2016 in review: Top 10 events that dominated Asia’s headlines this year
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2016 in review: Top 10 events that dominated Asia’s headlines this year

SO the curtains have fallen on 2016, a year that has been, without a doubt, almost frighteningly colourful.

Over the past 12 months, the world has witnessed a number of geopolitically significant events, events that defined the present and that we expect will shape the future we are now entering.

It was a year of clickbaits and meme-inspiring moments, when Facebook and Twitter avatars were painted black or in rainbow colours, and condolence messages were decorated with #JeSuis and #PrayFor hashtags. As the year progressed and we crept cautiously into the second-half, the nervous among us, and the curious, turned to the Internet with the question: Will 2016 be one of the worst years in human history?

It’s true it has been a challenging one: From Syria and Iraq to South Asia and the South China Sea, we’ve heard of scores of violent uprisings and armed conflicts that have led to civilian suffering, refugee crises and regions destroyed. And amid the destruction came more bleak reports of earthquakes and disease outbreaks, from the Zika virus to the avian influenza.

But while these were undeniably painful memories, we daren’t yet slap an all-encompassing label on 2016 as the “worst year in history”.

Because doing so would indicate an ignorance of the past, of other equally significant periods of pain and suffering, from the Black Death pandemic in the 14th century to the Great Depression in 1929, the Holocaust in the 1940s or the Vietnam War a decade later.

Closer to our time, generations today would never forget the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the U.S. or the tsunamis of 2004 and 2011 that devastated Indonesia and Japan and took with it hundreds of thousands of innocent lives.

Still, as much as we must continue to hold vigil over these memories of decades past, we would do well to remember, and to learn from, the developments of 2016.

After all, as the saying by former Irish statesman Edmund Burke goes, “Those who do not know history are destined to repeat it.”

Here’s a list of 10 defining events that made headlines across Asia, and the world, this year:

 

10 – South Korea scandal

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People react after the impeachment vote on South Korean President Park Geun-hye was passed on Dec 9. The sign reads ‘Step Down Park Geun-hye’. Source: News1 via Reuters

The influence-peddling controversy involving President Park Geun-hye and her long-time confidante Choi Soon-sil is the mother of all scandals in the East Asian nation’s modern political history.

In bland, more common terms, the scandal is a case of corruption, plain and simple. But delve deeper into its bizarre nature and its easy to see why we saw fit to include it in this list. Park stands accused of allowing Choi, a woman with no security clearance or official government post, interfere in state affairs. Among others things, Choi allegedly exploited her friendship with the president to extort millions from large business conglomerates that were in turn channeled as donations to two charity foundations she headed.

But that’s not the best (or worst) part. The history of Choi’s relationship with Park forms the central theme of this fascinating story; she reportedly earned the president’s trust decades ago when she, as the daughter of a shamanic cult leader, convinced a young, bereaved Park that she was also a spiritual medium and could channel communication to her recently dead mother.

Since the scandal exploded in October, Park has apologised to her constituents, although, in the same breath, she also denied any wrongdoing. To pressure her into resigning, angry South Koreans have been taking to the streets every weekend for more than two months. And they aren’t just small groups of placard-toting rabble-rousers either – we’re talking protests of epic proportions, gatherings said to be the largest the country has ever witnessed. Without fail, each one has grown more emotional than the last, and drawn massive crowds of hundreds of thousands of people. One gathering in early December saw nearly two million on the streets.

Park is now awaiting a decision from the Constitutional Court on her impeachment, which Parliament voted unanimously in favour of on Dec 9.

 

9 – Panama Papers

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Speaking of epic proportions, have you heard about the Panama Papers? Of course you have. Anyone living under a bridge would have heard about the biggest leak in history, one that dwarfed even that of Julian Assange’s Wikileaks.

In numbers, the Panama Papers involved: 2.6 terabytes of data, 11.5 million documents and 214,488 offshore or letterbox companies. So large was the leak that it took 400 journalists from more than 100 media organisations in over 80 countries 12 months to research the documents.

In a nutshell, the leak opened up a can of worms, putting an unwelcome spotlight on the dark, shadowy world of offshore regimes. The files showed how Panamanian corporate service provider Mossack Fonseca, also known as the fourth largest offshore law firm, helped the rich and powerful hide their wealth by laundering money, avoiding taxes and dodging sanctions.

From the probe, links to 12 current and former government heads were uncovered, while scores of relatives and associates and other politicians were also implicated. Just days after the April leak, Iceland Prime Minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson quit. Across the world, investigations were launched and other world leaders like Russian President Vladimir Putin and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif were forced to the fore to address allegations.

According to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), in the eight months after the leak, investigations produced near-daily regulatory moves, follow-up stories and calls for action across the world. In its December summary of the world’s responses, the consortium reported that a total of US$110 million have been recovered by governments so far from the revelations. The leak also generated 4,700 stories and at least 150 announced responses in 79 countries and territories, including inquiries, audits and investigations by a multitude of authorities such as the police, customs, financial crimes and mafia prosecutors, judges and courts, tax authorities, parliaments and other corporations. An estimated total of 6,520 people have been placed under investigation for tax evasion, financial crime and wrongdoing.

Through it all, however, Mossack Fonseca has continued to insist that it has always operated within the law, and has never been charged with wrongdoing.

 

8 – Death of Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej

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A Thai woman holding up a picture of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej cries outside the Grand Palace in Bangkok. Pic: AP.

In Thailand, a deeply polarised nation of 68 million, King Bhumibol Adulyadej was for decades seen as the country’s only pillar of strength and unity. So revered was the monarch that he was regarded sometimes as divine and worshipped as a Demigod. But years of illness saw the beloved Thai ruler finally breathe his last on Oct 13, ending a record seven-decade rule and leaving behind a legacy as the world’s longest serving head of state.

When Bhumibol passed, tears poured as a nation in perpetual fear and tumult wept for the man they were so used to turning to for guidance. Entertainment spots were shuttered for days while the public wore black as a mark of respect and tourists were urged to behave. Thousands flocked to his funeral, forcing the government to set daily quotas for those who wanted to pay respects to the late king.

During his reign, Bhumibol had been served by a staggering 30 prime ministers, and had seen the country through decades of political unrest. The current military junta government headed by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha took over in 2014 by staging a coup – the 12th in Thailand since 1932 – in a bid to end six months of political crisis that followed the Yingluck administration.

In the days and weeks after Bhumibol’s death, political observers began penning speculative pieces questioning Thailand’s stability in the post-Bhumibol era. Some called it a leadership vacuum, while others tread on more dangerous ground with articles drawing attention to the colourful past of Bhumibol’s son and heir to the throne, the current King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

In respect of Thailand’s strict lèse-majesté law, which makes it a crime to defame, insult or even threaten the king, queen or the heir-apparent, the authorities – and the mourning Thai public – bore down hard on those who dared question or insult Bhumibol and his son’s coming leadership. One woman was made to kneel before Bhumibol’s portrait to apologise over an alleged criticism she had made about the royal family over Facebook. BBC Thai was put under investigation for a profile it had done on the new King Vajiralongkorn. The same profile also landed an anti-junta activist in trouble. Authorities arrested Jatupat Boonpattararaksa in early December after he allegedly shared a link to the offending article.

 

7 -The Hague ruling on South China Sea

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(File) Chinese dredging vessels are purportedly seen in the waters around Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea in this image from 2015. Source: U.S. Navy/Handout via Reuters

On July 12, The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration delivered a ruling on the protracted South China Sea dispute that sent ripples not just in the region but across the world.

In the case filed over three years ago by the Philippines, the international court ruled in favour of the applicant, saying China had no legal basis to claim “historic rights” to the South China Sea. The court also accused China of infringing on the Philippines’ sovereign rights through its interference with fishing and petroleum exploration and through the construction of artificial islands.

The ruling served as a major slap in China’s face. But while that one battle was won, the territorial war involving claimants China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei remains far from over to this day.

In its immediate reaction, a furious China said it “does not accept and does not recognise” the award it categorised as “null and void and has no binding force”. It insisted that any resolution should be reached via bilateral negotiations with claimants.

But why is there a dispute in the first place? The waterway is a major shipping route where an estimated US$5 trillion of trade passes through annually. It is home to the Paracels and Spratlys – the two main island chains that a number of claimants have interest in, and where there is said to be reserves of untapped natural resources. Other areas in the dispute include dozens of rocky outcrops, atolls, sandbanks and reefs, such as the Scarborough Shoal. The interests of nations involved include demands to retain or acquire rights to fishing areas; the exploration of potential crude oil and natural gas; as well as the strategic control of important shipping lanes.

The disputes date back for centuries but China, in moves its neighbours fear are part of a bid to militarise or dominate the region, has in recent years grown more aggressive in its patrols of the area. The U.S. has waded in to contain its rival’s rising influence, but China has largely thumbed its nose at its efforts.

Recently, the Asian powerhouse plucked an unmanned underwater drone belonging to the U.S. navy from the South China Sea, triggering widespread outrage and a formal diplomatic protest. The drone has since been returned but the episode fuelled concerns over China’s increasingly assertive posturing in the region.

 

6 – Blasphemy in Indonesia and the Ahok protests

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Indonesian Muslims gather during a rally against Jakarta’s minority Christian Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama on Dec. 2, 2016. Pic: AP

According to the Wall Street Journal, the conviction rate for blasphemy cases in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation, is 100 percent. For Jakarta’s minority Christian governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, that only means that the die is cast and he will soon be handed a jail sentence that could go up to five years.

Basuki, or “Ahok” as he is more popularly known, is in the dock for allegedly blaspheming Islam by issuing a statement citing a verse in the Quran. A report by Jakarta Post on Ahok’s offending Sept 27 speech quotes him as saying of the coming gubernatorial poll:

“In your inner hearts, Bapak/Ibu may not vote for me, because [you have been] lied to by [using] Surah al-Maidah, verse 51, etc. […] So, if you cannot vote for me because you are afraid of being condemned to hell you do not need to feel uneasy as you are being fooled. It is alright.”

While this may not seem to some as particularly offensive, in a nation where underlying religious and ethnic tensions have been brewing for decades, the words of a man already facing opposition from hardline Islamists sparked protests larger than any witnessed in recent decades.

On Nov 4, over 150,000 choked Jakarta’s main arteries in a rally that put to test Indonesia’s secular foundations. Despite Ahok’s apology, emotions continued to run high, and the gathering led to rioters burning cars and looting shops. Another follow-up protest against Ahok in the capital turned out to be more peaceful, with participants engaging in prayer to call for tolerance and unity, despite teeming tensions.

But as many have said, the movement against Ahok and the impending outcome of his blasphemy trial threatens Indonesia’s very reputation as a nation that practices a moderate brand of Islam.

 

5 – Aleppo Boy

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This image of Omran Daqneesh has been described as the symbol of Aleppo’s suffering. Pic: Aleppo Media Center via AP

“This child is the cost of the war in Syria”.

This was CNN’s description of the riveting Aug 17 footage of Omran Daqneesh, the Syrian boy pulled from rubble after a bombing in Aleppo.

According to reports, Omran was injured in an alleged Russian Air Force strike on the rebel-held al-Qaterji neighbourhood in Aleppo. He was rescued along with his parents and three siblings, one of whom succumbed to his injuries three days later.

In the video, Omran appears dazed as he is placed, alone, on the seat in an ambulance, his feet dangling just off the edge. The boy is covered in dust and blood, a look of shock and bewilderment in his eyes. At one point, he raises his hand to touch his temple, then wipes his face and stares blankly at the blood on his fingers. He does not cry, despite the chaos around him.

The image struck a particular nerve. Within moments of its release by the Aleppo Media Center, the footage went viral across the Internet. Unwittingly, the five-year-old airstrike survivor became a symbol of suffering in a war that had been raging on in the Syrian economic capital for four long years.

His story, although just one in thousands of even more harrowing tales of death and suffering, spread like wildfire across the globe, adding to the cacophony of protests against the Syrian civil war.

Before the uprising against the government of Syrian President Bashar Hafez al-Assad, Aleppo was said to be Syria’s commercial and industrial hub. But for much of the past four years, the city was divided in two, the government controlling the west while rebels held the east.

Supported by Russian airstrikes, the Syrian government broke the stalemate in July by closing off the rebels’ last supply line into Aleppo. Rebel forces launched counteroffensives in September and October but failed, and in mid-November, Syrian forces embarked on a decisive campaign that resulted in the final recapture of all of Aleppo in December. The ceasefire is seen as a major turning point in the Syrian war.

In a statement reported by the BBC on Dec 22, the Syrian army said: “This victory represents a strategic change and a turning point in the war against terrorism on the one hand and a crushing blow to the terrorists’ project and their supporters on the other hand.”

4 – Rohingya crisis

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A Rohingya Muslim man cries during a recent protest against the violence in Rakhine state. Source: Aizuddin Saad/Shutterstock.com

Little introduction is needed to the Rohingya story, a tale that dates back decades, told and retold by many, but that yet has come to its final chapter.

The Rohingya are a Muslim minority living in Burma. Not recognised as indigenous to the Buddhist-majority Southeast Asian nation, they are refused citizenship and as a result, are denied basic rights, such as the right to gainful employment and education, or freedom of movement and religion. With a population of over a million, the Rohingya are said to form the single largest group of stateless people in the world. The United Nations has categorised them as the world’s most persecuted group.

International investigations have accused the Burmese army of conducting summary executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests and in many occasions, rape and murder of the Rohingya. The community’s plight has made headlines countless of times in recent past, more notably during the 2012 Rakhine state riots, the 2015 refugee crisis and most recently, the military crackdown in October, also in Rakhine state.

A Dec 19 Amnesty International report that documented the recent clashes said the series of events sparked by an attack on police border posts went beyond what could be considered a proportionate response to an alleged security threat. Quoting from eyewitness accounts and satellite images, it said homes were burnt to the ground while soldiers entered villages firing at random, killing men, women and children. Rohingya women also claimed in their accounts that they were raped by Burmese soldiers.

Rising from the bloodshed were pleas for help directed at Burma’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate whose landslide electoral victory last year marked a historic end to more than two decades of brutal military rule. But their cries may well have fallen on deaf ears. Critics of Suu Kyi’s leadership brand her a failure and accuse her government of doing naught but issuing repeated denials of the military crackdown.

 

3 – Duterte’s drug war

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Philippines President flashes a vulgar gesture towards the European Union for criticising his war on drugs. Image via YouTube.

The Philippines has been in the headlines a lot this year, thanks to its controversial, expletive-spewing president, Rodrigo Duterte. But his penchant for publicly dissing world leaders and flashing lewd gestures on national television is not what the leader is most famous, or rather, infamous, for.

His war on the narcotics trade, born from an election promise and two decades of busting crime as Davao City mayor, has led to the deaths of over 6,000 people. Many of those killed were yet to be proven criminals; suspected offenders at the wrong place and the wrong time who fell victim to a brand of vigilantism that has become mainstream in the country’s criminal justice system.

To top it off, the astounding statistic was achieved in just a few months – Duterte only ascended to the Philippine presidency in early June. Naturally, as the bodies piled up, Duterte’s unorthodox crime-fighting methods sparked international condemnation and criticism. World leaders and international groupings like the United Nations and European Union called for an end to the bloodshed. Rights advocates launched protests and demanded independent investigations.

In response, the firebrand president thumbed his nose at his detractors and called on his men to press on. In his most recent remarks, he admitted to personally killing criminals in the past, claiming he used to prowl the streets of Davao City on his motorcycle, itching for a fight. Earlier this week, he raised eyebrows again when he said in a warning to corrupt officials that he once threw a suspected kidnapper out of a helicopter.

“If you are corrupt, I will fetch you using a helicopter to Manila and I will throw you out. I have done this before, why would I not do it again?” 

 

2 – Brexit

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Source: donfiore/Shutterstock

A very, very small margin of voters caused the historic upset in the Brexit referendum in June this year.

A total of 52 percent voted in favour of leaving the European Union (EU), while 48.1 percent voted to remain, an outcome that defied predictions in the lead-up to the contest. And just like that, the UK became the first country to voluntarily withdraw from the 28-member political and economic bloc.

Before the dust settled and the British pound tanked to a 31-year low against the U.S. dollar, social media platforms were awash with questions that effectively asked: “Did that really just happen?”. The narrative that followed the vote was this: That the “remain” campaign headed by then Prime Minister David Cameron had been ineffective, relying on endorsements from economists, business people, union heads, academics, politicians, world leaders and even celebrities, to convince a polarised country on the benefits of staying in the bloc. It was a formula that later only “fed a growing backlash against politicians and the so-called elites”, Globe and Mail wrote.

According to Alternet, the vote was effectively a referendum on globalisation, a combination of the economic impact of EU trade regulations with the “fearful refrain about immigration”. This fear, the article said, was bolstered by the Schengen visa agreement, which allows anyone who has gained entry into any EU member state to move freely among other member countries.

It said that among others, one of the top reasons that led to the stunning outcome was “concerns over immigrant access to Britain’s strained resources”. Others included the EU’s “onerous regulations” and dissatisfaction with Britain’s recovery after the 2008 recession.

Since the vote, Cameron has resigned as prime minister, while former Home Secretary Theresa May has taken his place after emerging winner in the leadership contest after his departure.

Meanwhile, according to the Institute of Public Policy Research, Britain faces a decade of disruption post-Brexit, reported Sky News.

“Brexit is the firing gun on a decade of disruption. Even as what we do and how we work changes, the UK is likely to remain trapped in a low growth, low interest rate decade driven by demographic shifts, productivity trends, weak investment, weak labour power, high levels of debt, and the headwinds of a slowing global economy.”

 

1 – Donald Trump wins U.S. presidency

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U.S. President-elect Donald Trump (L) gives a thumbs up sign as he walks with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., Nov 10, 2016. Pic: Reuters/Joshua Roberts

If the Brexit vote had the UK sent into a tailspin, the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency made the world come to a screeching halt.

The real estate mogul and billionaire businessman, a man critics often label a novice in foreign policy and of politics in general, beat all odds to win his ticket to the coveted seat in the Oval Office. In the immediate aftermath, Trump’s election win sent Asia, and much of the world, reeling. Stocks plummeted and advocates of climate change – a phenomenon Trump once tweeted that China had invented – began preparing for an immediate rollback in decades of negotiations.

“We are in for a bumpy ride,” Evan Laksmana at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta, Indonesia, said when the results rolled in.

“Even if he did only half of what he promised in foreign affairs, he could do a serious amount of damage in a short time.”

Among others, Trump’s election campaign was coloured with outrageous promises such as the pledge to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and to make Mexico pay for it; ban all Muslims from entering the U.S. and conduct an “extreme vetting” of immigrants; “lock up” his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton over her use of her private email server while she was Secretary of State; deport all illegal immigrants; repeal Obamacare and replace it with something “terrific”; and of course, to stop all payments to the UN for climate change programmes.

Since his election win, however, Trump has somewhat softened his stance on many of these promises, setting tongues wagging on whether they were merely campaign rhetoric to rouse supporters.

But the world needn’t wait for much longer to get an answer to this question. Come Jan 20, Trump will formally be inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States, the new leader of the free world.

And if all of what Trump says are to come true, we can be certain that the events of 2017 are, “Gonna be huge.”