Asia:10 faces of 2021

From the general of repression in Myanmar to the courageous nun in Kabul, from the voices of freedom in prison in Hong Kong to the Jesuit who died after eight months in jail in India: we retrace these twelve months in Asia through the stories of some key figures that we have told on AsiaNews. 

Denied freedoms and testimonies of hope, emerging political leaders and simple people who have done something extraordinary for others: this is how we have described Asia over the past twelve months in the articles of AsiaNews. On the last day of 2021, we would like to try to retrace the main events in Asia through 10 symbolic figures who in our opinion have marked the year that is coming to an end. 


Myanmar's dramatic year 2021 has the face of a lone military ruler - sadly re-emerging from the past -: the face of General Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, whose coup on 1 February cancelled the results of the elections of 8 November 2020, which had been won decisively by Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, now once again in prison. The self-proclaimed prime minister cracked down on pro-democracy street protests with an iron fist and multiplied atrocities against the insurgent ethnic militias. According to the online newspaper Irrawaddy, at least 1,382 people have been killed by the military in Myanmar since the beginning of February.


If there is a date that more than any other symbolises 2021 for Hong Kong, it is 17 June, the day of the police raid on the headquarters of Apple Daily, the independent newspaper of pro-democracy tycoon Jimmy Lai, who has already been in jail for months for his participation in the vigil that commemorates the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre in Hong Kong every year and in the demonstrations in support of democracy in 2019. Stifled financially after the passing of the Beijing-imposed national security law that wiped out any possibility of freely expressing one's opinion, Apple Daily was forced to close down. Appearing before the court, Lee Cheuk yan described the annual 4 June vigil in memory of the 1989 Beijing crackdown as 'the fight of memory against forgetting'.


In Beijing, 2021 was another year in the sign of Xi Jinping, with his mark on the centenary celebrations of the Chinese Communist Party but also with the "historic resolution" with which the Plenum elevated him to the rank of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. This leadership has not been immune to economic difficulties and internal struggles within the Party, but strongly projected on the international scene. It is also for this reason that in the past twelve months, the face of Zhao Lijian, the fierce spokesman of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the undisputed leader of the "wolf warriors" of Chinese diplomacy, has been increasingly affirmed. From misinformation on Covid-19 to broadsides on Taiwan, Zhao is increasingly the interpreter of Xi's aspirations for China-s place in tomorrow's world balance.   


Not even a year of pandemic bringing India to its knees has stopped the violence of Hindu nationalists against local Christians, which in some states such as Karnataka has reached unprecedented levels. However, one face above all summarizes this drama for 2021: that of Fr Stan Swamy, a Jesuit who died in a hospital in Mumbai on 5 July after more than eight months spent in prison on charges of "terrorism" for his commitment to tribal rights in Jharkhand. Left in prison at the age of 83 with Parkinson's disease on the basis of false accusations fabricated with sophisticated computer systems. A victim of violent persecution endorsed by Indian institutions, even before the Covid contracted in prison fatally weakened his body.


2021 was also the year of Aleksej Naval'nyj, the Russian anti-corruption blogger who has become the best-known face of the opposition to Vladimir Putin. Arrested on 17 January on his return to Russia five months after an attempted poisoning in Siberia, Naval'nyi was sentenced to two years and eight months' imprisonment, which he is serving in Pokrov correctional camp no.2. In September, the elections once again saw the party of President United Russia secure an absolute majority in the Duma, allowing it to amend the Constitution at will.

SHANHAZ BHATTI (Afghanistan)
Kabul back in the hands of the Taliban was the news that dominated the summer of 2021. A heavy return, an icon of the profound contradictions of twenty years of Western presence, the price of which has been paid by the Afghan civilian population with the rights denied to women and now also with the extremely serious food crisis affecting millions of people. Within this gigantic drama in 2021, we told the story of Sr Shanhaz Bhatti, a Pakistani nun who built bridges of friendship in Kabul by taking care of a group of disabled people through the association "Pro Bambini di Kabul". She too was forced to leave the country in August, but the seed she sowed in this land remains alive through the relations she continues to maintain from Italy with those who have been abandoned to their fate without support in Kabul. In the hope of being able to return one day.

MARIA RESSA (Philippines)
2021 was also the year that the Nobel Peace Prize returned to Asia, when Philippine journalist Maria Ressa, founder of the independent website Rappler, was awarded the prize together with her Russian colleague Dmitri Muratov. The Nobel Prize to Maria Ressa has put the spotlight on the serious human rights violations in Rodrigo Duterte's Philippines and on the convulsive electoral campaign for the 2022 presidential elections where the main favourite today is Fernando Marcos Jr, the son of the former dictator deposed in 1986. But in her acceptance speech in Oslo, Maria Ressa also took task with the social media industry, which she blamed for the crisis of democracy and the spread of violence in countries such as the Philippines.

After pandemic mismanagement overwhelmed predecessor Yoshihide Suga, Japan saw the rise of a new premier, Fumio Kishida, in the final months of 2021. A former foreign minister, he surprisingly won the Liberal Democratic Party primaries in late September and passed the first election test on 31 October. The recovery of the Japanese economy after the shock caused by Covid-19 is the main challenge facing the new premier.

For Israel, 2021 was the year when the 12 year reign of Benjamin Netanyahu came to an end when he had to step down as head of government. His place has been taken by Naftali Bennet, a politician who also comes from the Israeli right, but at the head of a very heterogeneous coalition that also includes an unexpected ally until yesterday: the Arab Ra'am party of the pragmatic Islamist Mansour Abbas. By guaranteeing his (decisive) support, Abbas has broken a taboo by officially bringing a representation of Israeli Arabs, to the government. These are Arabs who are to all intents and purposes citizens of Israel as descendants of those who in 1948, especially in Galilee, decided not to abandon their homes, but to remain living in Israel. He pragmatically aims to obtain results for their communities but in a difficult balance in a government that does not hold back at all on the issue of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Among all of our stories from the Middle East in 2021, the tale of Camilla Haddad, an elderly Christian woman from Mosul, saved by a Muslim family stands out. The family took her in and hosted her during the early stages of the rise of the Islamic State in Mosul, when the jihadist militias imposed sharia law through violence and massacres. Elias Abu Ahmed and his wife looked after her, while their children regarded her as their grandmother. Today she is 98 years old, still in good shape and in recent months she met the Chaldean Patriarch in Baghdad.