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India, Jeff Bezos, Grammys: Your Monday Briefing


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Good morning.

India’s prime minister turns a religious event into a political one, Jeff Bezos challenges a tabloid newspaper and music’s biggest stars get ready for the Grammys. Here’s the latest:

Every six years, tens of millions of Hindus make a religious pilgrimage to the northern state of Uttar Pradesh to take a dip in the holy waters of the Ganges River — one of the holiest events in the Hindu calendar and among the world’s largest gatherings of humanity.

This year’s festival aligns with national elections that are expected to be held in April or May, providing Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist bloc, the Bharatiya Janata Party, with a prized opportunity to woo voters and deflect from political and economic woes.

By the numbers: Mr. Modi and his close ally, Yogi Adityanath, a monk turned chief minister of the state, have spent $600 million to turn this Kumbh into the most lavish one yet, adding nine new highway flyovers; 22 bridges; 20,000 trash cans; 122,500 toilets; and a new airport terminal.

Analysis: Critics argue that Mr. Modi and his party have politicized religion in a secular country, often catering to a Hindu base at the expense of minority communities, such as Muslims.

Separately: A nun’s accusations of rape against a bishop in Kerala have shaken the country’s Catholics, driving a wedge between those who have called for reforms and those who want to maintain unity amid rising a riding tide of Hindu nationalism.


Sheikha Latifa — one of 30 children of the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum — tried to escape to the U.S. via India last March, informing her friends that she would be free soon.

Less than a week later, she went silent and, in December, her family released photos of her back at home. Her mysterious case has since become a stain on Dubai’s globalized image.

Background: In a secret video she recorded before her planned departure from Dubai, Sheikha Latifa described her life of constricting privilege.

She said she first tried to escape the kingdom many years ago but was taken back immediately and held in solitary confinement for more than three years in which she was frequently beaten and deprived of medical care.

At 19, when she was released, she still wasn’t free: She could spend her money only on hobbies and sports. She wasn’t allowed to study medicine, as she wanted, or travel.

Analysis: Like the accounts of women who have tried to escape Saudi Arabia, Sheikha Latifa’s case has marred Dubai’s glittering image, reminding the world of the few freedoms women have there, regardless of status or nationality.

In other news from the region: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia said in 2017, the year before the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed in Turkey, that he would use “a bullet” on Mr. Khashoggi, according to current and former American and foreign officials with direct knowledge of intelligence reports.


In a surprise blog post last week, Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, accused the tabloid newspaper The National Enquirer of “extortion and blackmail,” spurring federal prosecutors to review his claims.

Explainer: Last month, The Enquirer published an 11-page exposé on Mr. Bezos’ extramarital affair with Lauren Sanchez, a former host of the Fox TV show “So You Think You Can Dance.” The piece, which included paparazzi shots of the couple and their text messages, appeared a day after Mr. Bezos announced he was divorcing his wife of 25 years, MacKenzie.

The piece set off questions that the coverage was politically motivated. David Pecker, the chairman of American Media Inc., which publishes The Enquirer, is close to President Trump, who has repeatedly derided Amazon and Mr. Bezos’ other company, The Washington Post.

After The Enquirer published the piece, Mr. Bezos began his own investigation into how the paper obtained his private messages and its motives.

Mr. Bezos’ response: In his blog post, Mr. Bezos said the paper was threatening to publish graphic photographs of him, including a “below-the-belt selfie,” if he didn’t publicly affirm that The Enquirer’s reporting was not motivated by politics.

“If in my position I can’t stand up to this kind of extortion, how many people can?” wrote Mr. Bezos. You can read excerpts from his blog post here. And here’s a timeline of how events unfolded.

Analysis: “By using a digital platform to bring his side of the story directly to the masses, Mr. Bezos has done something both admirable and also a little scary,” writes Kara Swisher, our tech opinion columnist. “It is perhaps the best illustration of the in-your-face aggressiveness that has made him the richest man in the world.”


When a mining dam collapsed in the town of Brumadinho last month, it unleashed a deluge of toxic mud that stretched for five miles, crushing homes and offices and killing more than 150 people.

But the tragedy was hardly a surprise, experts told us.

Analysis: There are 88 mining dams in Brazil built like the one that failed: enormous reservoirs of mining waste held back by little more than walls of sand and silt.

Even more alarming, at least 28 sit directly uphill from cities or towns, with more than 100,000 people living in especially risky areas if the dams failed, an estimate by The New York Times found.

How we know: Our team interviewed engineers and locals to take an expansive look at the disaster, reconstructing the mud’s deadly journey and illustrating how these dams are built and what led the one in Brumadinho to crumble.


Thailand: Hours after his sister entered the race for prime minister, King Vajiralongkorn rebuked the move as “highly inappropriate,” effectively ending her candidacy, in an episode that upended the already volatile political landscape.

South Korea: The country signed an agreement to share the cost of the American military base there, increasing its contribution by 8.2 percent. The agreement aims to ease fears that President Trump might use the reduction of U.S. troops as a bargaining chip when he meets with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, this month.

Turkey: Ankara condemned China’s mass internment of its Uighur Muslim minority as a “great shame for humanity” and urged Beijing to close down the camps in Xinjiang, said to hold an estimated million people. It was a rare rebuke from a Muslim-majority nation. China dismissed the statement as a “serious violation of the facts.”

Huawei: The Chinese company threatened legal action against the Czech Republic after its cybersecurity agency issued a formal warning about the risks of using Huawei technology, joining a growing wave of skepticism in Europe toward the telecom giant.

Grammys: The music industry’s annual award ceremony kicks off imminently, with Alicia Keys hosting. Kendrick Lamar, Drake, Cardi B and the country singer Kacey Musgraves are among the nominees for album of the year, but will that be enough to put out concerns about the show’s lack of diversity?

Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai: The young island in the South Pacific, birthed in an underwater volcano eruption four years ago, could unearth clues about how water shaped the landscape of Mars.


Tips for a more fulfilling life.

The performance immortalized a move that re-entered the public consciousness recently, when Virginia’s governor, Ralph Northam, said he had dressed as Jackson and done the moonwalk during a dance contest in 1984.

The move, in which the dancer glides backward while appearing to walk forward, inspired Mr. Northam, as well as the title of Jackson’s 1988 autobiography. In it, the performer describes the moonwalk as “a break-dance step, a ‘popping’ type of thing that black kids had created dancing on street corners in the ghetto.”

Jackson didn’t invent the moonwalk, which had been performed for decades by a range of entertainers (albeit often by a more literal name, the backslide). But it was the King of Pop who would be remembered, as one dance critic put it, “coasting backward across the stage, step by gliding step, as if on a cushion of air.”

Chris Stanford, on the briefings team, wrote today’s Back Story.


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