Saturday, the 6th of March

Talking Points

The 'hyper president' called the sentence a profound injustice. PHOTO: Reuters
  1. France’s ex-leader Nicolas Sarkozy was convicted of corruption
  2. The EU and US sanctioned Russia for Navalny’s poisoning
  3. Italy blocked 250,000 vaccine doses destined for Australia
  4. The ICC announced a probe into war crimes in Gaza
  5. India’s democratic status was downgraded to ‘partly free’
  6. China moved to make Hong Kong’s elections more ‘patriotic’
  7. Sweeping voting rights legislation cleared the US House
  8. As did a police reform act named in honour of George Floyd
  9. Zoom revealed its annual revenue soared by 326%
  10. Climate change was linked to the deaths of 1,500 Britons

Dive deeper

One death among dozens in Myanmar. PHOTO: Twitter

The tenacity of Myanmar's anti-junta protesters has surprised everyone – not least of all the Tatmadaw. As anger swells, the military and police can deploy the only tool available to them: wanton violence.

Blood runs freely

Wednesday was a day of bloodletting. At least 38 protesters were gunned down during growing demonstrations across the country. One of them, 19-year-old Kyal Sin (pictured above), was slain in the old royal capital of Mandalay. Last year, after voting in the election that handed Aung San Suu Kyi a thumping victory, Kyal Sin posted a photo of her ink-stained finger online. She captioned it, “For the first time in my life, I have undertaken my responsibility as a citizen… one vote from the heart”. This week, the teenage activist, nicknamed Angel, was shot in the head at close range . Testimony – and a great deal of footage – has shown protesters clashing repeatedly with lines of armed police. Somewhere, under the veil of smoke bombs and water cannons, amid the baton strikes and hurled rocks, a man in uniform ended her life. Now, perhaps because of the incredulity of trying to stop bullets with makeshift plastic shields, Kyal Sin has been elevated to the status of a martyr.

A worrying and accelerating cycle is emerging in Myanmar. Police open fire on protestors in the streets. The highly-charged funerals that follow turn into larger protests. And those result in even more deaths. Much of the violence is being dealt out on the periphery. In Yangon’s North Okkalapa township, police are acting with total impunity. Despite the proliferation of evidence to the contrary, state-run media has reported that the police “used only crowd control weapons to keep the injuries to a minimum.” But footage circulating on social media shows the police dragging a white-shirted figure into the middle of the road, and summarily executing him . The nonchalance – all captured on phone cameras – is galling. The fact that such videos are being shared at all is also noteworthy. The junta has restricted internet and cellular networks since the coup. Every morning, for three weeks, the internet has been shut off completely from 1am to 9am – causing fears that raids after dark are going unreported. Even when the internet comes back on, Facebook and Messenger are restricted - so millions of people remain disconnected from their most important access point to the web, to each other, and to the world beyond. And it’s not just the lack of information that is being employed to break the back of the resistance. The police are also actively spreading misinformation via text messages and employing sophisticated software to hack and track protesters. It appears Myanmar’s military used the decade of democracy (and attendant easing of arms restrictions) to go on a shopping spree with Western companies.

A question of responsibility

World leaders have voiced shades of revulsion over the wanton killings, but can anyone actually exert meaningful sway over the junta? The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has called for both sides to find a peaceful solution . But that’s a typically limp response from a forum that has limited power by design. Non-intervention in member state affairs is a core tenet of ASEAN, making it largely decorative at the best of times and wholly irrelevant right now.

Trading partners like India, Australia, and a handful of significant Asian economies have demurred on the question of sanctions . The UN hasn’t, and its envoy in Myanmar has warned the junta, but the response has been blunt “We are used to sanctions, and we survived. We have to learn to walk with only few friends”. This confidence is not misplaced. The Tatmadaw is half-a-million strong, and soaks up 15% of the national budget.

The salient question is this: what will China do? Beijing remained close with the junta during its worst years in the wilderness. But it also showed great interest in working with the civilian government over the last decade. This week its ambassador in Naypyitaw stated, “the current development in Myanmar is absolutely not what China wants to see”.

The situation in Myanmar is a test for diplomats in China, and around the world - just as the Rohingya genocide was. In that instance, the world failed. This time, China - with its deep economic ties - may yet succeed. We shall see.


Worldlywise

Pretty simple, isn't it? PHOTO: AP

Greg Abbott, mask off

US President Joe Biden delivered the goods on Tuesday. America’s planned vaccine rollout is being accelerated by a whole two months. By May’s close, the planet’s most-afflicted country will have enough doses in stock for every adult. Finally, a reason for joy. Or at least it was, until Texas Governor Greg Abbott decried, “It is now time to open Texas 100%” and promptly rolled back a statewide mask mandate. The Republican governor, chafing from internal criticism, is risking a fourth wave just as the far-more-infectious UK variant is becoming dominant in America. Meanwhile, 43,000 Texans have already died from COVID-19. Try to square that circle.

Not one to be left out, Mississippi’s Tate Reeves also quickly followed suit. In fact, a total of 16 states (all with Republican statehouses), have eschewed mask mandates. Biden criticised the moves as “Neanderthal thinking”, which is true, but is also the type of unguarded comment that has made COVID a political football in America. It took just hours for the cable news outrage-and-counter-outrage cycle to reduce a matter of science to a mud-slinging contest.

America’s governors would do well to pay closer attention to Brazil, as an example of what happens when a government takes its eye off the ball . The South American nation has been cut into ribbons by COVID-19. New records for coronavirus deaths were set on consecutive days this week . The worst horrors of last year have been eclipsed in just weeks in 2021 as the new local variant tears through Brazil’s population. It is far more infectious, and can evade the immune response in 25-61% of coronavirus survivors . Most Brazilian states are at ‘critical’ levels of ICU occupancy. Almost all are at least 80-90% full. One, Santa Catarina, is 99% full. Pay heed, America.

A brutal rape allegation trails Christian Porter. PHOTO: Richard Wainwright / AAP

A Christian act

Over on this side of the world, Australia’s Attorney General, Christian Porter, stands accused of violently raping a 16-year old in 1988. His accuser provided a detailed account of the attack to friends and police in 2019 - without ever signing an official statement. In June 2020, she inexplicably withdrew her complaint and killed herself the following day. Over the months that followed, the accusation became an open secret among politicians. Last week, it burst into public view and scandalised the country.

Porter, who has a documented history of infidelity, sexism, and inappropriate behaviour , fronted a charged media pack with a point-blank denial and a plea for sympathy. He cast doubt on his accuser’s memory even while admitting his own recollections were incomplete. Gallingly, he also claimed to not have read the details of the allegations he was refuting.

It was an emotionally charged affair, and one before which Porter had already been deemed innocent. Porter’s boss, the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has backed him, and is now stonewalling calls for an inquiry . This is, at least for Morrison, principally a political issue. Any test of Porter’s version of events beyond a police investigation (which was closed for lack of admissible evidence) is unacceptable. One constant in the maintenance of power is the imperative to subsume your opposition. You can see this in how powerful men often festoon themselves in the language of issues that plague them. Morrison repeats the phrase “believe women” with a straight face - even while dismissing women’s accusations. Porter foregrounds his own mental health while questioning his accuser’s capacity to accurately recall events.

Australia’s men were left largely unscathed during the global #MeToo movement thanks to the country’s prohibitively strict defamation laws. Is this the moment of reckoning? Many Australian women remain unconvinced. At the core of the matter is a gap in Australia’s legal system that swallows lives. The majority of sexual assault victims do not report their abuse. Of those that do, just a fraction make it the whole way through to court proceedings. And of that group, most are often retraumatised in a combative legal arena that all too often comes down to ‘he said, she said’.

We know statistically that it takes years for people who are sexually assaulted to come forward – sometimes a lifetime. We also know statistically that it is highly unlikely for a woman to falsify an accusation of sexual assault. But that gap in the legal system remains – and that’s a fact that has surely not escaped the attention of the chief law officer of the Commonwealth of Australia.


The best of times

Every European produces 16kg of electronics waste annually. PHOTO: AP

Europe's e-waste exit

The world is increasingly sending electronic equipment to landfills , instead of recycling or repairing it. This week, the European Union offered a solution: forcing companies to stock spare parts for up to ten years. The legislation covers parts for fridges, TVs, hair dryers and washing machines. Additionally, all new items will come with repair manuals and can be dismantled using conventional tools. By doing so, consumers can repair electronics by themselves or recycle as much of them as possible.

Taking the Heidelberg road

Much of the world is eyeing electric cars to solve transport’s emissions problem. But we could also ditch cars altogether . At least, that’s what Heidelberg, Germany is doing. The city has a multitude of initiatives designed to encourage residents to walk instead of using cars. For example, those who sell their cars are given free public transport for a year. The busses, we should mention, are currently electric-powered, though the city is investing in a fleet of hydrogen-powered busses.


The worst of times

Another wonderful contribution to the world from Facebook. PHOTO: AP

Facebook vs Amazon

Brokers are using Facebook’s Marketplace to illegally sell off protected parts of the Amazon reserved for Indigenous communities. Some of the plots listed were as big as 1,000 football fields. The sellers make their money by clearing the land, without ever owning it, before selling it off as farmland. While Facebook claimed it is ‘ready’ to work with the government to halt the trades, both parties refuse to take action independently . And so, the Amazon continues to be deforested at the highest rate in more than a decade.

The vaccine that wasn't

First, the world raced to create a Covid vaccine, then it raced to distribute the vaccines equally. Now, there’s another problem: people are selling non-existent Covid vaccines. An investigation in Europe uncovered a network of suspicious intermediaries selling vaccines they don’t have . Estimates suggest up to 1b jabs were put up for sale - supply valued at €12-14b - if it existed. As a result, Europe’s struggle to vaccinate its population has become even harder.


Weekend Reading

The image

The first two attempted landings of SpaceX's SN-10 Starship have resulted in fireballs. This one landed successfully, and then blew up several minutes later almost as an afterthought. Photograph supplied by SpaceX.

The quote

“The Kingdom rejects any measure that infringes upon its leadership, sovereignty, and the independence of its judicial system.”

A Saudi spokesperson presumably forgot to add the prefix 'extra' to the penultimate word in that press release.

The numbers

7%

- Global emissions tumbled last year due to the coronavirus pandemic, but they are already rebounding sharply in 2021. We'll need a similar-sized drop every two years (without the rebounds) to meet the Paris Agreement targets.

1,270 sq km

- The size of an iceberg which cleaved off the Brunt Ice Shelf late last week. Depending on which side of the Atlantic you're on, that's either the size of Los Angeles or Greater London.

The headline

"Olympic marathon champion Takahashi among 12 women added to Tokyo organisers' board" Reuters . Hold the applause, what's missing from this is the fact that the board will be disbanded in a few months, the moment the Games are up.

The special mention

A very deserving recipient this week: cuttlefish . Researchers using a modified version of the Stanford marshmellow test have discovered that cuttlefish display the ability for self-control. The frilly marine molluscs displayed a willingness to delay their gratification (for a tasty treat). We can all learn something from these simple oddly buoyant little things.

A few choice long-reads

  • Rupert Murdoch once proclaimed he'd be dead by 90. Instead he's still out there doing deals. Financial Times queries the last big goal for this divisive mogul: succession.
  • Nuclear power remains the big question mark over our transition to zero-emissions energy. The Economist makes a bold argument to regulate it – not ditch it.
  • Pfizer has already changed the world with its one-shot vaccine. Bloomberg Businessweek investigates how they did it – and made bank along the way.

Tom Wharton @trwinwriting