World roundup: May 12 2022
Stories from Sri Lanka, Finland, El Salvador, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
May 11, 868: A woodblock printed copy of a Chinese translation of the Diamond Sutra, a Mahayana Buddhist text, is completed. Why is this noteworthy? Because this particular copy, included among a trove of documents discovered in a cave in Duhuang, China, in 1900, is—at least as far as the British Library is concerned—“the world’s earliest dated, printed book.” Thanks to the intact dedication, scholars know when, by whom, and for whom the document was produced—it reads “Reverently made for universal free distribution by Wang Jie on behalf of his two parents on the 15th of the 4th moon of the 9th year of Xiantong.” That apparently corresponds to May 11, 868.
May 12, 1364: Jagiellonian University is founded as the “University of Kraków” by Polish King Casimir III, making it the oldest university in Poland. The institution hit a rough patch after Casimir’s death in 1370, but had its funding restored and a permanent location obtained for it by King Władysław II Jagiełło (r. 1386-1434). After having been known as the Kraków Academy for much of its existence, the university’s name was changed several times around the Third Partition of Poland in 1795, eventually settling on its current moniker in 1817 in honor of Władysław II’s Jagiellonian dynasty.
May 12, 1551: The National University of San Marcos is founded in Lima, Peru, under a decree from Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Initially called the “Royal and Pontifical University of the City of the Kings of Lima,” it is officially the oldest still active university in the Americas and is sometimes called the “Dean of the Americas” for that reason. The Dominican Republic’s Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo is unofficially even older, having been founded in 1538, but it didn’t receive its official charter until 1558.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
The Yemeni government and Houthi/Ansar Allah rebels have finally come to an agreement that should allow for the resumption of flights to and from Sanaa’s airport. Resuming a limited commercial flight schedule at that facility was part of the ceasefire agreement the two sides reached last month, but despite an agreement to start regular flights between Sanaa and Amman the pro-government coalition resisted allowing people with rebel-issued travel documents to board the flights and so this effort never actually got off the ground, pun partially intended. The government has apparently dropped that resistance. Flights could begin as soon as next week, when the ceasefire will be about 75 percent over. Ideally this breakthrough will generate some momentum to extend the ceasefire beyond its initial two month duration.
At least four Turkish soldiers and one civilian were wounded on Thursday in a barrage of rocket fire from over the border in northeastern Syria’s Kobani region. Given the location it’s a virtual certainty that Kurdish militants were responsible. The Turkish military says it returned fire but there’s no word as far as any casualties.
An estimated 5000 or more people turned out on Thursday to commemorate journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed in Jenin on Wednesday under disputed circumstances. The Palestinian Authority held a memorial for Abu Akleh in Ramallah, complete with a procession to her home in eastern Jerusalem. Her funeral service will be held there on Friday.
As I wrote on Wednesday, the preponderance of evidence suggests that Abu Akleh and fellow journalist Ali al-Samudi (who was wounded) were shot by Israeli occupation forces during an arrest raid. After initially and implausibly insisting that they were shot by Palestinian militants and then claiming that they were caught in a crossfire, the Israeli military now says it is investigating the possibility that the shooter was in fact an Israeli soldier. Israeli officials are asking for a joint investigation alongside the PA but PA leaders have rejected that possibility and are talking about submitting the case to the International Criminal Court. Al Jazeera, Abu Akleh’s employer, has also hinted at some kind of legal action.
With talks on reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal pretty much at a dead stop (Laura Rozen has an update if you’re interested), the Iranian government on Thursday cut subsidies for food, including a number of staples, raising prices by as much as 300 percent in some cases. An economy that was already struggling under US sanctions hasn’t weathered recent supply chain crunches, an extended regional drought, and the effects of the war in Ukraine well. Food costs are increasing, as they are around the world and particularly across the Middle East as imports from Russia and Ukraine dwindle. The food price increases are likely to stoke tension among the Iranian public, though the government says it plans to implement a new monthly stipend to help mitigate some of the impact.
Writing for The Diplomat, Afghan Peace Watch’s Habib Khan Totakhil and Justine Fleischner highlight alarming trends since the Taliban took power last year:
Afghanistan may have fallen out of international headlines, but violent trends are once again on the rise. Our team at Afghan Peace Watch (APW), alongside colleagues at the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), have been tracking violent trends based on hundreds of incident reports recorded between September 2021 and March 2022. The report, Tracking Disorder During Taliban Rule in Afghanistan, provides one of the only comprehensive data-backed glimpses into the changing threat environment, based on 238 sources in all 34 provinces of Afghanistan.
The data is clear: While violence overall has decreased from the height of armed clashes between former Afghan government forces and the Taliban between May and August 2021, there has been a marked shift in violence against women, journalists, and educators that was simply not there under the previous government’s rule. Women have been forced to cover their faces and all but forbidden from public space. The Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan (ISKP) has launched several high-profile terrorist attacks, fueling ethnic and religious tensions. Other trends in the data reveal a worrying rise in violence against former Afghan government forces, recently confirmed by the New York Times, and intense infighting between various Taliban factions and interests.
A roadside bomb in Karachi on Thursday killed at least one person and wounded another 13. The target seems to have been a passing police van, but the only confirmed death at this point is of a civilian bystander. There’s been no claim of responsibility but Baluch separatists are active in Karachi.
Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa named veteran politician Ranil Wickremesinghe as his new prime minister on Thursday, replacing his brother and former PM Mahinda Rajapaksa. This is Wickremesinghe’s sixth stint as PM and it may also prove to be his most difficult, as he assumes office in the middle of a political crisis that erupted into outright violence earlier this week. He’ll be tasked with presenting a comforting, familiar face to protesters calling for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation over Sri Lanka’s mounting economic woes. In theory he’ll be leading a “national unity” government, though until that government is in place nothing about its formation is certain.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa has resisted the calls for his resignation but he has suggested a willingness to surrender much of his power to the new cabinet and ultimately to parliament moving forward. It remains to be seen whether he really means it and whether, if he does, that’s going to be enough to appease the protesters. Beyond that, even Rajapaksa’s resignation isn’t going to end the economic crisis underpinning this political crisis, and it won’t remove the powerful Rajapaksa family from Sri Lankan politics altogether.
The Biden administration welcomed leaders of Association of Southeast Asian Nations member states to Washington on Thursday for day one of a two-day summit. It dangled a relatively modest proposal to invest around $150 million in new regional initiatives, including a clean energy project and a stepped up maritime law enforcement campaign, as well as the promise of a much larger public-private investment initiative that could counter Chinese investment in the region. The administration also, as rumored, made the symbolic gesture of leaving an empty seat at the negotiating table to mark the absence of suspended ASEAN member Myanmar.
Writing for Inkstick, Jason Tower of the Blob-adjacent US Institute for Peace calls for a new international approach to Myanmar’s civil war that acknowledges ASEAN’s failure to remedy the situation:
April marked the first anniversary of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Five Point Consensus (5PC) on Myanmar. The consensus was negotiated by the nine member states and the perpetrator of the Feb. 1, 2021 military coup. It was designed to end the violence and set Myanmar back on a path toward reform. The plan called for an immediate end to violence, dialogue, humanitarian assistance, and an ASEAN Special Envoy appointment to facilitate the process. Sadly, for the people of Myanmar, a year of international lip-service to an ASEAN Consensus has seen a dramatic deterioration of conditions, with the frequency and intensity of the military’s war crimes increasing exponentially throughout the year.
For example, by August 2021, the military junta had completely wiped dozens of villages off the map by launching aerial strikes on communities in Chin, Sagaing, Karenni, and Karen states. In December 2021, it perpetrated a massacre on Christmas day in Karenni state, burning anti-junta forces to death in a horrific attack. In the first four months of 2022, the military deployed a wide range of paramilitary groups, including the “Blood Drinking Group” that has initiated targeted assassinations against public figures that are supportive of the deposed National League for Democracy Party or the National Unity Government (established by the beleaguered lawmakers following the military coup).
Meanwhile, the harsh military oppression has prompted more and more people to take up arms against military rule, causing a rapid militarization of Myanmar’s society and the complete collapse of any notion of the rule of law. In response, powerful ethnic armed organizations have mobilized either to gain a foothold on new territories — as the United Wa State Army has done in Shan State together with its allies — or have moved to enhance autonomy and expand their authority, as we see in Kachin, Karen, Chin, and Karenni states. As a result, the prospects of further state fragmentation are increasingly likely as these trends continue. Moreover, since the coup, it has become clear to Myanmar’s ethnic armed organizations that the military has no legitimacy or capacity to rule and is not a trustworthy dialogue partner.
Can ASEAN members come together and stop the military junta’s violence against its people? Last month, Malaysia called for a new approach, arguing that the 5PC has failed to prevent violence, produce dialogue, and deliver humanitarian aid. Meanwhile, Cambodia doubled down on efforts to advance these three aspects of 5PC through high-level outreach to the military junta. While ASEAN states remain divided on approach, calls for a new direction are growing. However, three obstacles stand in the organization’s way: internal constraints, strong divisions among major powers, and the international community’s dangerous assumption that ASEAN centrality means that international efforts to address the crisis must be outsourced to ASEAN.
The problem with this analysis to me is not that the main finding is wrong. There’s no question that ASEAN hasn’t made any appreciable headway in terms of addressing Myanmar’s post-coup crisis. It’s that the alternatives on offer are basically vapor. Tower wants the US to use its presidency of the United Nations Security Council to “press for an arms embargo” and “demand” that Myanmar’s ruling junta cease its military activity and release political prisoners. But any substantive effort to challenge the junta by the Security Council is likely to draw a Chinese veto, the UN’s recent move to make the veto slightly more inconvenient notwithstanding. Maybe, and I know this is an uncomfortable idea for people who work in international relations to confront, there’s no quick fix to this particular situation.
The North Korean military conducted yet another weapons test on Thursday, firing three projectiles into the sea off of the country’s eastern coast. South Korean and Japanese officials have preliminarily determined that these were short-range ballistic missiles. The rationale behind this test is unclear. It may have been meant as a show of force for new South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, but then again it may have been meant as a “don’t get any funny ideas” statement following the announcement of North Korea’s first acknowledged COVID outbreak. That outbreak—which has already claimed at least six lives—has North Korea under its strictest lockdown yet, as international observers try to get some sense of what’s actually happening.
As you’re likely aware, Pyongyang has insisted for more than two years that the country has been kept completely COVID free as a result of strict preemptive lockdown measures. That claim has always been regarded with some skepticism. Now that North Korea has admitted an outbreak, there would appear to be two possibilities. Perhaps those earlier COVID-free claims were actually true, in which case this outbreak is very serious because North Korea lacks a vaccine and has heretofore put all its eggs in the prevention basket. Or perhaps they weren’t true, in which case this outbreak must be very serious for North Korean officials to have openly acknowledged it. Either way it’s not good news for the North Korean people, who are facing this outbreak sans vaccine and who will undoubtedly feel the economic repercussions of another lockdown.
Thousands of protesters turned out in Khartoum on Thursday in a continuation of anti-junta protests. Security forces responded with tear gas but seem to have managed not to kill anyone for a change. The United Nations and African Union have been trying to organize talks between the junta and the organizations behind the protests but as yet that effort hasn’t made much progress.
Tunisian President Kais Saied on Thursday rejected the possibility of foreign observers monitoring either the constitutional referendum he’s planning to hold in July or the parliamentary election he’s scheduled for December. Saied has dissolved Tunisia’s independent electoral authority, along with pretty much every other state institution since seizing sole power last July, raising concerns about the legitimacy of the electoral process.
On a related note, Tunisian authorities are denying reports that they’ve arrested Hamadi Jebali, an Ennahda politician who served as the country’s prime minister from late 2011 through early 2013. Ennahda insists he’s been taken into custody as part of Saied’s broader effort to silence political opposition and has demanded his release.
The Guardian highlights anecdotal accounts of Russian soldiers refusing deployment to Ukraine, which apparently they have some legal leeway to do because it’s not technically a “war.” This sort of story doesn’t seem particularly compelling to me as there’s no real meat to it apart from a few isolated stories and a strong desire in Western media for those stories to be indicative of a larger problem for the Russians. But if this is a serious trend it obviously would have major implications for the sustainability of the Russian war effort. Not necessarily insofar as the Russians are going to run out of soldiers, but that they’ll eventually have no choice but to institute a larger military mobilization.
In news related to Ukraine:
According to Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk, Kyiv is trying to secure the evacuation of wounded fighters from the still-besieged Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol via a prisoner exchange with Russia. At present talks appear to be focused on a group of 38 wounded fighters, but if that effort succeeds other exchanges could follow.
The governments of Germany and Czechia are reportedly negotiating an agreement wherein the German government would supply Leopard tanks to the Czech military while the Czechs would send their T-72M4 CZ tanks to Ukraine. This achieves a couple of aims. One, it lets Germany “send heavy weaponry” to Ukraine without actually sending heavy weaponry to Ukraine, getting around German squeamishness on that subject. Two, it reduces the need for training, since those Czech tanks, while of a variant unique to the Czech military, are still much closer to the kind of tank Ukrainian soldiers already use than those German Leopards.
In Washington, meanwhile, US Senator Rand Paul has pumped the brakes on a congressional effort to allocate upwards of $40 billion in new aid to Ukraine. Paul is holding out for the appointment of an inspector general to oversee how that money is spent. As a lone senator he can’t stop the package from eventually being passed by the Senate, but he can slow the process down a fair bit at a time when DC is vibrating over the supposed urgency of this money.
To I assume not very much surprise, Finnish President Sauli Niinistö and Prime Minister Sanna Marin announced on Thursday that they both are in favor of ending Helsinki’s historic nonaligned status and applying for NATO membership. Their announcement isn’t a formal membership application but it strongly suggests a formal application is coming in at most a matter of a few days. Also unsurprisingly, the Russian government responded to the announcement by reiterating its threat to retaliate in some unspecified manner. This could include the positioning of nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad, where Russia may already have nuclear weapons anyway.
Finland’s decision to opt for NATO membership, and the similar decision that’s likely to come from Sweden in the next couple of days (see below), have to be viewed as strategic setbacks for Russia. The Ukraine war has caused public sentiment in Finland to flip dramatically on the question of joining NATO—where less than half the country supported the idea previously, in some surveys upwards of 75 percent support it in the wake of the invasion.
The Swedish newspaper Expressen reported on Thursday that Stockholm intends to submit its own NATO application as soon as next week. The ruling Social Democratic Party is still internally debating the idea but will likely opt in favor of NATO membership this weekend. Finland’s decision to apply probably ensures that Sweden will follow suit. As to what comes next, NATO members are likely to accept those applications in short order, no later than next month’s summit in Madrid. That will kick off a year-long accession process, during which it can be expected that the organization will offer Finland and Sweden something akin to full Article 5 mutual defense protection. It’s possible a NATO member could object to their applications but that possibility seems fairly remote.
Just three days after taking office, new Costa Rican President Rodrigo Chaves declared a state of emergency on Wednesday in response to ransomware attacks that began in April. A Russian hacker group called Conti has claimed responsibility for those attacks, which started in the Costa Rican Finance Ministry and have lingered for weeks, though they don’t seem to have spread particularly widely. It’s unclear what powers this state of emergency will offer that would be useful in a situation like this.
According to The New York Times, families of the thousands of people swept up in El Salvador’s ongoing state of emergency are spending their days outside a holding facility in the country’s capital trying to get word about the status of their detained relatives:
Following a record-setting weekend of gang killings in March, the Salvadoran government declared a state of emergency and suspended civil liberties guaranteed in the constitution. The campaign of mass arrests that ensued led to the imprisonment of more than 25,000 people in about a month and a half.
Many of those detained have been sent to a prison known as “El Penalito,” or “little prison,” a dilapidated building in the capital, San Salvador, that has become ground zero for perhaps the most aggressive police crackdown in the Central American country’s history. It is a first stop in what could be a long stay inside the country’s overcrowded prison system.
Many inmates spend anywhere from days to weeks inside El Penalito before being transferred to a maximum-security facility. After the crackdown, relatives of those detained started to gather on the street outside, waiting to find out what would happen next.
Finally, according to The Guardian, large energy companies are planning heavily for a future in which humanity abandons any hope of avoiding the worst case scenario when it comes to climate change:
The world’s biggest fossil fuel firms are quietly planning scores of “carbon bomb” oil and gas projects that would drive the climate past internationally agreed temperature limits with catastrophic global impacts, a Guardian investigation shows.
The exclusive data shows these firms are in effect placing multibillion-dollar bets against humanity halting global heating. Their huge investments in new fossil fuel production could pay off only if countries fail to rapidly slash carbon emissions, which scientists say is vital.
The oil and gas industry is extremely volatile but extraordinarily profitable, particularly when prices are high, as they are at present. ExxonMobil, Shell, BP and Chevron have made almost $2tn in profits in the past three decades, while recent price rises led BP’s boss to describe the company as a “cash machine”.
The lure of colossal payouts in the years to come appears to be irresistible to the oil companies, despite the world’s climate scientists stating in February that further delay in cutting fossil fuel use would mean missing our last chance “to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all”. As the UN secretary general, António Guterres, warned world leaders in April: “Our addiction to fossil fuels is killing us.”