Virus, unrest highlight AP’s pictures of the year in Asia

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — The second year of the pandemic was remarkably tumultuous for Asia, which continued to be gripped by terrible losses while seeing widespread social and political unrest and fragile democratic gains erased by a rise in autocracy.

From a military coup to protests and violence, the horror of surging virus fatalities to a crowd-less Olympic Games held in the specter of COVID-19, the photojournalists of The Associated Press in Asia captured the volatility of 2021 with powerful visuals that will be etched in memories.

The year began with optimism surrounding the arrival of vaccines and hope that pandemic sufferings are coming to an end.

But global attention shifted quickly toward Myanmar, where military leaders upended years of quasi-democratic rule with a February seizure of power and then proceeded to violently suppress protests by hundreds of thousands of people, who risked arrests, injury and death.

AP’s images convey the fury and fear in the streets of cities like Naypyitaw and Mandalay, where shouting protesters held up anti-coup signs and the three-finger salute of resistance borrowed from the “Hunger Games” movies.

Heavily armed soldiers stand guard at a checkpoint manned with armored vehicles, sealing a path to Naypyitaw’s parliament. A protester in a white construction helmet creates a yellow smokescreen with a fire extinguisher as his colleagues flee from security forces. A woman is held back by neighbors as she wails uncontrollably over the body of her fatally shot son.

Myanmar wasn’t the only place in Asia that saw significant setbacks in democratic freedoms.

In Hong Kong, authorities banned an annual candlelight vigil remembering China’s Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, leaving the city’s scenic Victoria Park empty on June 4 for the first time in decades. Authorities also used a sweeping national security law to arrest journalists and executives of pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, which printed its last edition on June 24.

The intensifying crackdown in the city long known for its freedoms comes as Chinese President Xi Jinping strengthens his authoritarian grip in Beijing.

He took center stage at a spectacular outdoor gala marking the 100th anniversary of the ruling Communist Party on June 28, a massive event featuring thousands of performers glorifying his leadership. Days later, Xi in a speech vowed “broken heads and bloodshed” for anyone that tries to bully China, underscoring an intensifying confrontation with the United States and others that have criticized Beijing’s human rights record, military expansion and trade and technology policies.

Turmoil continued in Kashmir, a flash point between India and neighboring Pakistan. Worried villagers were seen talking through a bullet-ridden window mesh, while a young woman wept before the cremation of her husband, a school teacher killed in an attack authorities blamed on militants resisting Indian rule.

Lives were also lost to natural disasters. Residents in the northeastern Philippines were seen pushing baby strollers full of belongings they retrieved from destroyed homes in the wake of Typhoon Vamco, which killed dozens in November.

Meanwhile, the virus continued to wreak havoc across the region. Hopes for a swift return to normalcy were shattered by a slow and uneven vaccine rollout and the devastating delta variant that spiked hospitalizations and deaths.

Flames and smoke rose from rows and rows of funeral pyres during a mass cremation of coronavirus victims in New Delhi, where so many bodies were burned that authorities faced demands to cut down trees in public parks for kindling.

In Japan, officials scrambled from the start of the year to roll out vaccines, which were kept in high-tech freezers set to ultra-low temperatures, as they prepared to stage the Summer Olympics in Tokyo after a yearlong delay. The games were held in July and August with spectators mostly banned.

In a year defined by discord, anger and deaths, AP photographers still found poignant moments of calm, joy and beauty.

Hindu devotees danced, threw colored powder into the air and smeared each other with bright purple while celebrating Holi, the Indian festival of colors. A May image shows a yacht sailing past as the moon rises in Sydney, hours before the moon turned reddish orange during a total lunar eclipse that was also watched by a couple at a beach in Bali, Indonesia.

The reverberations from 2021 will weigh heavily as Asia enters a new year. The region will host another Olympics in February, this time the Winter Games in Beijing, which have already been tarnished by a U.S.-led diplomatic boycott over Beijing’s human rights record. The emergence of the omicron variant has ensured that the COVID-19 era isn’t over.