World

The resignation of Mahinda Rajapaksa fails to quell violence in Sri Lanka. Clashes near PNG’s Porgera goldmine lead to 17 deaths. Ferdinand Marcos Jr wins Philippine presidential election. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Putin’s Victory Day marks stalemate in war

Vladimir Putin at Moscow's Victory Day
President Vladimir Putin watches the Victory Day military parade in Moscow this week.
Credit: Mikhail Metzel / Sputnik / AFP

Great power rivalry

Ukraine: In the lead-up to Vladimir Putin’s Victory Day address on May 9, British and United States officials – and many analysts – suggested Putin would use the speech to declare that his “special operation” in Ukraine was now a war and that a broader mobilisation of troops was required. But the Russian president confounded these expectations, perhaps deliberately.

Addressing troops in Red Square, Putin likened the current conflict to the battle against the Nazis in World War II and repeated his claim that the invasion was needed to “de-Nazify” Ukraine. But he provided no new signals about his overall goals.

“Russia preventively rebuffed the aggressor,” he said. “It was necessary, timely and … right.”

The US director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, said on Tuesday that Putin was preparing for a long battle and was determined to carve out a large stretch of territory across eastern and southern Ukraine.

But she said the war was currently in a stalemate and Putin would need to conduct a large-scale mobilisation or draft to achieve his aims.

“We assess President Putin is preparing for a prolonged conflict,” she told a senate committee. “He is probably counting on US and [European Union] resolve to weaken as food shortages, inflation and energy prices get worse.”

The United Nations said this week that 3381 civilians were known to have died in the war but the actual toll was believed to be “thousands higher”. In Izyum, a city in eastern Ukraine, rescue teams were finally able to reach the ruins of a five-storey apartment building that collapsed several weeks ago after being shelled by Russian forces. On Tuesday, officials said 44 bodies had been found and they were preparing to search the ruins of other buildings.

Russia seized control of Izyum on April 1 and troops have occupied the city since.

The neighbourhood

Papua New Guinea: At least 17 people have been killed in clashes between rival clans near the massive Porgera goldmine in Papua New Guinea.

The fighting in the past two weeks has left hundreds of people homeless and led to the closure of schools and businesses. The dispute reportedly stemmed from tensions over land ownership, but it was not clear whether the land covered the mine site.

The Porgera mine, co-owned by a Canadian and Chinese firm, has been shut since 2020 after PNG’s prime minister, James Marape, refused to extend the lease in an effort to extract greater benefits for the government and landowners. The mine’s operator said in April that it will reopen soon and will start by employing more than 2000 local people.

During the recent fighting, some armed locals reportedly attempted to enter the mine site but were resisted by police and security guards.

Jerry Garry, the head of the Mineral Resources Authority, a government agency that oversees mining projects, told The National newspaper the cause of the conflict had not yet been established.

“The preliminary information that we are getting is that it’s related to their own issues outside the mine area,” he said.

Democracy in retreat

Sri Lanka: Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s prime minister, was rescued by soldiers in a pre-dawn operation on Tuesday as thousands of protesters stormed his official residence, just hours after he resigned to try to soothe mounting public anger at the nation’s failing economy.

The unrest this week left seven people dead and 200 wounded, with at least 50 houses of politicians, including several ministers, torched. MP Amarakeerthi Athukorala reportedly took his own life after he shot two anti-government protesters.

Protests began last month over soaring oil and gas prices, power cuts and shortages of fuels and medications. The country has almost no foreign currency holdings left, leaving it unable to secure adequate imports of essential items.

Leslie Dareeju, a priest who lives in Colombo, the capital, told BBC News this week: “It shouldn’t be happening in this country … People are living with one meal per day. Can you imagine?”

Much of the anger has been directed at the powerful Rajapaksa family, which has dominated Sri Lankan politics for years. Several family members have been accused of corruption. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Mahinda’s brother, is the nation’s president.

The government has blamed the economic problems on the pandemic, particularly the impact on tourism. But protesters have blamed the crisis on the government’s policies, including hefty tax cuts, large foreign loans and a sudden switch to organic farming, which reduced food supplies. Consumer prices have increased 30 per cent in the past year.

Spotlight: Marcos comeback in Philippines

On Monday, Ferdinand Marcos Jr won a landslide election victory in the Philippines, 36 years after he fled to Hawaii with his parents – the disgraced dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr and first lady Imelda Marcos.

In a 2019 documentary, The Kingmaker, Imelda Marcos, who returned from exile in 1991 and is now 92 years old, said it was her son’s “destiny” to become president but lamented that he had not achieved this by the age of 48, when her husband began his 21-year rule.

But Marcos Jr, who is 64 years old, finally completed the family’s spectacular political comeback this week, winning double the number of votes of his nearest rival, according to an unofficial tally. His running mate was Sara Duterte-Carpio, the daughter of the current president Rodrigo Duterte, who was limited to one term by the country’s constitution. Duterte-Carpio easily won the vice-presidential election.

Marcos Sr fled in 1986 during a popular uprising against years of autocratic rule that included mass killings, torture and arrests and the theft of as much as $US10 billion of public funds. Famously, protesters who stormed the presidential palace discovered excesses that included a gold-plated jacuzzi, a huge portrait of the half-naked dictator in the jungle, and Imelda Marcos’s collection of 3000 pairs of designer shoes.

But most of the country’s 115 million residents are younger than 40 and have no memory of the Marcos dictatorship. Many have been persuaded by social media messaging spread by Marcos Jr and his supporters that presented the Marcos years as a “golden age”. High levels of inequality and poverty have helped to fuel the popular appetite for false nostalgia.

During the election campaign, Marcos Jr avoided interviews and presented few substantial policies. He has said he will not investigate Duterte’s “war on drugs” – which has involved thousands of extrajudicial killings – and is expected to continue Duterte’s crackdown on the media and judiciary.

Marcos Jr said in a statement on Tuesday: “Judge me not by my ancestors, but by my actions.” 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 14, 2022 as "Putin’s Victory Day confounds expectations".

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Jonathan Pearlman is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.

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