It was a year of repression, but also of resistance. The Chinese government clamped down with renewed force on the freedoms promised to the people of Hong Kong under the terms of the handover of the territory in 1997. In the streets, those freedoms were doughtily defended against the steepest odds. Month after month, in the face of the police’s abusive methods – including countless volleys of tear gas, arbitrary arrests, physical assaults, abuse in detention – millions showed their resolve, demanding accountability and insisting on their human rights to free expression and peaceful assembly.
The bright flames of peaceful protests were also sparked across India, where millions came out on to the streets against a new law that discriminates against Muslims when deciding who can or cannot become an Indian citizen. Asia’s two largest and most powerful states are trying to impose their own bleak, domineering vision on the continent, perceiving minorities as a threat to “national security”. We saw this in the nominally autonomous Chinese province of Xinjiang, where the crackdown on Turkic Muslims intensified as the true horrors of the “re-education camps” became apparent. We also saw this in Kashmir, hitherto India’s only Muslim-majority state, which saw its special autonomous status revoked and in its place a siege imposed that continues to this day.
The politics of demonization also fell on the island nation of Sri Lanka, where anti-Muslim violence erupted in the wake of the Easter Sunday bombings – which claimed the lives of more than 250 people, mainly Christians, in three churches and three hotels. In November, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected president, taking his place on an already crowded stage of strongmen leaders and dimming hopes that the wounds of the decades-long internal conflict will be healed. In the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte’s murderous “war on drugs” proceeded with only modest ripples of protest internationally.
Across Southeast Asia, repressive governments entrenched themselves further, silenced their opponents, muzzled the media, and shrank civic space to the point where, in many countries, even participation in a peaceful protest can trigger arrest. In South Asia, governments appeared anxious to keep up, innovating new ways to perpetuate old patterns of repression – especially through the introduction of draconian laws that punish dissent online.
To try and legitimize their repression, government across Asia ritually demonize their critics as pawns of “foreign forces”, who are at best “naïve” and at worst “treasonous” – toxic smears that are amplified through sophisticated social media operations. They resist accountability for corporations, claiming this will impede the rapid economic growth rates they covet. They often remain tranquil in the face of the ravages of climate change.
But as hard as it has become to resist, young people across the continent continue to take great risks and defy the established order. In Pakistan, the nonviolent Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement still rallies tens of thousands against enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions, even after its supporters have been charged and detained, and its protests banned. Climate strikes saw thousands take to the streets in several countries, including Afghanistan, where peace marchers also braved grave threats to call for an end to a conflict that has been going on since before they were born. In Viet Nam, people protested against China’s policies. In Laos, they protested against the shoddy construction of a dam.
The protests and other efforts of civil society were successful too. In Sri Lanka, lawyers and civil society activists successfully staved off the resumption of executions. In Taiwan, they fought for equality for LGBTI people, with same-sex marriage becoming legal in May. The Pakistani government announced new measures to tackle climate change and air pollution. The people of Hong Kong forced the authorities to withdraw its extradition bill. The Maldivian Supreme Court appointed two women as Supreme Court judges for the first time, defying pressure from religious hardliners.
The wheels of justice slowly began to turn for the Rohingya, as the International Criminal Court (ICC) authorized an investigation into crimes committed by the Myanmar military in 2017. This followed a decision by Gambia to take Myanmar to the International Court of Justice for the crime of genocide. There are also hopes that the ICC will revisit its decision to not authorize an investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by all sides in Afghanistan, after capitulating to pressure from the US administration.
The coming year is likely to be as trying as the one that has just passed. But as young activists across Asia have repeatedly shown, where there is no hope, it must be created.