SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – The second year of the pandemic was remarkably turbulent for Asia, which continued to suffer dire losses while widespread social and political unrest and fragile democratic achievements were undone by a surge in autocracy.
From a military coup to protests and violence, the horror of soaring virus deaths, to the Olympics without the crowd in the specter of COVID-19, The Associated Press photojournalists in Asia captured the volatility of 2021 with powerful images that are burned into memories .
The year began with optimism about the arrival of vaccines and the hope that the suffering of the pandemic will come to an end.
But global attention quickly shifted to Myanmar, where military leaders turned years of quasi-democratic rule on its head with a seizure of power in February and then violently suppressed protests by hundreds of thousands of people at risk of arrest, injury and death.
AP’s images convey the anger and fear in the streets of cities like Naypyitaw and Mandalay, where screaming protesters held up anti-coup signs and the resistance three-fingered salute borrowed from the Hunger Games.
Heavily armed soldiers guard a checkpoint manned by armored vehicles and block the way to the parliament of Naypyitaw. A protester in a white hardhat uses a fire extinguisher to create a yellow smoke screen as his colleagues flee from security forces. A woman is held back by neighbors while she wails unrestrainedly over the body of her fatally shot son.
Myanmar was not the only place in Asia to experience significant setbacks in democratic freedoms.
In Hong Kong, authorities banned an annual candlelight vigil in memory of the Tiananmen Square massacre in China in 1989, which left the city’s scenic Victoria Park empty on June 4 for the first time in decades. The authorities also used a comprehensive national security law to arrest journalists and executives of the pro-democracy Apple Daily, which published its last issue on June 24th.
The tightening of proceedings in the city long known for its freedoms comes when Chinese President Xi Jinping increases his authoritarian influence in Beijing.
He was the focus of a spectacular open air gala to mark the 100th anniversary of the ruling Communist Party on June 28, a huge event with thousands of artists glorifying his leadership. Days later, in a speech, Xi vowed “broken heads and bloodshed” to anyone attempting to harass China, underscoring a worsening confrontation with the United States and others, Beijing’s human rights record, military expansion, and trade and technology policies have criticized.
The unrest continued in Kashmir, a focal point between India and neighboring Pakistan. Concerned villagers were seen speaking through a bullet-riddled window grille while a young woman wept before the cremation of her husband, a school teacher killed in an attack alleged by authorities against militants opposed to Indian rule.
Natural disasters have also cost human lives. Residents in the northeastern Philippines were seen pushing strollers full of belongings removed from destroyed homes after Typhoon Vamco, which killed dozen in November.
Meanwhile, the virus continued to wreak havoc across the region. Hopes for a quick return to normal have been dashed by slow and uneven adoption of vaccines and the devastating Delta variant, which has skyrocketed hospital admissions and deaths.
Flames and smoke rose from rows and rows of pyres during a mass cremation of coronavirus victims in New Delhi that burned so many bodies.
In Japan, officials began trying to get vaccines stored in high-tech freezers at extremely low temperatures earlier this year as they prepared to host the Tokyo Summer Olympics after a year-long delay. The games took place in July and August, with most of the spectators banned.
In a year marked by discord, anger, and death, AP photographers still found poignant moments of calm, joy, and beauty.
Hindu devotees danced, tossed colored powder in the air and painted each other with bright purple as they celebrated Holi, the Indian festival of colors. A May image shows a yacht sailing by while the moon rises in Sydney hours before the moon turned reddish orange during a total lunar eclipse also observed by a couple on a beach in Bali, Indonesia.
The reverberations of 2021 will weigh heavily as Asia enters a new year. The region will host another Olympics in February, this time the Beijing Winter Games, which have already been tarnished by a US-led diplomatic boycott of Beijing’s human rights record. The advent of the Omicron variant has ensured that the COVID-19 era is not over.