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Friday December 29, 2006

Momentous events

THIS has been a most eventful year for the world, for good and ill, as every corner of the globe had its share or more of momentous events. 

Russia began 2006 with cutting gas supplies to Ukraine in January, setting off alarm bells in Europe over Moscow’s reliability as a major supplier. Towards the end of the year, the mysterious murder of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko confirmed Russia’s place in the front row of world prominence. 

A Shi'ite Iraqi resident weeping after smearing his face with the blood of his slain brother in Baghdad on Jan 29. The man said his brother was killed by insurgents. – All pics by Reuters
Japan saw its new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, succeeding the controversial Junichiro Koizumi. As Japan’s first post-war premier, Abe’s youth and relative inexperience combined with his determination to forge a new direction stoked world interest, beginning with the creation of a full-fledged defence ministry to replace the former defence agency. 

North Korea meanwhile made headlines by test-firing missiles, with the United States and Japan retaliating by firing pointed rhetoric. Although Pyongyang’s missiles were widely seen as failures, it soon followed this up with underground test explosions which it said were nuclear in nature. 

Meanwhile in Taiwan, popular pressure mounted against Chen Shui Bian’s government over corrupt practices. Chen’s wife was charged, fainted in court, and then failed to attend a hearing as the trial and investigations continue. 

Drama unfolded in Thailand as a September coup ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra on the eve of his UN address in New York, three months after the country celebrated the king’s 60th anniversary on the throne. As the bloodless coup took hold, a Thaksin-weary public gave food and flowers to the soldiers, an interim Cabinet was appointed, and investigations launched into charges of Thaksin’s corruption and abuse of power. 

Outside Government House in Bangkok on Sept 19. The Thai army took control of Bangkok and announced it would set up a commission to reform the constitution despite Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra declaring a state of emergency from New York.
Fiji also saw a military coup that ousted Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase on allegations of corruption. Coup leader Commodore “Frank” Bainimarama however met stiff opposition from Fiji’s influential council of chiefs and Christian churches. 

The “arc of instability” in the South Pacific experienced mob violence in the Solomon Islands in April, and Prime Minister Snyder Rini resigned. Murderous violence then erupted the following month in Timor Leste, Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri was pressed to quit in June, and tension between factions in the security forces remains. 

Indonesia continued to see occasional earthquakes, but temblors also occurred inside courtrooms. The convicted son of former president Suharto, Tommy Mandala Putra, was released from prison, as were several other inmates on festival days. Then Abubakar Ba’syir, suspected leader of Jemaah Islamiah, was acquitted for lack of evidence. 

Aceh held elections after a long and bloody history of Indonesian meddling and Portuguese neglect. As the results came in, it emerged that Free Aceh Movement (GAM) leader Irwandi Yusuf-Muhammad Nazar had been chosen by the people as governor of the province. 

Pope Benedict XVI (centre) visiting the Blue Mosque in Istanbul on Nov 30. The Pope is only the second Roman Catholic Pontiff to enter a mosque.
In Cambodia, former co-premier Prince Norodom Ranariddh was ousted as leader of his royalist Funcinpec party. And in the Philippines, protests mounted over President Arroyo’s attempt at constitutional amendments, resulting in the government abandoning the proposal. 

Pakistan’s President (Gen) Pervez Musharraf launched his biography on a tour of the United States as violence in Pakistan escalated. Tribal militias in northern Pakistan reasserted themselves, testing the delicate balance between their power and government authority in the provinces. 

Afghanistan continued to see a steady deterioration in peace and stability. The Kabul government of President Hamid Karzai seemed increasingly surrounded by assertive militias, including a reinvigorated Taliban, as US military retaliation claimed innocent Afghan lives as well. 

India meanwhile witnessed more economic growth surpassing its wealth-poverty gap. Strategically, the United States moved closer to make New Delhi a prospective ally, testing India’s commitment to non-alignment. 

For Asean, Malaysia passed the baton of chairmanship to the Philippines, bypassing Myanmar (in alphabetical order) by common consent because the latter’s misgovernance had become a regional embarrassment. Meanwhile, the lack of positive change in Myanmar itself remained news. 

Israel also maintained its international pariah status by invading Lebanon, again. This followed the incapacitation of former premier Ariel Sharon, after he fell into a coma at the beginning of the year. 

Feuding mobs, armed with machetes and other hand weapons, giving chase to rivals in the East Timor capital of Dili on May 30.
The Israeli invasion, officially in retaliation against the kidnap of an Israeli soldier, resulted in killing ten times more Lebanese than Israelis. Another consequence was that in exposing the relative ineffectiveness of the Lebanese army in resisting Israeli attacks, Hezbollah in southern Lebanon gained in strength and popular support. 

The Palestinian people made history by voting in Hamas in January, the party blamed for instigating suicide bombing against Israel. After the election victory however Hamas stopped the violence, but an uneasy relationship has persisted between the Hamas premiership and the Fatah presidency. 

Iran continued with its criticisms of Israel, but a new twist emerged as some US lawmakers considered asking Teheran’s help to pacify Iraq. An international conference hosted by Iran on the Jewish Holocaust was predictably condemned by Western commentators. For its part, Syria was also accused of fomenting violence in Lebanon, but similarly considered as a source of assistance for Iraq. 

Iraq itself remained on the front ranks of global prominence, for all the wrong reasons. Violence and instability escalated, as the United States, being the chief foreign occupier, all but declared it hopeless as a prospective model of Arab democracy. 

The Bush presidency plummeted further in domestic and world opinion, as a consequence of national mismanagement and international crises. Some 3,000 US troops had been killed in Iraq since the 2003 invasion, Donald Rumsfeld quit as defence secretary, and the opposition Democrats won control of Congress. 

Iran's Revolutionary Guards firing missiles during a war game in a desert near the holy city of Qom, southeast of Tehran, on Nov 2.
Britain as the staunchest US ally also had that major share of the fallout. Prime Minister Tony Blair’s own problems included the scandal over cash payments for titles, and Blair himself admitting on world television that invading Iraq had been a disaster. Britain also remained in world headlines for a series of gruesome murders of prostitutes in eastern England. 

Political violence did not spare Africa, in fact much the opposite. The tragedy of Darfur entered its third year this year, when Sudan agreed to a UN peacekeeping role there, while Somalia further bore witness to a violence-wracked Horn of Africa. 

Residents playing a game in a suburb of Shanghai on March 7. Premier Wen Jiabao told parliament that China will work to narrow the chasm dividing its rich cities and restive countryside.
By far the single-most prominent country of the year has to be China. Over a range of issues, on trade, investment, savings, foreign reserves, currency exchange, military development, diplomacy, this year’s sweep of medals at Doha’s Asian Games and preparations for Beijing’s 2008 Olympics, China has seen and shown others the nature of things to come. 

Across countries, Muslim ire had been provoked again by republication of the controversial Prophet Muhammad’s cartoons in a French newspaper. Pope Benedict XVI also waded into controversy in a speech which fed Islamophobia, but he later made up for it with an apology and praying together with Muslim leaders in a Turkish mosque. 

Personalities also stayed on the frontlines of world news. Cuban President Fidel Castro was hospitalised for months in his most serious illness yet, while his friend and colleague Hugo Chavez was re-elected in a landslide in Venezuela. 

Chile’s former US-backed dictator Augusto Pinochet died, which for many of his victims and critics meant escaping justice for the thousands tortured and killed in his time. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan also retires at the end of the year, as he cautions the world on the dangers of US-style unilateralism. 


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