The World Today for May 20, 2024

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SRI LANKA

Sri Lanka has been grappling with political and economic instability since the end of its 26-year-long civil war 15 years ago.

After the pandemic, miles-long lines began appearing for fuel. Power cuts were the daily norm. And even dal (lentils) and fish, daily staples of Sri Lankan cuisine for even the poor, became luxuries as hunger spread.

In 2022, the country of 22 million went bankrupt, defaulting on its debt.

Last year, explained World Politics Review, the coronavirus, the war in Ukraine’s effect on food and fuel prices, and other inflationary pressures continued to batter the island off India’s southern coast. Furious, Sri Lankans took to the streets seeking the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa who won office after suicide attacks on Easter Sunday in 2019, then packed the government with his relatives – his family, meanwhile, having already dominated the country for years. He quit in disgrace in 2022.

Now, with the help of an International Monetary Fund aid package, Sri Lanka is back open for business. The South Asian country’s all-important tourism industry in particular is bouncing back, reported the Telegraph.

Still, today, that renewed push toward stability and prosperity has brought a new set of challenges. President Ranil Wickremesinghe must now balance China and India, the two massive countries that dominate the region.

China has invested heavily in Sri Lanka over the years, reported Nikkei Asia. But these expenditures haven’t necessarily helped the country as much as its leaders would like. Locals call Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport, for example, which opened in 2013, “the world’s emptiest airport” because no flights take off or land there, though the Export-Import Bank of China spent $209 million to build it.

China Petroleum and Chemical Corporation (Sinopec), the world’s biggest hydrocarbon refiner, is now building a $4.5 billion refinery in the country, too – the company’s first outside of China, added Oilprice.com.

Accordingly, Wickremesinghe has signed big contracts with Indian companies for power plants, shipping ports, and other facilities in order to counteract China’s financial footprint on the island. Last year, the US International Development Finance Corporation allocated more than $553 million in an investment for a container terminal.

Earlier this year, after allegations surfaced that Chinese spy vessels were docking in Sri Lanka, Wickremesinghe banned Chinese research ships from accessing the country, added Foreign Policy magazine.

Internal political tensions are also bubbling under the surface.

Sri Lankan authorities, for instance, recently arrested four ethnic Tamils when they commemorated loved ones who had died in the civil war in 2009, the Hindu wrote. Sri Lankan courts have ruled that such events might be veiled “attempts to revive” the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a rebel group that the Sri Lankan military defeated.

In a move that seems designed to improve relations with officials in the Sri Lankan capital of Columbo, India has also banned the LTTE, noted CNBC.

Sri Lanka must reconcile the freedom of Tamils to express themselves with the need to avoid violence, say human rights groups. However, it’s not a battle they are winning.

In January, the country passed the “draconian” Online Safety Act to regulate online content, which gives a government commission broad powers to assess and remove “prohibited” content that includes “false statements about incidents” in the country and “hurting religious feelings,” the BBC reported. It holds social media platforms liable for messages and posts.

It was one of three bills, including the new Anti-Terrorism Act and Non-Governmental Organizations (Registration and Supervision) Act, that will suppress dissent, allow for arbitrary arrests and repress civil society groups that fight corruption and promote democracy, says Human Rights Watch.

Authorities say the Online Safety Act will help fight cybercrime. But civil rights groups, journalists and other critics say it suppresses dissent and protested before its passage into law.

Social media had a key role in protests during the 2022 economic crisis, which ousted the then-president.

The irony is, says the human rights organization, that the very initiatives by the government to crack down on dissent will repress the economic reforms and growth it’s trying to promote.

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

The Fog of the Future

IRAN

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, the hard-line protégé of the country’s supreme leader who cracked down on anti-government protests and dissent over the country’s morality laws, died after a helicopter carrying Raisi, the foreign minister and other officials crashed Sunday in northwestern Iran, the Associated Press reported.

The chopper went down in thick fog in East Azerbaijan province, where search teams struggled for hours in mountainous terrain and poor weather to reach the crash site. Nine people were killed in the crash, according to Sabreen News, which is affiliated with Iranian-backed militias.

The deaths of some of the country’s top leaders come at a time of turmoil in the wider region, as the war in Gaza has escalated tensions. Raisi, 63, led the country as it has engaged in a regional war that encompasses direct military action by Iran and its network of regional proxies, which includes a direct attack on Israel earlier this year, the Washington Post wrote.

A cleric, Raisi was also known as a “hanging judge,” for his harsh sentences as a prosecutor in Tehran. He sent thousands of political prisoners to the gallows in 1988, for example.

He ran for president in 2017 but lost to the relatively moderate incumbent Hassan Rouhani. But four years later, he won the vote, which was carefully managed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to clear any major opposition candidate.

He took over the presidency after Rouhani’s signature nuclear deal with world powers was in tatters after then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the accord.

But while saying he wanted to rejoin the deal, Raisi’s new administration instead pushed back against international inspections, in part over an ongoing suspected sabotage campaign carried out by Israel targeting its nuclear program.

His death also comes as Iran struggles with internal dissent, especially as anti-government protests, which shook the country after they ignited in September 2022, and continue to smolder in spite of a violent crackdown. Still, Raisi was an unpopular president among some of the ruling clerics and the military too, even as he did not have the final say in policy – Iran’s supreme leader does.

Part of that was blame for the dire state of the economy which has seen the country’s currency, the rial, lose 55 percent of its value in less than three years.

Now, First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber will assume the presidency if approved by Iran’s supreme leader, according to the country’s constitution. Elections are to be held within 50 days.

Raisi’s death is likely to lead to a power struggle in the country between the clerics and the military, wrote the Economist.

“His death will nonetheless shake Iranian politics,” the magazine wrote. “It will force the regime to find a new president in short order at a difficult time … And Raisi’s death could also throw Iran’s looming struggle into chaos, by removing one of the two leading candidates for (Supreme Leader) Khamenei’s job.”

Wanted: A Plan

ISRAEL/ GAZA STRIP

Israeli opposition leader Benny Gantz threatened to resign from Israel’s war cabinet if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not come up with a long-term plan for the war with Hamas or the future of the Gaza Strip by next month, an announcement that underscored the internal and external pressures the Israeli leader is under eight months into the conflict, the Financial Times reported.

On Saturday, Gantz called on the government to agree to a six-point plan, including the installation of an international “civilian governance mechanism” for Gaza’s post-war governance, by June 8.

The plan also includes the demilitarization of the Palestinian enclave, the return of the approximately 130 remaining Israeli hostages in Gaza, and steps toward normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia.

Gantz, a former general, who has served in various high-level positions in the government over the past few years, vowed to withdraw his centrist National Unity party from the war cabinet if his demands waere not met.

He joined the war cabinet shortly after Hamas and its allies launched an attack in southern Israel on Oct. 7 that killed around 1,200 people and saw more than 240 people taken hostage.

Israel responded by launching a military campaign in Gaza to decisively defeat Hamas and free the hostages. But since then, divisions have appeared within Netanyahu’s circle amid criticism at home and from abroad – including Israel’s main ally the United States – over Israel’s operations, the humanitarian crisis in the territory and the lack of a plan for “the day after.”

Gantz’s comments came a few days after Defense Minister Yoav Gallant criticized Netanyahu for lacking a proper post-war plan for Gaza and questioned if Israel intends to rule the territory militarily, Politico noted.

In response, Netanyahu admonished Gantz’s ultimatum, calling his demands nothing more than “washed-up words” that would mean “defeat for Israel.” He also rejected Gallant’s accusations that he was putting personal interests ahead of the war, a widespread criticism expressed domestically and internationally.

Political analysts said the war cabinet has not appeared to have come up with a proper post-war plan, while pointing to the differing visions among cabinet members, the Atlantic wrote.

They added that while Gantz’s departure will not impact Israel’s coalition government, it will force the prime minister to rely more on his far-right political allies.

Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir have urged him to take a more aggressive approach to the war, including re-establishing Jewish settlements in Gaza – considered illegal by most of the international community – once the war is over.

Netanyahu’s critics have said that the prime minister’s decision-making during the conflict has been influenced by his desire to maintain the five-party coalition, which would collapse if Ben-Gvir and Smotrich left.

Turmoil at the Top

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO

Security forces in the Democratic Republic of the Congo said they thwarted an attempted coup Sunday, an incident that came amid an ongoing political crisis five months after the country’s presidential elections, Al Jazeera reported.

Authorities said the coup began early Sunday near the residence of Economy Minister Vital Kamerhe in the capital Kinshasa, which is also in the vicinity of the presidential palace, Palais de la Nation.

Three people were killed in the shootout, including one of the alleged attackers, and all the alleged perpetrators were arrested, officials said, adding that they included Congolese citizens and foreigners, Agence France-Presse added.

The attack came as the governing party of President Felix Tshisekedi is grappling with a political crisis over the election of a parliamentary speaker. That election was supposed to take place Saturday, but was postponed.

Kamerhe was one of the candidates for that position.

A day before the election, Tshisekedi met with lawmakers and leaders of the ruling coalition in an effort to resolve the political crisis.

Tshisekedi was re-elected in December after securing more than 70 percent of the vote in a poll that was marred by accusations of opacity.

Since then, he has been unable to form a government.

The coup attempt also comes as fighting continues to rage between pro-government forces and M23 rebels vying for control in eastern Congo’s North Kivu province.

Thousands of civilians have become trapped between the combatants.

DISCOVERIES

The Blushing Hens

Chickens are highly underrated.

In reality, these birds, domesticated from wild jungle fowl around 10,000 years ago, are far more emotionally complex than humans usually believe.

In a recent study, scientists have discovered they even blush when emotionally aroused, Science Alert reported.

A team of researchers came to that conclusion after investigating whether chickens blush, having observed similar responses in birds like macaws and vultures.

Their analysis relied on an experiment involving six Sussex hens, filmed in both natural and human-controlled situations. The scenarios the chickens were subjected to, including being fed worms or captured, were meant to provoke excitement or fear.

An algorithm processed the footage to analyze redness on specific parts of the chickens’ faces, such as their cheeks, earlobes and wattles (the skin that dangles under their chin).

The scientists found that the redder the cheeks and earlobes were, the more excited or afraid the chickens were.

At the same time, they also found that redness could indicate the chickens’ response to the presence of humans.

They separated hens into two groups, one that was gradually introduced to a human, and another that was left alone. When meeting a human, hens in the first group were less red and less fearful than their counterparts in the second group.

Changes in facial redness “can be used as a marker for assessing the quality of the human-hen relationship,” the researchers said.

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