Across South-east Asia, they impressed and outraged as the year’s biggest newsmakers. A priest, politicians, some old favourites and Pol Pot’s chief executioner were among those who stood out from the crowded pages of newspapers, websites and the airwaves of radio and TV.
Vintage performances by former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew on the diplomatic circuit, as the controversial WikiLeaks cables revealed what he really thinks of the neighbours, were as refreshing as they were divisive and earn the city state’s minister mentor 10th spot in our round-up of regional newsmakers.
Following him in 9th were the Fernandez sisters, Irene and Aegile, who operate the human rights organization Tenaganita out of Kuala Lumpur, which focuses on women and migrants and with that, human trafficking and people smuggling. They were tireless this year as asylum seekers en-route to Australia continued to hit the international headlines.
In the last weeks of 2010, Laos announced the communist one-party state had a new prime minister, Thongsing Thammavong. The president of the National Assembly got the job, and also 8th spot among our list of newsmakers following the surprise resignation of Prime Minister Bouasone Bouphavanh amid speculation of a split between the pro-China and pro-Vietnam camps. The ramifications of all this are yet to be fully felt.
Probably the most tragic accident of 2010 was the Diamond Island Bridge stampede in Phnom Penh, which claimed 349 lives in November. But amid the chaos, three Australian fire-fighters stood out among the carnage: Paul Hurford, Ryan Miller, and Tim Erikson, were training locals when they responded to calls for help. Between them, they tended more than 100 people, classified casualties and performed CPR, saving untold lives. They make it into 7th place on the list.
As chief of Indonesia’s counterterrorism squad, Detachment 88, Brig. Gen. Pranowo has led the fight against Jihadist Islamic terrorists, registering an impressive list of successes over the course of 2010. Remnants of the Jemaah Islamiyah outfit and the more radical Jama’ah Anshorut Tauhid have been killed or arrested, including bomb maker Dulmatin and the Islamic cleric Abu Bakar Bashir.
In Cambodia, Kang Kek Iew, also known as Duch, cooperated with the courts and became the first senior leader of the Khmer Rouge to be jailed for crimes committed under their bloody 1975 to 1979 rule. Duch engineered and ran the S-21 torture and extermination camp on behalf of Pol Pot, whose ultra-Maoist regime obliterated Khmer culture and caused as many as two million deaths.
Benigno Aquino lived up to family expectations and was elected president of the Philippines in May, raising hopes of a new era and an end to the graft and corruption that plagued his predecessor’s rule. Under Gloria Arroyo, the number of human rights workers and journalists killed while on duty rose to record levels, while civil war flourished in the south of the country.
Father Lawrence Andrew, editor of the Catholic newspaper The Herald, emerged as a central figure in the legal fight against Malaysian government efforts to ban the use of the word ‘Allah’ by non-Muslims. Churches were fire bombed and vandalized after the ban was overturned by a court and mosques were attacked by troublemakers. Father Andrew retained his composure throughout, urging people to stay calm and to turn the other cheek. The case is still before the courts.
Sizing-up who runs the factions within Thailand’s warring Red and Yellow Shirts, and naming the shadowy figures that influence events, is fraught with difficulties. But the one person who stands above the factions, whether related to the monarchy or military, is Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, making him second in our list of South-east Asia newsmakers for 2010. It was a turbulent year for Thailand, most notably in the wake of the April and May riots that left at least 65 dead and 1,200 injured and that were described by some as the worst unrest in modern Thai history.
At number one sits Burma’s Nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, who was finally freed from house arrest following November elections conducted by the military that were widely considered a sham. She immediately impressed by adopting a conciliatory attitude to the junta despite spending 15 of the last 21 years in detention. However, many observers fear the pro-democracy advocate could find herself back behind bars before 2011 is done if she pushes the xenophobic and intolerant junta too far.