Thousands of monks hold mass prayer for shooting victims in Thailand. | Photo credit: Reuters Thirasupa

Feb 17: Trump asserts legal right in a tweet, Thai monks grieve for mass shooting victims, and Africa braces for COVID-19

North America and Canada

  • US President Donald Trump has tweeted he has “the legal right” to intervene in criminal cases after his attorney general William Barr complained last Thursday (Feb 13) that White House tweets were making his job “impossible”. In his post, Mr Trump denied he had ever meddled in any cases. It is legally ambiguous whether the US president has the authority to order the attorney general to open or shut a case. Critics suggested the statement could have been coordinated with the White House to shore up the Department of Justice’s credibility as an independent agency.
  • Fake flyers telling diners to avoid Asian-American restaurants because of the coronavirus are among a spate of recent racist incidents linked to the outbreak, say California authorities. Fears of the coronavirus disease have spread even though the US has seen just 15 cases, with over half of them happening in California. Last week in Los Angeles, bullies accused an Asian-American student of having the virus and badly beat him. The coronavirus has now reached 24 countries outside China.
  • Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg’s sexuality has become a campaign issue after a radio host questioned if voters would pick a man “kissing his husband on stage”. Firebrand conservative Rush Limbaugh, who was awarded a top civilian honour by the president, said Democrats must realise America is still not ready to elect a gay man. Mr Buttigieg’s Democratic rivals leapt to his defence, and President Donald Trump said he would vote for a gay man. If elected, 38-year-old Mr Buttigieg would be the first openly gay US president.
  • US President Donald Trump’s ability to wage war on Iran without congressional approval has been limited in a Senate bill passed by his fellow Republicans. The Iran War Powers Resolution was approved by a vote of 55-45 – hours after Mr Trump warned that it would make America less safe from Iran. Mr Trump is expected to veto the bill once it reaches the White House.
  • The number of US troops suffering from traumatic brain injuries after an Iranian attack on a US base in Iraq in January has risen to 109, according to US officials. The figure is a significant increase from the 64 injured service members previously reported by the Pentagon. The attack on Jan 8 came amid tensions over the US killing of an Iranian general. Nearly 70 per cent of the injured service members have returned to their duties.
  • Facebook has removed two separate networks of fake accounts originating in Iran and Russia, for “engaging in foreign or government interference”. The Russian operation, which Facebook linked to the country’s military intelligence services, focused primarily on Ukraine and neighbouring countries. The small Iranian operation used accounts and personas on Facebook and Instagram to post content about US politics and the 2020 presidential election. Both operations attempted to directly contact politicians, public figures and journalists, a tactic used by several other information operations in the past.
  • Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has rejected calls to send police to end blockades of Canada’s largest rail system, despite disruptions to commerce. Port authorities said they have been forced to turn ships away due to the shutdown of the country’s freight routes. The CN Rails routes are blocked due to protests against a pipeline that cuts through native lands. Mr Trudeau is in favour of organising dialogues with the protestors while the opposition parties have called the government to clear the blockade through force. Indegenious leaders warned  that the project will cause pollution and endanger wildlife.

Latin America

  • Lawmakers in El Salvador have accused President Nayib Bukele of staging an “attempted coup” after he entered the legislative assembly accompanied by armed police and soldiers last Sunday (Feb 9). Hoping to bring down the country’s high homicide rate, Mr Bukele wants the police and armed forces to be better equipped to stand a chance against the gangs. Broadly supportive of the plan, lawmakers said they wanted more details about how the money would be spent. The delay triggered an angry reaction from Mr Bukele and he convened an extraordinary weekend session of the assembly in an attempt to speed up the loan’s approval. Angry at what they saw as meddling by the president in parliamentary affairs, many lawmakers boycotted the session.
  • Jair Bolsonaro is not new to controversial hires. Last week, the president confirmed that Mr Camargo, a black journalist, would head up the Palmares Cultural Foundation. The influential government-funded institute is responsible for promoting and preserving the cultural, historic, social and economic values of black society in Brazil. Mr Camargo has denied real racism exists in Brazil, comparing it to the US where he considers it a serious problem. In another appointment, Mr Bolsonaro named a former evangelical missionary as the head of the government department that protects isolated indigenous tribes from contact with non-indigenous people. His previous aimed to convert those communities to Christianity.
  • Up to one fifth of the Amazon rainforest is emitting more CO2 than it absorbs, new research suggests. Results from a decade-long study of greenhouse gases over the Amazon basin appear to show around 20 per cent of the total area has become a net source of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. One of the main causes is deforestation. The results of the study suggests that the rainforest – a vital carbon store, or “sink”, that slows the pace of global warming – may be turning into a carbon source faster than previously thought.
  • A top Venezuelan government official has confirmed that the uncle of opposition leader Juan Guaidó is being held on suspicion of smuggling “dangerous material” into the country. Juan José Márquez was travelling with Mr Guaidó, 36, from Lisbon to Caracas by plane and vanished last Tuesday (Feb 11) after being stopped by tax agency personnel. Mr Guaidó called it a “cowardly move”. The official did not say how Mr Márquez would have managed to smuggle the items onto an international flight. Mr Márquez is not the first person with links to Mr Guaidó to be arrested. His chief of staff, Roberto Marrero, was detained last year and remains in prison.
  • Hundreds of people gathered in Mexico City last Friday (Feb 14) to protest against the murder of a young woman. Ingrid Escamilla, 25, was stabbed to death allegedly by a man she lived with, who then mutilated her body in an attempt to hide the evidence. Forensic workers leaked images of her corpse, and a local newspaper has been criticised for publishing one of these pictures on its front page. Femicide, the gender-based killing of women, is on the rise in Mexico.


  • The number of new coronavirus cases in China fell last Sunday (Feb 16) and a health official said intense efforts to stop its spread were beginning to work, as another 70 people tested positive on a virus-stricken cruise ship quarantined in Japan. China’s latest figures showed 68,500 cases of the illness and 1,665 deaths, most of them in Hubei. The National Health Commission reported last Sunday 2,009 new cases, down from 2,641 the previous day, and 142 new deaths, just one lower than the 143 on the previous day. Mild cases were also being treated more quickly, preventing them from becoming critical.
  • Japanese carmaker Nissan has filed a civil lawsuit against its former chairman, Carlos Ghosn. The suit, filed at Yokohama District Court, seeks an initial amount of US$90 million (S$125 million). The company said it aims “to recover a significant part of the monetary damages inflicted on the company by its former chairman”. Mr Ghosn, who faces financial misconduct charges in Japan, said the firm’s “manoeuvres” were continuing. He is currently in Lebanon after jumping bail in Japan. The scandal has thrown into doubt the future of Nissan’s alliance with Renault and Mitsubishi.
  • Thousands of Buddhist monks in Thailand have gathered for prayer ceremonies to honour the 29 people killed in the country’s deadliest mass shooting. Jakraphanth Thomma, a 32-year-old soldier, carried out the killings during a 16-hour shooting rampage in several locations across the city. Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha said a dispute over a property deal appeared to be the motive for the attack. The PM described the shooting, in which 57 people were injured, as “unprecedented” for Thailand.
  • The United States and the Taliban have secured a seven-day reduction in violence in Afghanistan, Pentagon chief Mark Esper said, raising hopes for a peace agreement to end the 18-year-old war. Sources say the partial truce could lead to the signing of a US-Taliban peace deal that would see the US pull thousands of troops from Afghanistan. In return, the Taliban would provide various security guarantees and launch eventual talks with the Kabul government.
  • Senior Australian MPs have cancelled a planned trip to the United Kingdom (UK) as tensions heighten over the role of Huawei in building Britain’s 5G network. Lawmakers from the intelligence and security committee had been expected to travel to the UK next month. The decision follows a reported complaint from the UK over leaked details of a high-level meeting where Huawei was discussed. Australia’s parliament confirmed the trip to the UK had been delayed but said it was due to the fact that the counterpart parliamentary committee in the UK was yet to be appointed following December’s election.


  • The Fianna Fáil parliamentary party has decided not to enter talks with Sinn Féin about forming a new Irish government. All eyes are on the makeup of the next Dáil (Irish parliament) after an election that led to a historic surge for Sinn Féin. Sinn Féin topped the first preference poll but its total of 37 seats is one fewer than that of Fianna Fáil. In the wake of last Saturday’s (Feb 15) vote, the latter’s leader Micheál Martin did not reject the two parties working together but said: “significant incompatibilities” existed. No single party has enough seats to govern unless it passes the 80-seat mark.’
  • The boss of Facebook says he accepts tech giants may have to pay more tax in Europe in future and recognises people’s “frustration” over the issue. Mark Zuckerberg also said he backed plans by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to find a global solution. Facebook and others have been accused of not paying their fair share of tax in countries where they operate. In the UK, Facebook paid just £28.5 million (S$52 million) worth of corporate taxes in 2018 despite generating a record £1.65 billion (S$3 billion) in British sales.
  • An EU research head says that he is “optimistic” that there will continue to be a close scientific collaboration with the UK after Brexit. Professor Mauro Ferrari, the new president of the European Research Council, said that science bodies on both sides of the Channel want close existing links to continue. However, there is concern that it will become a bargaining chip in the current negotiations on what the UK-EU relationship will look like after the transition period ends on Dec 31.
  • A sex video has ended French ruling party candidate Benjamin Griveaux’s hopes of becoming mayor of Paris. The ex-spokesman for President Emmanuel Macron’s government, who was already trailing in the race, was apparently targeted by a Russian protest artist, Petr Pavlensky, accusing him of hypocrisy. Opponents from across the political spectrum voiced their outrage. Incumbent Mayor Anne Hidalgo appealed for respect for people’s private lives, while far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon condemned the attack as “odious”.
  • A Chinese tourist has died in France after contracting the new coronavirus – the first fatality from the disease outside Asia. The victim was an 80-year-old man from China’s Hubei province, according to French Health Minister Agnès Buzyn. Only three deaths had previously been reported outside mainland China – in Hong Kong, the Philippines and Japan.
  • Climate campaign group Extinction Rebellion has posted footage on social media reportedly showing French riot police dousing activists at an airport protest in the south-eastern region of Chambéry with pepper spray. The demonstrators want governments to declare a “climate and ecological emergency” and take immediate action to address climate change. They were calling for a reduction in flights at the airport. No flights were disrupted, but the protest led to a build-up of traffic.

Middle East

  • Turkey’s president has warned the Syrian government that it will “pay a very, very heavy price” for attacks on Turkish soldiers in north-west Syria. Five troops were killed in opposition-held Idlib province last Monday (Feb 10) as the Syrian army continued an offensive. Turkish forces struck dozens of targets in response, but President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said: “It will continue.” Turkey, a backer of the opposition, has sent troops to Idlib under agreements with the Syrian government’s allies Russia and Iran – the 2017 Astana and 2018 Sochi accords – that sought to de-escalate hostilities.
  • The UN human rights office has issued a long-awaited report on companies linked to Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The report names 112 business entities which the office believes has reasonable grounds to conclude have been involved in activities related to settlements. They include Airbnb,, Expedia Group and Motorola Solutions. The Palestinians said the report was a “victory for international law”, but Israel called it “shameful”. There were no immediate comments from the companies named on the list.
  • Sudan has agreed to compensate the families of 17 US sailors who died when their ship, the USS Cole, was bombed by Al-Qaeda at a port in Yemen in 2000. This is a key condition set by the US for Sudan to be removed from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. The US ruled Sudan was responsible for the attack as the two suicide bombers involved were trained in the country. Removal from the US blacklist would allow sanctions to be lifted, a major objective of Sudan’s new government.
  • The Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen says it has begun judicial proceedings against military personnel suspected of violating international humanitarian law. Spokesman Col Turki al-Maliki said judgements in the unspecified cases would be announced once reached. UN experts have said the coalition may be responsible for war crimes. They have also expressed concern about the independence of the unit set up by coalition to review alleged violations.


  • Egypt has confirmed its first case of the new coronavirus – heralding its entry into Africa, a continent with increasingly close ties to China where the virus originated. The World Health Organisation is also sending kits to 29 laboratories on the continent to ensure that they have the capacity to deal with the virus and also help test samples from other countries if needed. However, it hoped that by later this month at least 36 African countries will be equipped to carry out tests specific to the coronavirus. The ability of African nations to properly diagnose cases depends on the new reagents being made available from China and Europe.
  • At least 40 people, including nine soldiers, have been killed in three separate incidents in Mali. Thirty-one were killed when gunmen attacked a village in central Mali, burning houses, crops and livestock. A group of eight soldiers also died in an ambush, while another was killed during an attack on a military camp in the Gao region. Mali has been blighted by instability since 2012 when an Islamist rebellion broke out in the north. Combating militants in the Sahel region is seen as important for maintaining security further afield, including Europe.
  • The East African region could be on the verge of a food crisis if huge swarms of locusts devouring crops and pasture are not brought under control, a top UN official has told the BBC. Massive food assistance may be required, Dominique Burgeon, director of emergencies for the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), said. Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda are affected. Efforts to control the infestation have so far not been effective. Aerial spraying of pesticides is the most effective way of fighting the swarms but countries in the region do not have the right resources.
  • Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan have failed to reach a final agreement on the filling up and operation of what will be Africa’s biggest hydro-electric dam that is being built on River Nile. Ethiopian Ambassador to US Fitsum Arega has tweeted that the latest round of talks held in Washington last Thursday (Feb 13) by water ministers from the three countries ended without a deal. The ambassador did not specify why no agreement was reached.
  • Ethiopia’s parliament has passed a law punishing “hate speech” and “disinformation” with hefty fines and long jail terms, despite rights groups saying it undermines free speech months before a major election. Nearly 300 legislators voted in favour of the bill last Thursday (Feb 13), with 23 votes against and two abstentions. The new law defines hate speech as rhetoric that fuels discrimination “against individuals or groups based on their nationality, ethnic and religious affiliation, sex or disabilities”.
  • The World Health Organization (WHO) has extended its global emergency designation for the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) but said the sharp decline in cases was “extremely positive”. As long as there is a single case of Ebola in an area as insecure and unstable as eastern DRC, the potential remains for a much larger epidemic, said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
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