If there were an award for Person of the Year in Asia, it would undoubtedly go to Burmese President Thein Sein of Myanmar. Thought at first he seemed to be just another general in a line of military dictators stretching back more than 40 years, Sein astonished the world by taking concrete steps to dismantle Myanmar's dictatorship.
He turned down Chinese-sponsored energy projects, released political prisoners and permitted free and fair elections. The latter, held in April of this year, saw longtime democracy advocate and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi win a seat in parliament. Her National League for Democracy Party won 43 of 44 contested seats in a special election.
The changes did not go unnoticed. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made two visits to Myanmar in 2012. Many sanctions that had been imposed for human rights abuses were lifted and Washington appointed an ambassador. President Barack Obama visited Myanmar shortly after his re-election in November.
This list would not yet include Xi Jinping, who was elevated, in a heavily scripted proceeding, to head the Chinese Communist Party at the party congress in November. He will undoubtedly be a major mover and shaker in the coming years, but in 2012 the newsmaker of the year in China was without doubt the deposed head of the party in Chongqing, Bo Xilai.
The Bo Xilai saga began in February when his enforcer, Wang Bo, fled to the U.S. consulate in Chongqing where he was denied political asylum. He had good reason for his fear, as the apparatus that Bo had erected to advance his career and that of his family was beginning to crumble.
The man who had openly aspired to win a seat on the inner council of China was expelled from the party; his wife, Gu Kailai, was convicted of murdering a British businessman. Bo was accused of lavishing expensive cars on his son, presumably paid for on a party cadre's salary.
Ostensibly, Bo is being held incommunicado while the government investigates his involvement in corruption. The real reason for his downfall: too naked a display of ambition and a lack of deference to other party elders. His championship of the songs and trappings of the Cultural Revolution era was also a slap in the face of Chinese leadership.
It is said there are no second acts in Japanese politics, but Shinzo Abe proved them wrong becoming prime minister of Japan once again in late December when the Liberal Democratic Party won a landslide victory in the Dec. 16 general election.
Abe served as PM for about one year from 2006-2007, but his first term was not much of a success. He was criticized for putting his conservative hobbyhorses -- such as amending the constitution to eliminate or alter its no-war clause -- before bread and butter matters. He then resigned due to ill health, setting off a series of one-year premierships.
He seems to have taken criticism to heart, as he and his party have put reinvigorating the nation's sputtering economy (Japan officially entered a recession shortly before voting) on the front burner with a program of public spending and mild inflation, while downplaying conservative rhetoric.
The most important Park in South Korea this year was not Park Geun-hye, the new president, but Park Jae-sang, the rapper who goes by the stage name of Psy. He and his "Gangnam Style" performances took the world by storm, making himself a multimillionaire in the process.
As of the end of the year his act had received over a billion hits on YouTube, the most in the short history of the new medium, and has been seen by about one in every seven people on the planet. In some ways he was the world's first entertainer to hit it really big almost exclusively on social media and online advertisements. It also underscores the enduring popularity of Korean popular culture.
Love him or hate him, one has to take one's hat off to an octogenarian who can still influence world events. Shintaro Ishihara almost single-handedly vaulted the Japanese territorial dispute with China over a set of unpopulated islands in the East China Sea into a serious confrontation. By declaring that Tokyo would buy the Senkaku Islands from their private owner, Ishihara forced the government of former PM Yoshihiko Noda to nationalize them. That in turn set off anti-Japanese demonstrations in China and provocations at sea that continue to percolate and will likely be an important test for the new government in 2013.
Indeed, 2012 was notable for escalating maritime disputes. For the first time in memory all of the disputes were on the boil in the same year, from the Spratlys in the South China Sea to the Dokdo in the Sea of Japan, where South Korea’s incumbent President Lee Myung-bak irritated Tokyo by personally visiting the rocks.