2021: Coups, concentration camps, and creeping conflicts

Authoritarian Asian states stayed true to form, doubling down on harsh practices and policies.
2021.12.30
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Protesters block a major road during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar, on Feb. 17, 2021. (AFP)

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A woman bans pans to make noise after calls for protest went out on social media in Yangon, Myanmar, on Feb. 3, 2021 following the military coup. (AFP)

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A Myanmar security officer aims a weapon during a crackdown on protesters at Hledan Junction, Yangon, on Feb. 28, 2021. (RFA)

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Protesters walk amid smoke near a makeshift barricade during a crackdown by security forces on demonstrations against the military coup in Yangon on March 16, 2021. (AFP)

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Sister Ann Rose Nu Tawng of Myitkyina pleads with Myanmar security forces on Feb. 28, 2021 to refrain from attacking unarmed protesters sheltering in the clinic where she serves the sick.

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A protester holds onto the shirt of a fallen comrade, during a crackdown by security forces in Hlaing Tharyar township in Yangon, Myanmar, on March 14, 2021. (AFP)

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The funeral procession for Mya Thwe Thwe Khine, the first protester to die in demonstrations against the Myanmar military coup, moves through the capital Naypyidaw on Feb. 22, 2021. (RFA)

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Buildings burn in Chin state’s Thantlang township on Oct. 29, 2021 after Myanmar soldiers torched at least 200 homes. (Chin News Journal)

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The daughter of Zwee Htet Soe, a protester who died during a demonstration against the military coup, cries during her father's funeral in Yangon, Myanmar, on March 5, 2021. (AFP)

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Thirteen-year-old Tun Lin Naing - the youngest volunteer at the Metta Thingaha Free Funeral Aid Association in Yangon, Myanmar - helps remove a body from a hearse on July 29, 2021. (MPA)

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French street artist Mahn Kloix works on a detail of a mural depicting Tursunay Ziawudun, a former Uyghur detainee who left China and has spoken publicly about her experience in an internment camp, in the southern French port city of Marseille, Oct. 2021. (Mahn Kloix/Instagram)

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French street artist Mahn Kloix’s completed mural of Tursunay Ziawudun, a former Uyghur detainee, in the southern French port city of Marseille, Oct. 2021. (Mahn Kloix/Instagram)

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Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter sports a message on his shoes before playing the Chicago Bulls on Nov 1, 2021. (Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports)

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Omir Bekali demonstrates how he says he was shackled at a Chinese-run re-education camp as he speaks on the first day of hearings at the Uyghur Tribunal, a panel of UK-based lawyers and rights experts investigating alleged abuses against Uyghurs in China, in London on June 4, 2021. (AFP)

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (C) taking part in a parade of “paramilitary and public security forces” to celebrate the 73rd founding anniversary of North Korea at Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang on Sept. 9, 2021. (KCNA via KNS/AFP)

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“Paramilitary and public security forces” parade to celebrate the 73rd founding anniversary of North Korea at Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang on Sept. 9, 2021. (KCNA via KNS/AFP)

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits Samjiyon City, North Korea, in this photo released on Nov. 16, 2021. (KCNA via Reuters)

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Employees, Executive Editor in Chief Lam Man-Chung (L) and Deputy Chief Editor Chan Pui-Man (C) cheer each other in the Apple Daily newspaper office after the final edit of the newspaper before it goes to print for the last time in Hong Kong on June 23, 2021. (AFP)

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A vacant Hong Kong Victoria Park is seen Friday, June 4, 2021. In past years, tens of thousands of people gathered in the park to honor those who died when China's military put down the student-led pro-democracy protests at Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.(AP Photo/Vincent Yu)

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Workers remove a part of the "Pillar of Shame" sculpture by Danish artist Jens Galschiot on Dec, 23, 2021. The sculpture paid tribute to the victims of the Tiananmen Square crackdown in Beijing on June 4, 1989, at the University of Hong Kong in Hong Kong, China. (Reuters)

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Artist Derek Yung creates a large-scale sand drawing on Sai Wan beach in the Sai Kung area of Hong Kong on Dec. 3, 2021. (AFP)

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A migrating herd of wild Asian elephants sleeps in southwest China's Yunnan province on July 3, 2021. The group left its home range far to the south near the Thai border to forage in Yunnan. (AFP/Yunnan Forest Brigade)

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Residents line up to undergo nucleic acid tests for COVID-19 in Ningbo in China's eastern Zhejiang province on Dec. 8, 2021. (AFP)

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Residents queue to receive a swab for a COVID-19 test during a mass testing in Lanzhou, capital city of northwest China's Gansu Province, Oct. 24, 2021. (Xinhua via AP)

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“Paramilitary and public security forces” march Sept. 9, 2021 to celebrate the 73rd founding anniversary of North Korea at Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang. (KCNA via KNS/AFP)

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The USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier transits the South China Sea, during operations with Japan Maritime Self-Defense Forces on Oct. 30, 2021. (U.S. Navy)

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Vehicles damaged by floods in July are shown at a parking lot Aug. 10, 2021 in Zhengzhou in China's central Henan province. (AFP)

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Abandoned publicly shared bicycles fill a lot on April 19, 2021, in Shenyang in China's northeastern Liaoning province. (AFP)

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A typically busy intersection is empty in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, on July 22, 2021, after the city ordered a curfew to contain a surge of COVID-19. (Associated Press)

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A street artist walks past a mural depicting frontline healthcare workers along a street in Hanoi on June 15, 2021. (AFP)

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People seeking to return to their hometowns wait at a checkpoint to leave Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, in the early hours of Oct. 1, 2021, following the easing of strict COVID-19 restrictions that had been in place for several months. (AFP)

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A woman walks down a path after a snowfall in Lao Cai province, Vietnam, Jan. 11, 2021. (Reuters)

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A visitor takes part in a tour in Son Doong cave, one of the world's largest natural caves, in central Vietnam's Quang Binh province on Jan. 19, 2021. (AFP)

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Sheep graze on the Tibetan plateau as the sun illuminates a cloudburst in the distance in Namtso in western China's Tibet Autonomous Region on June 2, 2021. (Associated Press)

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University students wearing graduation gowns take part in a photo session in Potala Palace Square during a government-organized media tour to Lhasa, Tibet Autonomous Region, China June 1, 2021. (Reuters)

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Tibetan Buddhists pay their respects at a holy site at the base of Potala Palace in Lhasa in western China's Tibet Autonomous Region, as seen during a government-led tour of the region for foreign journalists on June 1, 2021. (Associated Press)

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Members of the Tibetan Student Association in Chennai, India, take part in a demonstration on March 10, 2021, the 62nd Anniversary of Tibetan National Uprising Day against the Chinese occupation of Tibet. (AFP)

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Protesters holding the Tibetan flag crash the flame-lighting ceremony for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics at the Ancient Olympia archeological site in southern Greece on Oct. 18, 2021. (AFP)

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Chinese paramilitary police march in formation on Oct. 25, 2021 at the Yanqing National Sliding Center during a test event for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. (Associated Press)

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A woman walks along a pedestrian bridge amid a sandstorm during the morning rush hour in the Beijing central business district on March 15, 2021. (Associated Press)

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A bolt of lightning illuminates the sky above buildings displaying a light show on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing on June 30, 2021. (AFP)

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Rescuers search a subway tunnel on July 26, 2021, after it was flooded by heavy rains in Zhengzhou, in China's central Henan province. (AFP)

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A man carries a baby across a flooded road following heavy rainfall in Zhengzhou, Henan province, China, on July 22, 2021. (Reuters)

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Auxiliary police and police officers in protective suits patrol the snow-covered border region in Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China, on Oct. 7, 2021. (China Daily via Reuters)

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Performers form the number 100 at a gala show ahead of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing on June 28, 2021. (Associated Press)

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Delegates applaud as Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives for the closing session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Wednesday, March 10, 2021. (Associated Press)

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A worker peers out from hospital grounds across from the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention after a World Health Organization team arrived for a field visit on Feb. 1, 2021. (Associated Press)

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Seen through a door peephole, a worker disinfects the corridor of a hotel where foreigners quarantine in Shanghai, China, on Aug. 12, 2021. (Associated Press)

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Laos' Minister of Public Works and Transport Viengsavath Siphandone (R) and China's Ambassador to Laos Jiang Zaidong unveil a sign for the Lane Xang high-speed train in Vientiane on Oct. 16, 2021. (AFP)

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A monk blesses Laos’ new high-speed train during a Buddhist ceremony before the handover ceremony of the rail project linking the Chinese southwestern city of Kunming with Vientiane, in Vientiane, Laos, on Dec. 2, 2021. (Reuters)

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A train waits at the station in Vientiane, Laos, during the handover ceremony of the high-speed rail project on Dec. 3, 2021. (Reuters)

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Lonh Vannsith, a fourth-year student of the National Polytechnic Institute of Cambodia, flies his team’s drone in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Sept. 17, 2021. (Reuters)

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A man transporting bags of recyclables is turned back at a blocked street in a zone where the COVID-19 cases are rising sharply outside Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on May 7, 2021. (Associated Press)

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People wearing face masks to help curb the spread of COVID-19 view decorations for the Lantern Festival, which marks the end of Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations in Taipei, Taiwan, on Feb, 26, 2021. (Associated Press)

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Protesters in Myanmar hold a candlelight protest at Yangon's Hledon Junction on March 11, 2021. (RFA)

The year 2021 opened and closed under the cloud of COVID-19, with countries in Southeast Asia experiencing more serious outbreaks after largely avoiding widespread infections and deaths during the first year of the pandemic.

Populations across East and Southeast Asia suffered economic pain, mass joblessness, and even hunger as trade and tourism dried up under restrictions aimed at quelling the virus. The closure of China’s border with Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam and particularly, North Korea, devastated those countries that rely on Chinese trade and investment.

The unpromising year got sharply worse for the 54 million people of Myanmar on Feb. 1, when the army followed weeks of grumbling about election fraud in November with a coup that ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her elected government. The 76-year-old Nobel laureate faces decades in jail, with her fate in the hands of military-run courts

Months of street protests were met with brutal violence by the army, with a death toll approaching 1,400, while across Myanmar, local militias calling themselves People’s Defense Forces sprung up to fight junta troops. Scorched-earth attacks by the military on villages seen as resisting the coup have brought massacres, rape and atrocities–hallmarks of earlier decades of army rule.

The 12 million Uyghurs of Xinjiang, long resentful of 70 years of heavy-handed Chinese rule over their Central Asian homeland, received the grim honor of having China’s policies toward the mostly Muslim minority–including mass internment camps and coercive birth restrictions–recognized as genocide and/or crimes against humanity by the U.S. State Department, European parliaments and an independent tribunal in London.

Those declarations have spawned lawsuits against China by Uyghurs and prompted the U.S. and its allies to impose sanctions or trade controls targeting firms that produce goods using forced labor in Xinjiang. The Uyghur issue has also focused global attention on China just week before the Beijing Winter Olympics.

To Xinjiang’s south, the six million Tibetans–who have likewise chafed at Chinese rule for decades–faced intensifying surveillance and repression of their Buddhist practices in 2021, along with an aggressive campaign to reduce and eliminate education in the Tibetan language in favor of Chinese.

The harsh Communist Party policies imposed on those vast so-called “special autonomous regions” of western China were mirrored in the Hong Kong Special Autonomous Region, where a national security law imposed by Beijing in mid-2020 was used to round up student leaders, pro-democracy politicians, and journalists–virtually every critical voice in the territory.

As nearly every month of 2021 brought developments that narrowed the difference in liberties and rights between Hong Kong and the mainland, the year ended with a "patriots only" election vetted by Beijing and a raid on The Stand, the last pro-democracy media outlet in a territory that once boasted Asia’s most free-wheeling media, and the arrest of six current or former staff.

The common denominator of the uncompromising clampdown on people and territories on China’s periphery is the man at the center: President and Communist Party chief Xi Jinping, who basked in state media limelight as the party marked its 100th birthday in July, and is poised next year to start an unprecedented third-term at the helm of the world’s second biggest economy.

Xi, who has removed both term limits and potential rivals as he’s consolidated power since taking office eight years ago, in 2021 launched a crackdown on China’s billionaires and celebrities and imposed ever tighter control over education, publishing, media–even children’s video games.

Under Xi's watch, China's military swarmed the waters and airspace near Taiwan to underscore Beijing's plan to absorb the self-governing island, a dispute that could lead to conflict with the U.S. Further offshore, Chinese military, coat guard and fishing vessels repeatedly moved to muscle out rival claimants to the South China Sea. Aggressive Chinese actions in the waterway have sparked a backlash from the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia and drawn the interest of European naval powers as well as the U.S.

In China’s fellow Marxist-Leninist neighbor to the south, Vietnam’s 98 million people suffered repeated, lengthy lockdowns and economic dislocation as new waves of the coronavirus hit the country.

A Communist Party of Vietnam congress in January brought a partial change of leaders at the top, but there was no relent to the arrests and jailing of Facebook commentators, journalists and civil society activists–scores of whom languish in prisons where conditions are known to ruin the health of inmates.

Laos, a fraternal Communist neighbor of Vietnam, elevated to president a leader who vowed to tackle endemic corruption that has flourished amid a massive infrastructure build-up of dams and highways, impoverishing the landlocked country’s 7 million people. Lao officials, however, openly admit that enforcement of anti-graft laws remains weak. 

Often overshadowed by comparatively wealthy Thailand and powerful, populous Vietnam, Laos took a major step to tie its economic fate to China with the opening at year’s end of high-speed railway connecting the Lao capital Vientiane with Kunming, the largest city in southwestern China.

Next door in Cambodia, Hun Sen continued a remorseless crackdown on his opponents in 2021, four years after he had their Cambodia National Rescue Party banned in campaign that has left most of its members in exile, hiding or prison. Hun Sen’s no-holds-barred campaign even saw the jailing for five months of an autistic teenager for writing social media posts that insulted public officials before he was released to court supervision.

North Korea, whose leader Kim Jong Un defied predictions to mark 10 years in power at the end of 2021, stayed true to its “Hermit Kingdom” roots for the second straight year as it kept its vital border with China closed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

The border closures starved the country’s already weak economy of imports of everything from medicine 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 century earlier, when Kim’s father ruled.

Pyongyang also lived up to its reputation for provocative missile tests 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 the Korean-language global hit show. One student got life in jail while the others were sent away to five years of hard labor.

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