Southeast Asia-Pacific year round up
It was a year of democracy and disasters around the Southeast Asia-Pacific region in 2014
It was a year of democracy and disasters around the Southeast Asia-Pacific region in 2014.
In several countries, such as Myanmar and Thailand, democracy seemed on the retreat while in others, notably Indonesia, nations seemed to be moving towards a more Western style of leadership.
In Hong Kong, students’ calls for true elections came to little in the face of an unyielding Beijing-backed government. China witnessed talk of the rule of law and the realization of an anti-corruption drive that saw a number of high-placed officials jailed or under investigation.
Elsewhere, Malaysia was rocked by three air disasters that claimed nearly 700 lives while South Korea was outraged at the safety lapses that saw more than 300 lost, most of them school children, in the Sewol ferry catastrophe.
In the Philippines, an agreement between Muslim separatists and the government holds the promise of peace for the country’s restive south, although insurgents continued to disturb everyday life.
‘Lone wolf’ terrorism raised its head in Australia when a gunman held café customers hostage at the end of the year, resulting in three deaths.
Japan welcomed the award of a Nobel Prize to three of its scientific sons.
The country’s apparent move towards democracy, kick-started three years ago when a nominally civilian government replaced the junta that had ruled for decades, was stunted by developments that left many wondering if President Thein Sein was as committed to free elections as he had claimed.
In November, it was announced that there would be no change to the country’s 2008 constitution that prevented the most popular opposition figure, Aung San Suu Kyi, standing for president in the scheduled 2015 election.
Suu Kyi, who spent 15 years under house arrest for opposing the military, is barred because her two sons hold British passports.
Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, went on a nationwide campaign earlier in the year calling for the government to amend the relevant articles, which give the military a veto over any constitutional changes.
The land of smiles experienced its 19th coup in 82 years on May 22, when the military under General Prayuth Chan-ocha overthrew the elected government and seized power.
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra had previously been removed by a court decision for abuse of power and the junta, under the name the National Council for Peace and Order, dissolved parliament and abolished the constitution.
The period following the coup has seen the summoning of hundreds of academics, activists and politicians, as well as the arrests of those who flashed a three-finger salute of defiance.
Amid a surging number of lese-majeste cases, which can see those convicted jailed for up to 15 years for insulting or criticizing the royal family, the country faced mounting anxiety over the succession of King Bhumibol Adulyadej as his health declined.
On the Philippine archipelago, the Muslim south experienced a milestone with the signing of a peace agreement between the government and the country’s one-time largest rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
The Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro, signed in March, brought a close to 17 years of negotiations and ended a decades-old armed conflict in Mindanao, the country’s southernmost major island, while granting Muslim areas greater political autonomy.
The deal committed President Benigno Aquino III and the Front to passing a law creating the Bangsamoro Region to supplant the 25-year-old Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao before the 2016 presidential election.
Aquino personally submitted the draft Bangsamoro Basic Law to parliament in September. The draft legislation, which took five months to finalize and specifies wealth- and power-sharing arrangements between the national government and the new political entity, is currently before Congress.
The Mindanao conflict, which started in the early 1970s with the separatist rebellion of the Moro National Liberation Front, led to more than 100,000 deaths.
A number of other insurgent groups, such as the Islamist Abu Sayyaf and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters groups and the communist New People’s Army, continue to clash with government troops, plant bombs and kidnap hostages.
The election of an ‘everyman’ candidate in the July presidential elections seemed to marshal a new political era for the world’s most populous Muslim nation.
Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, went from furniture retailer to mayor of Jakarta to president in a vote that seemed a victory against the military and business elites who had dominated the country in the latter half of the 20th century.
His campaign against businessman and former general Prabowo Subianto was colored by black campaigns, money politics and the polarization of the country into two factions.
Questions were raised in the nation's press about Jokowi's ethnicity, race and religion, along with allegations of corruption – with one report even going as far as to claim he had died. Subianto was accused of gross human rights violations during his time as head of the Indonesia’s special forces.
While the voting passed peacefully, both candidates claimed victory two hours after polling stations closed and fears of street violence were raised. Despite a post-count challenge from Subianto, Jokowi's win was upheld in court and he was sworn in in October.
Tens of thousands took to the streets to celebrate Indonesia’s first president to come from outside the elite that had ruled since independence.
The former British colony saw out the last two months of the year gripped by pro-democracy protests that questioned Hong Kong’s relationship with its mainland masters.
Three major protest sites became a part of Hong Kong’s landscape over a two-and-a-half month period in which demonstrators blockaded roads in a movement involving more than 100,000 at its peak. Beginning in September, the occupation became known as the Umbrella Movement after protesters used the everyday items to ward off police pepper spray.
The activists, many of them students but regularly reinforced by older Hongkongers, demanded a fully democratic election with open nominations for the territory's next chief executive in 2017 – a response to Beijing’s decision to vet candidates.
Tensions came to a head over a weekend in early October with intermittent scuffles between protesters and pro-Beijing supporters, including instances of attacks by alleged triad gangsters. By the time police cleared the sites in at the beginning of December, more than 955 people had been taken into custody.
After a full year of political deadlock, Cambodia’s two largest parties — the long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party and the newly formed, liberal Cambodia National Rescue Party, known by the acronym CNRP — finally reached a deal in July that would end the CNRP’s boycott of parliament.
CNRP lawmakers had refused to take their seats in protest at a July 2013 election the party claimed was stolen by the People’s Party.
The deal also put an end to a series of protests staged by the CNRP that drew massive crowds of opposition supporters and garment workers to the streets, demanding the ruling party agree to a re-election. They also insisted on Hun Sen, the country’s strongman prime minister, step down from the position he has held for nearly 30 years.
Some demonstrations turned violent in the early part of the year and were brutally quashed by security forces. Since July, the tentative peace has held but negotiations over the finer points of the political deal are still ongoing.
Still in many ways an enigma to outsiders – despite economic reforms that saw it become, under some measurements at least, the world’s biggest economy – China moved inexorably towards domination of the region as the U.S. attempted to hedge in the communist regime.
Domestically, the troubles of a number of high-flying officials were the highlight of an anti-corruption drive launched by President Xi Jinping the previous year.
In December, criminal charges were brought against former security head Zhou Yongkang, the most senior Communist Party official to face a corruption case, and Liu Tienan, deputy head of the National Development and Reform Commission until his dismissal in August 2013, was jailed for life for taking bribes worth millions of dollars.
The Chinese were flexing their economic muscles overseas with the launch of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a fund backed by $50 billion from China that was widely seen as a challenge to U.S.-backed international banks.
A memorandum of understanding signed by 21 Asian nations got the Beijing-based bank underway and it will formally established by the end of next year.
The nation wept at the news of the deaths of hundreds of schoolchildren aboard the ferry Sewol in April – an incident made all the more shocking by the revelations that followed.
The ship’s captain was pilloried when it became known that he was among the first to be rescued while more than 300 perished. Many called for him to face the death sentence but he was eventually jailed for 36 years while other crew members received similar terms.
Perhaps greater disgust was reserved for the executives at the company operating the ferry when it was revealed the Sewol was routinely overloading with passengers and cargo despite its balance being affected following an illegal remodeling. The owner committed suicide while the chief executive, convicted of embezzling tens of billions of won and accepting tens of millions in kickbacks from subcontractors, was sentenced to 10 years.
The disaster raised questions about the implementation of safety standards in South Korea.
The country was ravaged by nine months that saw three passenger aircraft linked to Malaysian companies tragically go missing, be shot down or crash, with the loss of nearly 700 lives.
In March, Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 went missing en route to Beijing with 239 passengers and crew aboard not long after leaving Kuala Lumpur. Despite the most intensive search in commercial aviation history, no trace of the plane has been found and it is believed to be resting at the bottom of the Indian Ocean.
To compound the disaster, four months later, another Malaysia Airlines plane was brought down in Ukraine’s Donetsk region near the border with Russia, killing all 298 aboard. The aircraft is widely believed to have been hit by an anti-aircraft missile fired by pro-Russian separatist forces.
Just after Christmas, AirAsia QZ8501 lost contact with air traffic control over the Java Sea while traveling from Indonesia to Singapore. The wreckage and bodies of passengers and crew were still being retrieved as the year turned.
Monday morning rush hour on December 15 came with news that a gunman had laid siege on a Sydney café, where he was holding 17 hostages. As the hours passed, the gunman was revealed to be an Iranian-born self-proclaimed Muslim cleric out on bail on numerous violent charges.
During the 16-hour siege, the #illridewithyou Twitter hashtag went viral as a collective rejection of Islamophobia. During the early hours of Tuesday, security forces charged the building after hearing gunshots – the gunman and two hostages lost their lives.
As worries of an anti-Islam backlash grew, #illridewithyou became the clarion call for thousands of Aussies offering to accompany any Muslim who feared riding on public transport. Australia's race discrimination commissioner Tim Soutphommasane urged Australians to never "allow fear, hatred and division to triumph.”
Japan’s science world found reason to celebrate when three Japanese-born scientists won the Nobel Prize for physics – much needed encouragement amid a year marked by scandal over discredited "breakthrough” discoveries.
A purportedly new and simple way to generate stem cells faster and cheaper led to 31-year-old female researcher Haruko Obokata becoming an overnight media sensation – only for her star to fall six months later when it was repudiated as having "critical errors." Efforts to replicate the research failed in December and the lead author resigned from the institute, amid grumbling that she was singled out because she was a young, attractive woman.
Recognition moved on to Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura, who became Nobel laureates for their work in helping to develop energy efficient white LEDs, which are replacing incandescent bulbs in lamps around the world.
Last Modified: 2014-12-31 10:05:19
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