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Soaring prices putting poor countries at risk of default: IMF | Business and Economy

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International financial institution says better mechanisms needed for dealing with sovereign debt stress.

Sharply higher global food and energy prices due to the war in Ukraine are hitting developing countries hard, and better mechanisms for dealing with sovereign debt stress will be needed to stave off defaults, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) said on Monday.

“The war in Ukraine is adding risks to unprecedented levels of public borrowing while the pandemic is still straining many government budgets,” Vitor Gaspar, director of the IMF’s fiscal affairs department, and Ceyla Pazarbasioglu, the organisation’s strategy chief, wrote in a new blog.

“With sovereign debt risks elevated and financial constraints back at the center of policy concerns, a global cooperative approach is necessary to reach an orderly resolution of debt problems and prevent unnecessary defaults.”

Spikes in food and energy prices were hitting low-income countries particularly hard, and they may need more grants and highly concessional financing. Countries should undertake reforms to improve debt transparency and strengthen debt management policies to reduce risks.

About 60 percent of low-income countries were already in, or at risk of, debt distress, the authors said. Rising interest rates in leading economies could lead to widening spreads for countries with weaker fundamentals, making it more costly for them to borrow.

The credit crunch was exacerbated by declining overseas lending from China, which is grappling with solvency concerns in the real-estate sector, COVID-19 lockdowns and problems with existing loans to developing countries, they said.

Actions taken by major economies were insufficient, they said, noting that a freeze in official bilateral debt payments adopted at the start of the pandemic had ended, and no restructurings had been agreed under a framework set by the Group of 20 industrialized nations.

Options were needed for a broader range of countries, now not yet eligible for debt relief.

“Muddling through will amplify costs and risks to debtors, creditors and, more broadly, global stability and prosperity,” they wrote. “In the end, the impact will be most sharply felt by those households that can least afford it.”



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Sri Lankans honour Tamil victims of civil war after 13 years | Tamils News

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Sri Lankan protesters have lit flames and offered prayers remembering thousands – including ethnic Tamil civilians – killed in the final stages of the country’s decades-long civil war.

It was the first-ever event in the island nation where mostly majority ethnic Sinhalese openly memorialised the minority group.

Protesters gathered outside the president’s office in the main city of Colombo on Wednesday, floated flowers in the nearby sea and prayed for all those who died in the 26-year civil war, including Tamil civilians, Tamil rebels and government soldiers.

The head of the separatist Tamil Tiger movement, Velupillai Prabhakaran, was shot dead by security forces on May 18, 2009, bringing a formal end to the bloody ethnic war.

‘Highly welcome’

“This is highly symbolic and very important for Tamils,” said legislator Dharmalingam Sithadthan, a parliamentarian from the northern Tamil heartland of Jaffna.

“In previous years, there were private memorials held in secret, but this public event is highly welcome.”

A Christian nun sings hymns as activists observe a minute silence in remembrance of victims of Sri Lanka's civil war.
A Christian nun sings hymns as activists observe a minute silence in remembrance of victims of Sri Lanka’s civil war at the ongoing anti-government protest site in Colombo [Eranga Jayawardena/AP]

Clergy from Buddhist, Hindu and Christian communities offered prayers in Colombo and lit a clay lamp for those who perished in the civil war.

“I am a Sinhalese by birth. Today we held a memorial for all those who were killed 13 years ago, Sinhala, Muslim, Hindu and everybody as a result of state terrorism and terrorism by non-state groups,” said Sumeera Gunasekara, a social media activist who participated in the event.

“There are still those who are grieving because of these events and as a Sinhalese I have a right to share in their grief, because I believe in the religion of humanity more than any other.”

Actress Kaushalya Fernando said she came to remember the victims of a war created and mishandled by politicians.

“The significance of this place is that we are not here as different ethnic groups but as Sri Lankans.”

The protesters also shared rice porridge, the only food the people could have in the final stages of the fighting because of the heavy blockade of supplies.

The country’s main Tamil party, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), said the commemoration showed the majority Sinhalese were willing to support reconciliation after decades of ethnic war.

“This gives us a lot of hope and I hope that Tamil people will also reciprocate,” said TNA spokesman M A Sumanthiran.

“There may be pitfalls along the way, but this is a very good start.”

Human rights activists observe a minute of silence in remembrance of victims of Sri Lanka's civil war.
Human rights activists observe a minute of silence in remembrance of victims of Sri Lanka’s civil war at the ongoing anti-government protest site in Colombo [Eranga Jayawardena/AP]

The civil war killed 100,000 people, according to the United Nations estimates. The actual number is believed to be much higher. A report from a UN panel of experts said at least 40,000 Tamil civilians were killed in the final months of the fighting alone.

Since Sri Lankan troops defeated the Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009, Sri Lankan authorities had widely prohibited Tamils from publicly remembering their family members and have denied allegations that Tamil civilians were killed.

Human rights groups have since accused the country’s military of killing civilians towards the end of the war, in which the rebels fought for a separate state for the Tamil minority.

Sinhalese, mostly Buddhist, make up nearly 75 percent of Sri Lanka’s 22 million people. Tamils, mostly Hindu, represent 15 percent of the population.

UK Tamils seek justice at London vigil

Tamils who resettled in the United Kingdom after fleeing the Sri Lankan civil war also held a vigil in London on Wednesday, with some likening the island nation’s current economic crisis to the conditions they faced during the decades-long conflict.

The gathering of Tamils seeking justice for those from their community who were killed in the South Asian country during the war, coincided with Sri Lanka’s worst economic crisis since its independence in 1948 that has forced out its prime minister.

Sri Lanka vigil in London, UK
People attend a demonstration to remember those who died in the Sri Lankan civil war on the 13th anniversary of its end, in London, UK, May 18, 2022  [REUTERS/Muvija M]

“The current crisis in Colombo reminds me of our struggles during the war. Shortage of fuel, food, medicine – the Tamil-dominated parts of Sri Lanka faced the same issues then as what the entire nation is facing today,” said Thanikai, 42, who came to the UK eight years ago.

“We need justice for all the people who were killed.”

The UN has accused both sides of war crimes and has been given a mandate to collect evidence. The UN has also warned the failure of Sri Lanka to address past violations has significantly heightened the risk of human rights violations being repeated.

“My parents and friends are still in Sri Lanka but I have been too scared to go back,” said Elilarasi Manoharan, who attended the peaceful demonstration in London’s Trafalgar Square to mark the 13th anniversary of the end of the war.

“But now with the economic crisis and the changes we are seeing, maybe if the Sri Lankan system changes it will open up doors for us to be able to visit our loved ones.”

Sri Lankans have been protesting for more than a month, demanding the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and holding him responsible for the country’s worst economic crisis in recent memory.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa played a key role as a top defence strategist to his brother, former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is credited with leading a military campaign to defeat the rebels.

The two leaders were hailed as heroes by the Sinhalese but allegations of mishandling the economy and corruption have led to their fall from grace.

Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned as prime minister last week amid violent protests, and Gotabaya Rajapaksa has been staying in his fortified residence for more than a month. He has been forced to take a backseat, having appointed a new prime minister to handle the economy.

Sri Lanka, near bankruptcy, has suspended up to $7bn of foreign loan payments due to be repaid this year because of a foreign currency crisis. The country must repay $25bn as foreign debt by 2026 out of a total of $51bn.

It has led to limited imports with no petrol in filling stations. Other fuel, cooking gas, medicine and foods are in short supply, forcing people to stay in long lines to buy the limited stocks.



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‘Shattering the palace’: Young women take up Thailand reform call | Protests News

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Bangkok, Thailand – Tawan Tuatulanon glanced out of her vehicle’s rear window and noticed that state security forces were following dangerously close. She began recording a Facebook live video on her phone as she and her fellow monarchy reform activists discussed how they might evade the threat.

“The police are following us again,” 20-year-old Tawan told her live audience on Facebook last month. “This is not okay,” she murmured as the vehicle raced down a highway in the capital Bangkok.

Minutes earlier, the team of activists had been involved in a small scuffle at a protest where demonstrators were openly criticising the royal family near a royal motorcade. Three underage demonstrators were arrested, including a 13-year-old. During the attempted arrest, Tawan was hit in the eye by police and bruised her wrist and arm as she tried to protect the protesting children.

Already accustomed to the almost constant surveillance from intelligence officers, plainclothes police were now in pursuit of her team. The group pulled off the expressway and drove into a residential area. They then decided to get out of their vehicle and confront the apparent undercover officers.

“Why are you following us? Why don’t you come out and talk to us face to face?” Tawan barked at the police who hid inside their large black truck, and as a crowd of onlookers gathered. Eventually, the officers left.

Days after the incident on April 19, Tawan was arrested for allegedly violating her bail conditions in an ongoing royal defamation case related to a public poll she organised in February that questioned the Thai monarchy. Criticising the king, or ‘lese-majeste‘, is an offence punishable with up to 15 years in prison. Royal defamation under the Thai criminal code is referred to as Section 112, or as the public calls it simply “112.”

Changing tactics

Tawan is part of the underground anti-monarchy group, Thaluwang, a name that translates to ‘Shattering the Palace’.

It is made up mostly of young people in their 20s, using performance art, provocative stunts and other unusual tactics to question the king’s immense hold on power, actions that were taboo until only a couple of years ago.

A portrait of Maynu with pink hair and wearing a black face mask
Maynu wanted to be a game developer but joined  Thaluwang because she thinks Thailand needs to be reformed to give young people the opportunities they crave [Maynu via Facebook]

Also in the group is 18-year-old Supitcha ‘Maynu’ Chailom.

Maynu caught the country’s attention when she was photographed raising the three-finger salute in front of hundreds of university students in a symbol of defiance taken from the Hunger Games movie that has since come to define opposition to authoritarian regimes across Southeast Asia.

Now one of the prominent faces of a movement that wants to modernise the country, it was the group’s focus on intersectionality and gender equality that initially appealed to her.

“Thaluwang also supports gender equality and women’s rights, so this is one reason why I became involved in the organisation,” Maynu told Al Jazeera. Before joining the anti-government movement, Maynu had dreams of becoming a video game developer and designer. But now she says there are more important things to do.

“This country lacks space for young people’s dreams, games are still demonised in the press and blamed for many issues without looking at how parents raise their children and how this country does not support young people,” Maynu said. “So all of this combined has contributed to where we are now, and a few problematic institutions are still holding back Thailand, and they are powerful and scary to confront.”

Thaluwang has moved away from mass protests and speeches delivered to large crowds, instead adopting tactics that legal experts say are difficult to define as illegal. The approach is intended to make activists less vulnerable to legal harassment, but the crackdown has continued.

“We have observed that Thai authorities have increased undue restrictions on the right to protest,” Emerlynne Gil, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director, told Al Jazeera. “During the last few months, authorities have charged, detained and imprisoned activists, including children, denying them their right to bail or imposing harsh bail restrictions on them. Activists have reported surveillance and harassment.”

Faced with a lese-majeste charge – the latest in a long line of monarchy reform activists who have come under legal pressure – Tawan told Al Jazeera that she is not afraid.

“Especially regarding 112, my case really highlights how problematic the law is in Thailand,” she said. “Many people see us as young people who are just expressing our opinions. So I don’t see how doing this by definition is an insult to the monarchy. And if it is, then this will make people understand that this law needs to be abolished even more.”

Thaluwang runs a questionnaire on the street in Bangkok, asking passers-by to show their opinion
Thaluwang has turned away from traditional street protests to try other ways of getting its message across [Ginger Cat/Al Jazeera]

Colonel Kissana Phathanacharoen, deputy police spokesperson, told Al Jazeera that authorities are merely upholding the law.

“We were carrying out arrest warrants as they were wanted for violating serious laws,” said Kissana, referring to the arrest of Thaluwang activists in late April.

“We respect their rights as stated by the constitution. We are committed to protecting the people and believe in human rights. But if you violate the law, we have no choice but to enforce the law by our legal means.”

Years of resistance

For the past two years, protesters have been calling for former coup leader and now Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha to step down, and for new elections to be held. But it is their calls for royal reform that have sent shockwaves through the country.

Calling for public scrutiny of the Thai king broke longstanding taboos surrounding the monarchy in 2020, and mass protests sparked heated public debate over the role of the royal palace in the country’s politics.

King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who took the throne in 2016, is often criticised for his lavish lifestyle with estimates of his wealth starting at about $30bn. But critics say he is also bringing back absolute monarchy and controls the country’s military-backed leaders, a system that a new generation of Thais argues must be reformed for the nation to move forward.

For years, researchers have documented intimidation and surveillance of government critics at home, in the workplace and on university campuses.

But even with the democracy movement’s main leaders arrested, rights groups say the authorities have carried out surveillance, legal harassment and arrests of critics at an unprecedented level.

In interviews with more than 12 Thai activists over the past six months, Al Jazeera has documented allegations of surveillance and harassment, with some even speaking of physical torture or assault for demonstrating.

“Apart from using legal means to harass activists, the state authorities also harass citizens who simply post their opinions on Facebook,” said Wannaphat Jenroumjit, a lawyer for Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR) who works directly on ‘112’ cases in relation to activists calling for royal reform.

“They [the police] do so by following them or approaching them directly, or intimidating their family, or neighbours, telling them they are on the police watch list. But this sows suspicion among the community against them.”

Tawan, in a black t-short with red print gives the three-fingered Hunger Games salute which has become a symbol of resistance in Asia
Tawan makes the three-fingered Hunger Games salute, which has become a symbol of resistance among pro-democracy groups from Myanmar to Hong Kong [Ginger Cat/Al Jazeera]

Tawan and Maynu both say they have experienced intimidation.

Maynu has been followed by security forces and was verbally abused when she spent a day in detention.

Tawan says she has been pursued by police on numerous occasions. On one occasion, she told Al Jazeera, 10 officers entered her home and tried to convince her parents to force her to stop. Another day, two men on motorcycles almost ran her off the road, she claimed.

‘Costs for society’

According to THLR, at least 1,787 people have been prosecuted for participating in the Thai protests from 2020 to 2022. The group has documented at least 173 cases where people were charged with royal defamation over the same period.

Pikhaneth Prawang, another lawyer for TLHR, warns the approach could have broader implications for the country.

“Since the resumption of the use of ‘112’ at the end of 2020, the number of cases rose sharply,” Pikhaneth said.

“We’re seeing it used not only to target leaders, but now we’re seeing common people targeted as well. We are worried about how far this could go. Such a campaign could lead to high costs for society.”

Such costs could include a system where public trust is undermined, particularly in the judicial system. A continued erosion of trust could,  Pikhaneth fears, “lead to chaos in the future.”

Days after speaking to Al Jazeera in April, multiple Thaluwang activists were arrested.

Maynu has been released on bail, but Tawan is still in detention and on hunger strike.

Over the last two weeks, three other women who represent Thaluwang have also been detained without bail, including a 17-year-old girl. In response, dozens of protesters demonstrated in front of the United States embassy on May 11, handing in a petition calling on the US to urge Thailand to release political prisoners and stop the use of 112.

Before she was arrested, Tawan told Al Jazeera that despite the pressure, she would not be deterred.

“We have been followed by police and it makes us feel unsafe,” Tawan said. “But with Section 112, I’m still not afraid. If anything, it makes me feel that I need to fight even more, and I’ve mentally prepared myself to soon be in jail. So you could definitely say that I am a very different Tawan than I was before.”



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Bolsonaro gov’t threatening Brazilian democracy, jurists tell UN | Elections News

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Legal experts urge UN special rapporteur to visit Brazil to report on president’s attacks on Brazilian judicial bodies.

Brazil’s democracy and the independence of its judiciary are under threat from the government of President Jair Bolsonaro, a group of lawyers and legal experts have said in a petition to the United Nations, as the country prepares for elections in October.

The group of 80 jurists and legal researchers on Wednesday appealed to the UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Diego Garcia-Sayan, to visit Brazil and report on attacks on the Supreme Court and the Superior Electoral Court that oversees elections.

The courts face an unprecedented campaign of distrust and public threats to judges who decide against the government’s agenda, they said in their petition.

“Moreover, without any evidence, Bolsonaro publicly claims that the Brazilian electoral system can be and has been rigged, and has even claimed that the TSE judges are behind such alleged frauds,” the petition to the UN rapporteur read.

Facing a drop in popularity, Bolsonaro over the past several months has repeatedly claimed – without providing any evidence – that Brazil’s electronic voting system is vulnerable to fraud.

Critics and judicial experts have rejected his claims as baseless, accusing Bolsonaro of planning to use his fraud claims to contest the election results, similar to former United States President Donald Trump, whom Bolsonaro has emulated.

Earlier this month, the president said his party would seek an audit of the voting system before the election. He has also suggested that the armed forces, whose current and former members are employed throughout his government, should conduct their own parallel vote count.

On Wednesday, the president’s son, Senator Flavio Bolsonaro, said Brazil could face political instability if the electoral court did not provide more transparency about its voting system.

Meanwhile, Wednesday’s petition said that Bolsonaro uttered a series of direct threats to the Supreme Court in a speech to a crowd of thousands of supporters in September of last year.

“The Brazilian Judiciary is under siege. Judicial independence in Brazil is facing challenges that are unprecedented since democratization in the 1980s,” the letter said.

Bolsonaro is facing a stiff challenge in his re-election bid from former left-wing President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who recently launched his presidential campaign and holds a clear lead over Bolsonaro, according to recent polls.



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