The year 2021 opened and closed under the cloud of COVID-19, with countries in Southeast Asia experiencing more severe epidemics after largely avoiding widespread infections and deaths in the first year of the pandemic.
People in East and Southeast Asia have suffered economic hardship, mass unemployment and even hunger as trade and tourism have dried up under restrictions aimed at quelling the virus. The closure of the Chinese border with Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam and especially North Korea has devastated countries that depend on Chinese trade and investment.
The unpromising year got worse for the 54 million inhabitants of Burma on February 1, when the military followed weeks of complaints about electoral fraud in November with a coup that toppled leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her elected government. 76-year-old Nobel laureate faces decades in prison as her fate lies in military courts
Months of street protests have met with brutal violence from the military, with the death toll approaching 1,400, while across Myanmar, local militias calling themselves the People’s Defense Forces arose to fight the junta troops. Scorched earth attacks by the army on villages deemed resistant to the coup have resulted in massacres, rapes and atrocities, hallmarks of previous decades of military rule.
The 12 million Uyghurs of Xinjiang, long bitter from 70 years of authoritarian Chinese rule over their Central Asian homeland, received the sad honor of seeing China’s policies towards the predominantly Muslim minority, including mass internment camps and coercive restrictions on childbirth, recognized as genocide and / or crimes against humanity by the US State Department, European parliaments and an independent tribunal in London.
These statements led to lawsuits against China by the Uyghurs and prompted the United States and its allies to impose sanctions or trade controls targeting companies that produce goods using forced labor in Xinjiang. The Uyghur issue also drew global attention to China just a week before the Beijing Winter Olympics.
South of Xinjiang, the six million Tibetans– who have also angered Chinese rule for decades – have faced increased surveillance and repression of their Buddhist practices in 2021, as well as an aggressive campaign to reduce and eliminate Tibetan-language education in favor of Chinese.
The Communist Party’s harsh policies imposed on these vast so-called “Special Autonomous Regions” in western China were reflected in the Hong Kong Special Autonomous Region, where a national security law imposed by Beijing in mid-2020 has been used to bring together student leaders, pro-democracy politicians and journalists – virtually all critical voices in the territory.
As almost every month of 2021 brought developments that reduced the difference in freedoms and rights between Hong Kong and the mainland, the year ended with a Beijing-controlled “patriots only” election and a raid on The Stand, the latest pro-democracy media outlet in territory that once boasted of Asia’s freest media, and the arrest of six current and former staff.
The common denominator of the intransigent repression of people and territories on from China the periphery is the man in the center: President and Communist Party leader Xi Jinping, who took advantage of the state media spotlight as the party celebrated its 100th anniversary in July, and is set to begin next year an unprecedented third term at the head of the second economy.
Xi, who has removed both mandates and potential rivals as he consolidated his power since taking office eight years ago, launched a crackdown on Chinese billionaires and celebrities in 2021 and imposed scrutiny increasingly strict on education, publishing, media, even children’s video games.
Under Xi’s watch, the Chinese military has invaded the waters and airspace near Taiwan to highlight Beijing’s plan to absorb the autonomous island, a dispute that could lead to conflict with the United States. on rival seekers from the South China Sea. Aggressive Chinese actions in the waterway sparked a backlash from the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia and sparked interest from European naval powers as well as the United States.
In southern China’s Marxist-Leninist neighbor, from Vietnam 98 million people have suffered repeated and prolonged lockdowns and economic upheaval as new waves of coronavirus hit the country.
A Communist Party of Vietnam convention in January brought about a partial change in leadership at the top, but the arrests and imprisonment of Facebook commentators, journalists and civil society activists, dozens of whom are languishing in prisons where conditions are dire. known to ruin the health of inmates.
Laos, a brotherly communist neighbor of Vietnam, elevated to president a leader who is committed to tackling the endemic corruption that has thrived amid a massive build-up of dam and highway infrastructure, impoverishing the 7 million inhabitants of the landlocked country. Laotian officials openly admit, however, that enforcement of anti-corruption laws remains weak.
Often eclipsed by relatively wealthy Thailand and powerful, populous Vietnam, Laos took an important step in linking its economic destiny with China with the opening at the end of the year of a high-speed railway connecting the Laotian capital Vientiane in Kunming, the largest city in southwest China.
Next to CambodiaHun Sen continued a ruthless crackdown on his opponents in 2021, four years after having their National Rescue Cambodia Party banned in a campaign that has left most of its members in exile, underground or in prison. Hun Sen’s ruthless campaign even saw the five-month jail of an autistic teenager for posting articles on social media insulting officials before he was released under judicial supervision.
North Korea, whose leader Kim Jong Un has defied predictions to mark 10 years in power at the end of 2021, has stayed true to his “Hermit Kingdom” roots for the second year in a row by keeping his vital border with China closed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
The border closures deprived the country’s already weak economy of imports of everything from drugs to tractor parts, prompting the government to warn people to tighten their belts and prepare for a repeat of the deadly famine that decimated the population a quarter of a century earlier, when Kim’s father ruled.
Pyongyang has also lived up to its reputation for provocative missile testing and extreme measures to prevent outside cultural influence and information, sentencing to death a man who smuggled and sold copies of the Netflix series. “Squid Game” after authorities caught high school students watching Korean. World’s best-selling language show. One student was sentenced to life in prison while the others were sentenced to five years of forced labor.