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2021: Coups, concentration camps, and creeping conflicts

Authoritarian Asian states stayed true to form, doubling down on harsh practices and policies.


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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