The Donbas region becomes the focus of Russian fighting in Ukraine. Lack of tourism hits Sri Lanka’s economy. Lockdown eased for Shanghai businesses. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Ramos-Horta seals landslide win in Timor-Leste

Timor-Leste presidential candidate José Ramos-Horta
Timor-Leste presidential candidate José Ramos-Horta has claimed victory in this week’s second-round ballot.
Credit: Reuters / Lirio de Fonseca

Great power rivalry

Ukraine: Russian troops began a massive offensive in eastern Ukraine this week, deploying tens of thousands of troops and mercenaries along a 480-kilometre front to try to expand the territory held by Russian-backed separatists.

The offensive marked a dramatic change of strategy for Russia, which initially launched lightning assaults on multiple fronts in a failed bid to take control of most of Ukraine.

The war has now shifted to the Donbas region, where Russian-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces since 2014. Both sides have had years to prepare trenches and bunkers in the region and the coming conflict is expected to be bloody and protracted.

Despite the Russians having superior numbers, the Ukrainians have received a growing supply of military hardware from their Western allies, including anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, helicopters and armoured personnel carriers. On Tuesday, the White House signalled it was preparing to send more support, including troops that will train Ukrainian forces – outside Ukraine – on how to use new United States-supplied artillery pieces.

Moscow last week sent a diplomatic note to Washington that warned of “unpredictable consequences” if the US and NATO continued to send sophisticated weaponry to Ukraine.

As Russian forces began to advance, Serhiy Haidai, the governor of eastern Ukraine’s Luhansk region, urged civilians in towns near the front line to evacuate.

“The Russians are killing everyone who’s against them on the spot,” he said.

The United Nations said on Monday more than 4.9 million Ukrainians have fled abroad since the invasion began on February 24, and more than seven million have been internally displaced. Almost two-thirds of Ukrainian children have been forced to leave their homes.

In the besieged – and strategically crucial – city of Mariupol, Russian forces this week closed in on an estimated 2500 Ukrainian soldiers who had taken refuge in tunnels at a vast steel plant. The soldiers said they were accompanied by more than 1000 civilians.

If captured, Mariupol would allow Russia to link the territory held by pro-Russian separatists in the east with Crimea, which it seized in 2014. Effectively, Russia and its separatist allies would have sliced off a complete portion of south-east Ukraine.

About 21,000 people in Mariupol, from a pre-war population of 450,000, are believed to have died from Russian attacks and from a lack of food and warmth.

The neighbourhood

Timor-Leste: José Ramos-Horta faced a run-off presidential election in Timor-Leste this week against Francisco “Lú-Olo” Guterres, a fellow veteran of the resistance movement.

     Ramos-Horta, a 72-year-old Nobel peace prize winner who was president from 2007 to 2012, has promised to call a fresh parliamentary election and to support the controversial Tasi Mane oil and gas processing project. His candidacy was backed by Xanana Gusmão, the country’s first president, who is an advocate of the Tasi Mane project.

Initial counting on Thursday showed Ramos-Horta comfortably garnered 62.09 per cent of the votes to 37.91 per cent for the incumbent president, Guterres. Guterres, 67, was backed by Mari Alkatiri, leader of the Fretilin party, which is part of a ruling coalition that came to power in 2020.

During the campaign, Ramos-Horta and Guterres blamed each other for years of instability exacerbated by the long-running feud between the pair and their backers.

Ramos-Horta was strongly supported by Gusmão, who is hoping fresh elections will allow his CNRT party to return to power.

Ramos-Horta said on Tuesday that instability had held back the nation from addressing soaring food prices, poverty, and inadequate health services. “People in East Timor want a new leader to solve the economic problems in this country,” he said.

Ramos-Horta is set to be sworn in on May 20, the 20th anniversary of the nation’s independence.

Democracy in retreat

Sri Lanka: The government of Sri Lanka is in crisis as surging inflation and an inability to pay for imports has left the country with shortages of food, fuel and medicines.

In recent weeks, shelves in grocery shops and chemists have been empty, buses have stopped mid-route due to a lack of petrol, and schools and newspaper printers have run out of paper. Daily power blackouts have lasted for up to 13 hours.

Sri Lanka’s president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, has faced mounting protests as critics accused his government of corruption, nepotism and financial mismanagement. On Tuesday, a protester died after police fired on people demonstrating against a further fuel price increase.

The nation’s economic woes have been caused by a tourism downturn due to the pandemic, mounting borrowing in recent years from China, Japan and other foreign lenders, and Rajapaksa’s decision to cut taxes in 2019. A law last year banning fertilisers and requiring all farms to be fully organic added to the food shortage, as did the invasion of Ukraine.

The government this week began seeking a bailout package from the International Monetary Fund after suspending foreign debt repayments so that its dwindling holdings of foreign currency could be used to import food and other essential items.

But Rajapaksa has refused to quit, even after his cabinet resigned. Instead, he appointed a new cabinet this week, excluding several family members who had previously held portfolios, including two of his brothers. The president’s older brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, remains prime minister.

Spotlight: Shanghai lockdown

China has imposed a harsh Covid-19 lockdown in Shanghai – including separating families if members test positive – which has led to rare displays of dissent.

Since early March, Shanghai, which has about 25 million residents, has recorded more than 350,000 Covid-19 cases. But the Chinese government has stuck to its policy of trying to eliminate the virus.

On Monday, authorities in Shanghai said three people had died – the first time during the latest outbreak that deaths were reported. Actual fatalities are believed to be much higher. Only 38 per cent of Shanghai residents over the age of 60 are fully vaccinated.

The month-long lockdown has required residents to remain shut in their homes, leaving them struggling to access basic supplies such as food and medicine. According to an unofficial online list compiled by some residents, more than 140 people have died from non-Covid illnesses due to the lockdown.

Residents who test positive are forced to isolate – even if they have no symptoms – in one of about 100 quarantine facilities, some of which have tens of thousands of beds. Large numbers of wealthier residents and expatriates have reportedly been making plans to leave the country when the lockdown ends.

An eerie video posted on social media sites showed residents screaming at night from their apartment balconies. Other videos showed residents clashing with health officials, and complaints have spread online about the lack of supplies.

Authorities this week began easing restrictions, allowing major businesses and factories to reopen. Tesla employees were reportedly seen arriving for work this week with suitcases after a note to returning staff informed them that they would have to sleep at the factory. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 23, 2022 as "Ramos-Horta wins in a landslide in Timor-Leste".

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