high treason” for seeking to reform laws that forbid insulting the country’s monarchy.

The Thai Senate, in particular, blocked Move Forward from assuming power. This year, however, explained Reuters, the chamber’s powers will be reduced under a constitutional change that includes a complicated indirect vote in June for senators. Now the Senate won’t be able to thwart elections or veto legislation. Though it retains the power to examine legislative proposals and appoint members to independence commissions, the change eliminates what has effectively served as a veto for the powerful military on who leads the country, the newswire added.

Thavisin, meanwhile, leads the ruling Pheu Thai Party. The royalist military supports Pheu Thai at present. But officers overthrew the party’s government in 2014 and massacred Pheu Thai supporters who took to the streets in protests in 2010, Al Jazeera reported.

Writing in World Politics Review, Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says it’s crucial for the government to win the trust of voters at home for the country to solve its problems and move forward. Still, that’s not necessarily going to happen, he added. If it doesn’t, the progressive parties will trounce Pheu Thai in the next election. And next time, the powers that be may not have a choice but to let the would-be reformers take control.

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

Tilting at Walls

CHINA

A Chinese scientist who first decoded the COVID-19 virus held a sit-in protest outside his lab on Monday after authorities allegedly locked him out of it, the latest in a series of attacks by China on scientists working on the coronavirus, the Associated Press reported.

In an online post, Zhang Yongzhen wrote that guards prevented him from accessing his lab over the weekend. In response, he laid flattened cardboard outside the facility and sat there overnight despite the rain.

“I won’t leave, I won’t quit, I am pursuing science and the truth!” he said in a now-deleted post on social media platform Weibo.

His protest echoed among tens of millions of Chinese netizens, the Guardian reported. “How can the country develop if we treat scientific researchers like this?” one wrote.

Shanghai health authorities said Zhang’s lab was closed for renovation, adding that he was provided with an alternative space to conduct his research. But Zhang responded that the offer of an alternative only came after the eviction and that the new lab did not meet safety requirements.

This latest issue for Zhang underscores how China has sought to control information related to the virus: An Associated Press investigation found that the government froze meaningful domestic and international efforts to trace it from the beginning of the outbreak. It is a pattern that continues to this day, the newswire wrote, with labs closed, collaborations shattered, foreign scientists forced out and Chinese researchers barred from leaving the country.

The row between Zhang and the Chinese government began on Jan. 5, 2020, when the scientist and his team decoded SARS-CoV-2 and warned his agency of the risks of the virus spreading. By then, dozens of people had already been admitted to hospitals in Wuhan for a “mystery” pneumonia.

Upon requests from foreign scientists, Zhang released the virus’ sequence six days later without government permission. The move paved the way for the development of test kits, measures to curb the outbreak and vaccines, earning Zhang multiple prizes.

But it also cost him his job and threatened his career: He was fired from his post at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention and faced obstacles to his research, including a ban on collaborating with former colleagues.

“I don’t regret anything I did. I trusted myself,” Zhang told the New York Times in 2021.

Too Cool for Democracy

EL SALVADOR

El Salvador’s legislature this week approved a change to the constitution that critics said will further consolidate the power of President Nayib Bukele and his ruling New Ideas party, the Latin American Post reported.

On Monday, the congress – dominated by lawmakers of Bukele’s party – voted to amend a provision that would facilitate larger constitutional reforms without having to wait until new legislative elections.

The previous provision stipulated that reforms could be proposed and approved in one legislature and then ratified in the next congress following elections. But following Monday’s vote, constitutional reforms can move forward within a single term with the approval of three-quarters of legislators.

Opposition lawmakers decried the move as “a shot to the democracy” of El Salvador, adding that Bukele and his party are “handing themselves power,” the Associated Press reported.

Citizen Action, a nongovernmental organization, also warned that the changes removed a measure that upholds the national charter and protects “people from abuses of temporary legislative majorities.”

Critics called Monday’s vote another example of Bukele pushing policies that could allow him to stay longer in power.

In February, the popular president made headlines when he won a second presidential term, violating a constitutional ban on serving consecutive terms, the Economist noted. His New Ideas party also secured a supermajority in the legislature, effectively giving the leader free rein.

Self-described as the “world’s coolest dictator,” Bukele has locked up around one percent of El Salvador’s population during his ongoing crackdown on criminal gangs.

The Right to Repair

EUROPEAN UNION

The European Parliament passed a bill this month that will give consumers in the bloc the right to have their old products repaired by manufacturers even after the expiration of the warranty, a move aimed at reducing waste and making goods last longer, Al Jazeera reported.

Under the new rules, manufacturers will be obliged to offer repairs for various electronics and house appliances, such as televisions, fridges and washing machines, as well as other goods considered “repairable” under EU law and sold within the bloc.

EU consumers will be able to choose whether to repair or replace their failing products while they are still under warranty. That warranty will then be extended by 12 months if the product is repaired.

If the warranty has lapsed, customers retain the option to request a repair either free of charge or at a “reasonable price” – defined by factoring in expenses for both spare parts and labor while ensuring that opting for a repair remains an attractive alternative to discarding the product.

The new rules also ban manufacturers from installing software or hardware that hinders repairs and empower EU nations to impose penalties for noncompliance.

Although the law still needs approval from bloc nations, lawmakers have hailed it as “a significant achievement … to empower consumers in the fight against climate change.”

The EU executive body has found that around 38 million tons of waste and more than 280 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions are generated annually because of still-usable consumer goods being discarded.

DISCOVERIES

A Deadly Inheritance

The Italian mafia has long employed one particular brutal means to teach a lesson: It places errant individuals on their stomachs with a rope around their ankles and neck, which leads to a slow strangulation by the weight of their legs.

It’s called “incaprettamento,” and it sends a clear message.

Now, a new paper on Stone Age Europe has highlighted how early humans did the same thousands of years ago, Science Magazine reported.

In 1984, forensic anthropologist Eric Crubézy discovered the skeletal remains of three women buried in a Stone Age structure built to resemble a grain silo in Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux, a 5,600-year-old site in France.

At the time, he noticed how the individuals were buried in an odd and unnatural position. Recently, however, after reading about the Italian Mafia’s “incaprettamento,” he realized the ancient humans he found were bound in a similar position.

That prompted him and his team to revise the assessment of the Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux site, as well as study 15 other Neolithic sites across Europe, from Poland to the Iberian Peninsula.

The researchers found 20 more examples of skeletons bound similarly, all of which were buried between 5500 BCE and 3500 BCE, when agriculture was spreading across Europe.

There were other similarities to Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux, including the silo-like structures and the presence of animal remains with the human skeletons. The animals were likely sacrificed in fertility rites, which were common among ancient agricultural societies.

While violence in the Neolithic period is nothing new, the prevalence of these burials suggests that the prehistoric cultures shared common beliefs or rituals despite being separated by large distances and centuries.

“It’s the same rite but found in different cultures,” said Crubézy. “It’s something that unifies people at this time.”

Still, other scholars remained cautious about some of the study’s assertions, such as that the buried individuals were tortured and sacrificed and the speculation that “some unifying cosmology” existed among the early farmers.

Whether or not Crubézy’s theories are correct, those types of burials began disappearing around 3500 BCE and were replaced by large stone monuments, such as Stonehenge.

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