Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Year 2014 in Asia

Who would have believed that a middle-sized national air carrier for a middle-sized Asian country could have been involved in two deadly air crashes under mysterious circumstances that at year’s end still were not fully explained? Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 with 239 people on board disappeared in March on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. No one claimed responsibility for the disappearance, and at year’s end it remained one of the greatest mysteries in aviation history. In July another Malaysian Airlines flight was shot down over Ukraine while flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur with loss of 298 passengers. In this case the cause was fairly certain but not the perpetrator. Suspicion fell heavily on Russian separatists using a sophisticated Russian surface-to-air missile; Moscow blamed the Ukraine. Other notable stories during 2014 include:

The Umbrella Revolt: For 79 days the most serious anti-government protests on Chinese territory since the Tiananmen affair in 1989 paralyzed much of central Hong Kong. The immediate cause of the protest movement, dubbed the Umbrella Revolt by the press, was a decision by the National People’s Congress keep control of nominations for Chief Executive firmly in friendly, pro-Beijing hands. An underlying cause may well have been growing inequality in the territory and frustrations over sometimes boorish behavior of mainland visitors. It was called the “umbrella revolt” as protestors used umbrellas to ward off pepper spray from the police (and also to stay dry.)

South Korean Ferry Sinking:  All of South Korea mourned the sinking of the ferry Sewol on April 16 with the loss of 304 people, most of them secondary school students on an outing. The accident was the cause for much hand-wringing, soul-searching and not a little scape-goating in Korea, especially over the government’s supposed tardy response caused so many deaths. Many heads rolled in the aftermath, including that of the prime minister, the captain and three other officers were convicted of murder and given lengthy prison terms. The line’s owner Yoo Byong-eun was found dead of an apparent suicide. A vice principal at the high school also committed suicide.

Thai Premier Ousted in Coup: The Thai army seized power in Bangkok on May 22 for the umpteenth time, ending a six-month political crisis and mounting pressure for Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to resign and replace Thailand’s elected parliament with an unelected council.  Yingluck is the sister of Thaksin Shinawatra, who himself was ousted in a coup in 2006 and has lived in exile ever sense. She was appointed premier after her Pheu Thai Party won a majority in 201l. She attempted to fend off critics with a general election in February, but it was declared void by the constitutional court. The coup leader, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, was later appointed prime minister. He shows no sign of wanting to restore democracy, which always seems to return the Shinawatras and their allies to power.

Jokowi Elected Indonesian President: Indonesia held its third democratic presidential election in July elevating Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo, commonly known as Jokowi,  to the presidency. It was also the first peaceful transfer of power in Indonesia’s young democratic era. Widodo ran on a populist platform and was opposed by former army general Prabowo Subianto who called for stability. Despite Widodo’s clear majority (53 per sent versus 47 per cent), Prabowo appeared intent on challenging the results as fraudulent, but he withdrew his complaint shortly after the constitutional court upheld the election results allowing Widodo to take office in August.

Taipei Turns Back on China: Taiwan’s ruling Kuomintang Party suffered an historic defeat in local election held in November. Where it had previously held 14 of 22 municipalities, it ended the election with only 6. In all, the opposition, led by the Progressive Democratic Party won nearly a million votes more than the KMT. Significantly, an independent, Ko Wen-je was elected mayor of Taipei, which is often a stepping stone to the presidency and was held by a KMT for the past 16 years. The vote reflected an on-going tension in Taiwan between those seeking greater economic integration with the huge China market next door and those fearing it might lead to a loss of autonomy.

Oil Rig Showdown off Vietnam: Beijing’s decision in May to move a large oil drilling rig into waters off the coast of Vietnam led to a two-month confrontation on the sea and serious anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam before the rig was moved to another less sensitive location two months later. The oil rig Haiyang Shiyou 981was located outside Vietnamese territorial waters but inside its 200 nautical mile Economic Exclusion Zone. It led to daily sea clashes between Vietnamese fishing boats and Chinese and Vietnamese Coast Guard vessels. It also led to three days of riots in Vietnam and several Chinese (or at least foreign owned – the rioters were not too discriminate) factories were burned to the ground.

China’s Anti-Corruption Drive: Every year it seems some very senior Chinese official succumbs to China’s latest anti-corruption drive. This year’s big fish, Zhou Yongkang, was head of the police and a former member of the politburo standing committee of the communist party. This year’s anti-corruption drive, launched by President Xi Jinping, is said to be unprecedented in targeting errant party, military officials and heads of state-owned enterprises. The net is wide spread even capturing a deputy chief of the Beijing zoo accused of earning millions of yuan through “part-time work” like driving a taxi.

Japanese Win Nobel Prize: Three Japanese-born scientists won the Nobel Prize for physics for their work in helping to develop energy efficient white LEDs, which are replacing incandescent bulbs in lamps around the world. It was a source of encouragement in Japan, where the news had focused on a scandal concerning stem-cell research after the prestigious international science journal Nature retracted two research papers prepared by the Riken Institute in Kobe about a purportedly new and simple way to generate stem cells. Efforts to replicate the research failed, and the young female lead author, Haruko Obokata, resigned from the institute, amidst some grumbling that she was singled out because she was a young, attractive woman.

Hacking Attack on Sony: Although more of a Hollywood story, the hacking of the Sony Pictures and Entertainment’s computers had Asian reverberations. This villain in this story was North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un, who took umbrage at his portrayal in Sony Pictures’ comedy of a CIA assassination plot against him and took out his revenge on Sony in a particularly effective way.  Sony executives in Tokyo had tried to tone down the gruesome climax. For a while, Sony Pictures withdrew the movie, but later relented and allowed its showing in theaters across the U.S., but not in Asia.

Non-Story of the Year: probably the biggest ho-hum story of 2014 was Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s curious decision to call for a general election in mid-December two years before he had to. The results could be summed up in one headline – Abe Wins Big. Nothing Changes. The voter turnout for this non-issue election, at roughly 52 percent, was the lowest since the end of the war.


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