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Crisis-hit Sri Lanka set for new PM, unity government

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Respected five-time former premier Ranil Wickremesinghe was the frontrunner to head a 'unity government' in Sri Lanka
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Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was set Thursday to name a new prime minister, hoping to assemble a unity government after weeks of anti-government protests triggered by a dire economic crisis turned violent.

However, while the mooted new prime minister — five-times ex-premier Ranil Wickremesinghe — and his cabinet can be appointed without a vote, it was unclear if he will be able to get any legislation through parliament.

In a televised address to the nation on Wednesday night, Rajapaksa stopped short of yielding to weeks of nationwide protests calling for him to resign over the country’s worst economic downturn since independence.

But in a bid to win over the opposition demanding he quit before agreeing to any new government, the 72-year-old pledged to give up most of his executive powers and set up a new cabinet this week.

“I will name a prime minister who will command a majority in parliament and the confidence of the people,” Rajapaksa said in the televised speech.

Mahinda Rajapaksa, the president’s brother, resigned as prime minister on Monday after his supporters attacked anti-government supporters who had been protesting peacefully for weeks.

This marked a turning point and unleashed several days of chaos and violence that killed at least nine people and injured more than 200, with dozens of Rajapaksa loyalist homes set on fire.

Security forces patrolling in armoured personnel carriers with orders to shoot on sight anyone engaged in looting or violence have since largely restored order.  

A curfew was lifted Thursday morning but only to be reimposed after a six-hour break allowing Sri Lanka’s 22 million people to stock up on essentials.

– Opposition split –

Sri Lankans have suffered months of severe shortages of food, fuel and medicines and long power cuts after the government, short on foreign currency to pay its debts, halted many imports.

The South Asian island nation’s central bank chief warned Wednesday that the economy will “collapse beyond redemption” unless a new government was urgently appointed.

Wickremesinghe, 73, is seen as a pro-West free-market reformist, potentially making bailout negotiations with the International Monetary Fund and others smoother.

The main opposition SJB party was initially invited to lead a new government, but its leader Sajith Premadasa insisted that the president first step down.

In recent days the party has split, with a dozen MPs from the SJB now pledging support to Wickremesinghe.

With many from Rajapaksa’s party having defected in recent months, now no group in the 225-member assembly has an absolute majority, making parliamentary approval of the unity government’s legislation potentially tricky.

Rajapaksa was set to meet with party leaders later Thursday as more names have been suggested for the post of prime minister, an official close to the negotiations told AFP. 

However, Wickremesinghe has already been working closely with Rajapaksa to shake up the finance ministry and the central bank to make sweeping fiscal and monetary policy changes, the source said. 

The central bank almost doubled key interest rates and announced a default on Sri Lanka’s $51-billion external debt as part of the policy shift, officials said. 

Front-line opposition legislator Harin Fernando from the SJB said he decided to remain neutral because SJB leader Sajith Premadasa refused to form a government as long as Rajapaksa remained president. 

“We can’t be imposing conditions that cannot be fully met. First, we must address the economic crisis. We need at least $85 million a week to finance essential imports. We must collectively find a way to raise this money urgently,” Fernando said. 

He said he expected a unity government to be formed on either Thursday or Friday. “We can’t wait any longer,” he added.

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WTO negotiators finalise key texts on fishing, Covid jabs

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Global fisheries subsidies are estimated at between $14 billion and $54 billion a year, according to the WTO
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Long-sought WTO agreements on fisheries subsidies and a Covid vaccine patent waiver moved a step closer to completion Saturday after negotiators finalised texts for ministerial review, but significant obstacles remained in hammering out a final deal.

Diplomats have been in round-the-clock talks to hammer out texts on several thorny topics before the World Trade Organization’s first high-level meeting in five years, where trade ministers and officials from 164 countries have four days starting Sunday to try and get the negotiations across the finish line.

It takes place against the backdrop of the Ukraine-Russia war and fears of a global food crisis as a result of the conflict.

The global trade body announced in the early hours Saturday that a draft text on a long elusive deal banning subsidies favouring overfishing had been handed over to the ministers.

They will be tasked with ironing out the final sticking points towards a deal decades in the making.

The success of WTO’s 12th ministerial conference will largely hinge on whether they succeed.

“Not every issue has been resolved. Indeed, this is a draft agreement and in this draft there remain some issues that members have not agreed to yet,” acknowledged Colombian ambassador Santiago Wills, who chairs the WTO fisheries subsidies negotiations.

But he said months of intense negotiations had made it possible to present “a clean solution” to some issues that had long “appeared intractable”.

The WTO takes decisions by consensus, making agreements all the harder to reach.

Global fisheries subsidies are estimated at between $14 billion and $54 billion a year, according to the body.

It is widely agreed that action is needed to protect a crucial resource that millions of people depend on for their livelihoods.

WTO members have for the past 20 years been discussing the need for a deal banning subsidies that contribute to illegal and unregulated fishing, as well as to overfishing.

– ‘Significant progress’ –

Wills noted “significant progress” on the tricky issue of “territoriality”, with the draft text ensuring that a WTO panel of experts would not be called upon to decide who has jurisdiction over disputed or overlapping territorial claims.

Progress had also been made on the issue of fuel subsidies, and on the so-called special and differential treatment (SDT) for developing countries, long a key stumbling block, he said, hailing a “considerable narrowing of differences”.

Special treatment for the poorest countries is widely accepted but demands from some self-identified developing countries for exemption from subsidy constraints, including large fishing nations like India, have been difficult to swallow for some.

The draft text proposes that exemptions should not apply to member states accounting for a certain share of the global volume of marine capture production but that percentage has yet to be defined.

Wills stressed the urgency of finally reaching a deal.

“The longer we wait, the more the fish lose. And the more the fish lose, the more we all lose,” he said.

The WTO also said a draft text had been finalised on the thorny issue of a temporary patent waiver for Covid vaccines to provide equitable access to the jabs and better battle the still raging pandemic.

But agreement is far from certain.

The pharmaceutical industry and a number of its host countries have warned of the impact on innovation, while public interest groups warned Saturday that the new text was so weak it might even complicate access to vaccine production further.

“It has been a very difficult process, very difficult,” acknowledged WTO chief Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.

“I know that for all of you it has been a tough time but we have done the best we can for now.”

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Meta’s Quest VR gear to let people ‘hang out’ in fake worlds

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Meta chief Mark Zuckerberg sees the future of the internet as people working, playing and exploring in life-like virtual worlds using ever slimmer and more powerful headsets.
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Meta on Friday said that it is adding the ability to easily socialize in virtual reality with an update to its Quest 2 headsets in another step toward the metaverse.

The tweak heading for the latest model Quest from Meta-owned Oculus will let wearers hop into virtual settings with friends, chief Mark Zuckerberg said in a post on his Facebook page.

“I’m here to announce the ability to, as soon as you put on your Quest 2 headset, to have people hang out with you in a social environment,” Zuckerberg said in a video.

The software update will open a door to Horizon World virtual reality platform that Facebook-parent Meta opened to the public in North America at the end of last year.

Meta is also working on letting people create their own virtual worlds where they host gatherings of avatars, Zuckerberg said.

Horizon Worlds is far from a fully realized metaverse, a future internet where online experiences like chatting to a friend would eventually feel face-to-face thanks to VR headsets.

But the platform does let people gather online with friends or others, play games and immerse themselves in 360-degree videos.

Facebook parent Meta earlier this year instituted a minimum distance between users’ avatars in its virtual reality Horizon network after reports of harassment, one of the thorny issues for its metaverse vision.

The “personal boundary” function in the immersive platform puts a ring of space around users’ digital proxies.

Facebook renamed its parent company to Meta in October to emphasize its aim to shift from scandal-prone social media platform to its virtual reality vision for its future.

The firm’s metaverse push also includes tools for remote working, which boomed during the pandemic.

Facebook bought virtual reality headset maker Oculus in 2014.

The technology has taken off in the gaming industry, and become popular among players of Fortnite and Roblox.

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Biden says ExxonMobil ‘made more money than God’

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US President Joe Biden said ExxonMobil made 'more money than God' in 2022
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President Joe Biden on Friday slammed ExxonMobil for not producing more oil, as soaring gas prices deplete Americans’ wallets and the US leader’s popularity ahead of midterm elections.

“Exxon made more money than God this year,” he said, advocating increasing taxes on oil companies.

ExxonMobil reported massive profits in the first three months of the year despite lower oil and natural gas volumes, as crude prices rose after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Oil companies “have 9,000 permits to drill. They’re not drilling. Why aren’t they drilling? Because they make more money not producing more oil,” Biden said in comments at the Port of Los Angeles hours after the government released a devastating inflation report reflecting soaring energy prices.

And with the higher profits, “they’re buying back their own stock, which should be taxed quite frankly. Buying back their own stock and making no new investments.”

After a dreadful 2020 amid Covid-19 lockdowns that devastated petroleum demand, oil companies returned to profitability in 2021 and have continued to see earnings skyrocket this year.

ExxonMobil’s first-quarter profits more than doubled to $5.5 billion, and revenues rose 52.4 percent to $87.7 billion.

The petroleum giant also increased spending on share buybacks by $20 billion, and while it has planned to increase capital spending in 2022, Exxon ruled out additional investment.

Biden, whose popularity has plummeted in the face of the highest inflation in four decades and sky-high gas prices.

Government data released Friday showed the consumer price index jumped 8.6 percent compared to May 2021, up from 8.3 percent in the 12 months ending in April and topping what most economists thought was the peak in March.

Energy has soared 34.6 percent over the past year, and fuel oil costs more than doubled, jumping 106.7 percent, the largest increase in the history of CPI, which dates to 1935.

Oil prices have mostly lingered above $100 a barrel after spiking to around $130 a barrel in early March shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. American drivers are facing new record gas prices daily, with the national average hitting $4.99 a gallon on Friday, according to AAA.

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