Need To Know
The longtime leader of the Taliban is probably dead. But he might not be. No one knows for absolute certain, at least not yet. While the Afghanistan government says with certainty that Mullah Omar died in a Pakistani hospital in 2013, officials have so far not presented any concrete evidence. So, many are harboring a little skepticism.
Omar has not been seen in public since the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001. Rumors have persisted ever since then that he was either dead or in some other way incapacitated. At least once before, in 2011, Afghan officials declared him dead to great fanfare, only to back off those claims later. The Taliban, for its part, denies that Omar is dead.
If he is dead though, it would be significant. Omar had apparently signed off on the peace talks that are supposed to start today between the Afghan government and Taliban leaders. If he's gone, the Taliban could splinter and elements of the militant group could drop out of any peace negoatiations. And Afghanistan needs peace, badly.
The Taliban has been resurgent since US forces withdrew in 2014. Last year it regained lost territory and managed to carry out some of the worst attacks of the war. For Afghan soldiers, 2014 was the deadliest year yet. More than 40 US soldiers were also killed in 2014, including Maj. Gen. Harold J. Greene, the highest-ranking US military officer to be killed in Afghanistan — ever.
The increased violence led US President Barack Obama to expand the mission of the 10,000 America soldiers who remain in Afghanistan. The troops had been mostly training and advising Afghan security forces. But they are now allowed to join in the fight. Obama also approved the use of airstrikes to support the controversial practice of Afghan night raids on suspected Taliban hideouts. On top of it all, despite a US-funded $7.6 billion drug war in Afghanistan, the opium crop was the biggest ever.
Want To Know
One of Myanmar's generals once said: “When you open the window for fresh air, flies sometimes get in.” And in Southeast Asia, writes GlobalPost Senior Correspondent Patrick Winn, "flies" can sometimes mean sex tourists and drunken backpackers.
Myanmar, which until only four years ago was about as welcoming to the outside world as North Korea, is undergoing massive economic and political change. As a result, more tourists than ever are coming to the country. The Myanmar government is happy about this. It hopes to have hosted 4.5 million tourists by the year's end. That's five times the number just five years ago.
The problem is that many foreign tourists in Southeast Asia tend to behave very badly. It's really hard to fathom how badly, actually.
Perhaps most famous is the sleazy town of Pattaya in Thailand. Or Vang Vieng in Laos, a jungle party town infamous for cheap drugs and river tubing. In the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, much of the downtown promenade buzzes with “hostess bars” and pushy drug dealers. In large parts of southern Bali, in Indonesia, Western tourists stumble through the streets with their shirts off, drunk beyond reason, sizing up crowds of prostitutes.
All these places are driven, at least in part, by corruption, human trafficking, and murder. And by young partiers ignorant of all of that.
In Myanmar, meanwhile, there is almost nothing of the sort. Its military regime has protected by force a conservative Buddhist propriety. But how long will this last, now that the borders are open? Experts worry that without any further regulation or government action, not long.
Already hotels in Yangon, the capital, are filling up with prostitutes.
Strange But True
Puerto Rico, that oft talked about potential 51st US state, is in some serious debt. It has a payment of $58 million due on Aug. 1. And that's only a small part of the total it owes: $72 billion.
Most of this debt is held in US municipal bonds. But a cool $5 billion is held by a group of billionaire American hedge fund managers. And they want their money. While economic studies advocate a new bond exchange for Puerto Rico, labor reform, and exempting the island from federal minimum wage and welfare rules until it gets back on its feet, the hedge fund managers have another idea: austerity.
Specifically, these billionaires are calling for major cuts to — wait for it — education. That way, they say, the Puerto Rican government can pay them back. They made this suggestion in a report titled, "For Puerto Rico, There is a Better Way." Right, for Puerto Rico.