Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Year 2008 in Asia

The biggest story in Asia in 2008 was the biggest story in the world, namely the global economic collapse. The accumulating evidence was too voluminous to summarize in a paragraph. One snap shot of an economy in distress: Toyota announced its first operating loss in 70 years, showing that the crisis in the world automotive industry was not confined to America’s Big Three. Declining sales at home and abroad (overall Japanese exports were down 27 per cent in November over the previous year) and a surging yen contributed to the red ink. Both Japan and China announced major economic stimulus packages to try to revive the economy in the coming year. Other note worthy events in Asia in 2008 included:

2. Disasters in China and Myanmar

3 The war on Mumbai

4. Political upheaval in Thailand

5. Tibet, torches and the Olympics

6. Opposition’s big gain in Malaysia

7. China and Taiwan cozy up

8. South Korea’s big beef over US beef.

9. Communists take power in Nepal

10. Slasher attacks in Japan

May was the cruelest month. On May 2, Cyclone Nargis hit the populous Irrawaddy Delta in the worst natural disaster in Myanmar’s recorded history. The cyclone and flooding killed approximately 77,000 and left 56,000 missing. Ten days later on May 12 a 7.9-scale earthquake hit central Sichuan province in China, killing an estimated 69,000 people, making it the 19th deadliest quake in recorded history. The Chinese central government drew plaudits initially for its rapid response (in contrast to the military junta’s dithering in Myanmar), and later earmarked some $150 billion in reconstruction aid. Some of the bloom went off as some 7,000 inadequately constructed schools collapsed during the tremors, killing untold students.

India has had deadlier terror attacks, but the random brutality of the assault on Mumbai, India’s financial center and largest city, seemed to take things to a horrifying new level. The assault lasted four days from Nov. 26 - 29 when the last members of the assault team was killed or captured at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, the premier establishment in Mumbai. The assailants, armed with automatic rifles and grenades, attacked ten locations, including a popular restaurant and the Narimen House, a Jewish outreach center. Final casualties totaled 173 killed and 308 wounded. The one terrorist who was captured said his comrads were linked to the Lashka-e-Toiba group in Pakistan a well-known terrorist organization focused primarily on Kashmir.

Thailand’s body politic was practically cut to pieces by a near-death struggle between factions loyal to ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and the anti-Thaksin forces led by the vastly misnamed People’s Alliance for Democracy. In August the PAD occupied government house forcing the prime minister to work out of the VIP lounge at the old Don Muang Airport. Then the demonstrators stunned the world by occupying and closing down Bangkok’s main airport, stranding 350,000 tourists and businessmen. The Constitutional Court finally outlawed the governing party and stripped enough of its MPs of civil rights to allow the opposition to form a shaky government. At year’s end it was pondering how to repair an economy badly damaged by wounds inflicted and self-inflicted.

Protests in Tibet broke out on March 10 on the anniversary of the failed 1959 uprising, and within a few days it turned into a spasm of rioting and looting. The unrest coincided with the lighting of the Olympic torch on March 24 in Greece. Many people took out their anger over Tibet on the torch bearers as they made their way through Europe with a particular ugly incident in Paris. World leaders threatened to boycott the opening ceremonies In turn these events spawned a patriotic backlash by Chinese people on the Internet and at later torch relays. Eventually, the protests petered out, as attention turned to the Sichuan quake, boycotts failed to materialize and Beijing went on to host a spectacular opening ceremony and two weeks of games held in some of the Chinese capital’s landmark new sports facilities.

The Barisan Nasional coalition that governs Malaysia had not lost an election since independence in 1957. In the 2008 general election, it held on to a majority, but voters severely punished the government by giving the combined opposition parties 82 seats in the 222-seat lower house.. The opposition also captured power in five states that held concurrent elections. The Justice Party of former deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim went from holding 1 to 31 seats. In April Anwar reclaimed his civil rights and later entered parliament in a by-election. He immediately assaulted the government headed by Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, claiming that enough government MPs were ready to join him in toppling the government. Abdullah, however, managed to stave off a no confidence vote.

On December 15, a jetliner took off from Shanghai with 150 passengers and flew directly to Taipei, ending a ban on direct traffic that dated back to the Kuomintang defeat in 1949. the softening relations between Taiwan and the mainland that were a direct result of the March presidential election, when the voters of Taiwan turned against the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, which had governed Taiwan for eight years, and returned the Kuomintang under new president Ma Ying-jeou. It was the second peaceful transfer or power in Taiwan’s history. But that was not the end of the story when in December the out-going president Chen Shui-bian was indicted on corruption charges, making him the first former president to face criminal prosecution.

Seoul was convulsed in April by enormous anti-U.S. beef demonstrations and riots that paralyzed the South Korean capital for days. The troubles began after President Lee Myung-bak, during his first visit to the U.S., agreed to lift the ban on imported beef that was imposed in 2003 after a case of mad cow disease was confirmed. The decision exploded into a formidable grassroots movement, led by middle-class Koreans and left-wingers eager to embarrass the conservative who had won last December’s presidential election. Lee had to beg forgiveness. By year’s end, however, inexpensive U.S. beef was appearing in the supermarkets, snapped up by consumers who must have wondered what all the fuss was about.

While the world’s attention was turned to the Olympic Games in Beijing, Nepal went communist. There was nothing stealthy about it. After a twelve-year insurgency that killed an estimated 13,000, the Maoists turned to the voting booth and used it to help boost Prachanda (the “Fierce One”), head of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), to become prime minister on August 15. He becomes the first premier of what is now officially the Federal People’s Republic of Nepal (the monarchy having been abolished). Prachanda pledged to respect multi-party democracy, but said that his government’s goal remains bringing socialism and communism to Nepal.

Japan is not usually considered a violent country, but the Japanese public was treated to a number of bizarre, meaningless but brutal random murders during the year. In June a deranged young man pulled a knife and started stabbing people at a busy downtown intersection in Tokyo, killing seven. Later in the year came the puzzling knife murder of a former senior health ministry civil servant and his wife as they answered the door at their home in the Tokyo suburbs. The murder was initially thought to be politically motivated terrorism, as lost pensions records has been a major issue. But the man who turned himself in and claimed to be the assailant said he killed in some kind of revenge for death of a pet dog 35 years previously.


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