The past year has been a big one for world news. There were transformative political movements bringing democracy to Burma and neo-Nazism to Greece, there was tumultuous violence in Israel-Palestine and Mali, moments of martyrdom near a South African mine and in a Russian courtroom, heroism personified in the first Saudi women at the Olympics and in a blind Chinese dissident’s flight to safety, devastation in a Nigerian plane crash and in the shelling of an ancient Syrian city, and many more events, large and small, that could resonate for years. Here are some of those moments, captured in 25 photos.
1. Burma’s democracy icon goes free
(Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)
Newly freed Burmese democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi begins her campaign , in February for the country’s first free elections after decades of military dictatorship. Though Burma’s political transition is ongoing and still uncertain, the surprisingly rapid opening of one of the world’s remaining rogue states was one of 2012′s truly great stories. Though Aung San Suu Kyi is far from alone in Burma’s transition, she has been a symbol of the country’s hope both domestically and for the world.
2. Russian art group Pussy Riot protests Putin
(Sergey Ponomarev/Associated Press)
Pussy Riot, a Russian performance art group that is sometimes also identified as a punk band or even a dissident political movement, stormed into the Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow to protest church officials’ support for Vladimir Putin’s presidential campaign. They were arrested for “hooliganism” and imprisoned in what appears to be part of a larger movement against dissent and political speech in Putin’s Russia.
3. The fall of Bo Xilai, a Chinese political giant
(Feng Li/Getty Images)
The downfall of Bo Xilai, who as the charismatic party chief for mega-city Chongqing once seemed destined for the heights of power in China, began swiftly. Bo’s vice mayor fled unexpectedly to the U.S. Consulate in nearby Chengdu, where he alleged that Bo had been involved in the mysterious death of a British businessman named Neil Heywood. Soon, Bo was in custody himself. Though many expected him to end the year as a new member of the Communist Party’s leadership Standing Committee, he is instead thought to be in one of the country’s shadowy detention centers. His fall was also seen as a deliberate blow against the alternative “neo-Maoist” governance model that he’d championed in Chongqing, where he emphasized social welfare programs and middle class-friendly growth, as well as nationalist rhetoric and a brutal police crackdown on suspected organized crime. His imprisonment briefly sparked fears of a coup attempt by political allies.
4. Iran parades cardboard cutout of Khomeini
On Feb. 1, 1979, exiled Iranian religious leader Ruhollah Khomeini made his triumphant return to Tehran in the midst of a historic revolution. Exactly 33 years later, the Islamic Republic held a very bizarre ceremony reenacting the ceremony with a giant cardboard cut-out version of the ayatollah. The event was, at a time of tightening Iranian oppression, a humorous reminder of the regime’s occasional obliviousness.
5. An American massacre in Afghanistan
(Allauddin Khan/Associated Press)
An Afghan woman named Anar Gul sits next to the body of her grandson. A U.S. serviceman named Robert Bales had walked off his base and into Gul’s village, where he shot 16 civilians, many of them children, piled their bodies and lit them on fire. The awful incident drove home, for many Americans, both the brutality of the war’s damage to Afghan civilians and the toll it was taking on U.S. troops.
6. North Korean press bus takes a wrong turn
(David Guttenfelder/Associated Press)
The North Korean government will occasionally shuttle Western journalists through highly orchestrated tours of Pyongyang that end up revealing as little as possible. But in April, a tour bus driver got lost, taking some surprised journalists off the approved route and into actual North Korean neighborhoods. Even here, in the country’s showpiece city and its center of wealth, life seems trapped in a half-century ago.
7. Chen Guangcheng springs for freedom
(U.S. Embassy Beijing Press via Getty Images)
Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng, a blind and self-taught lawyer who was awarded with years of house arrest for his advocacy on behalf of abused Chinese citizens, escaped in April and made it all the way to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. His arrival behind the embassy’s secure walls, and later his decision to leave under what partly appeared to be government pressure on his family, set off a brief but potentially severe diplomatic crisis between the U.S. and China. He is pictured here with U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke in one of several urgent phone calls. Eventually, the U.S. was able to secure the right for Chen and his immediate family to resettle “temporarily” in the U.S.
8. Invisible Children indulges some old ideas on Africa
Ugandans watch a screening of the 30-minute movie “Kony 2012,” produced by an American NGO called Invisible children. They did not receive it well, with many walking out or protesting the movie for its depictions of Africans as helpless and in need of Western saviors – a narrative that may have echoed the European colonial project. The Invisible Children campaign against Ugandan militia leader Joseph Kony that was widely criticized for rehashing patronizing and outdated colonial-era ideas about “saving” Africa. Another famous photo, of the three Invisible Children founders posing with guns in 2008, also circulated during the backlash. Its photographer explained her photo in an interview with Elizabeth Flock.
9. South Africa’s president portrayed in controversial artwork
(Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images)
When South African artist Brett Murray displayed his painting of President Jacob Zuma, “The Spear,” at a gallery in Johannesburg, it resurfaced some of the country’s tensest racial politics. Zuma is indeed known for his sexual antics (and, according to his accusers, serious sexual misdeeds), but for a white South African artist to portray his black president in this way hit on some of the racial stereotypes used to bolster Apartheid, and suggested that those stereotypes might still exist. The painting, perhaps unsurprisingly, became the focal point of a tense national controversy that was really about more than just the painting. Though protesters would soon splash the artwork with paint, the greater social tensions that it came to symbolize are still there.
10. Tibetan self-immolations rise
(Manish Swarup/Associated Press)
Fellow activists in New Delhi, India, try to put out a fire after a Tibetan man lit himself on fire in protest of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s impending visit. Tibetan self-immolations, in protest to the Chinese government’s policies toward the territory since seizing it 60 years ago, have increased alarmingly this year. Though Hu has left office, Chinese policy has not yet changed toward Tibet.
11. Neo-Nazis prosper in Europe
(Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images)
The political leader of Greece’s Golden Dawn party, a neo-Nazi movement that won a number of seats in Parliament, shouts at a May news conference. Greece has been the source of the most popular, but by no means only, far-right political movement to arise in Europe as the continent’s economies falter. Ethnic nationalism has has a great year across several countries, an alarming trend given Europe’s dark history with such movement.
12. Syria’s civil war spreads to Aleppo
Two Syrian rebels take sniper positions in the heavily contested neighborhood of Karmal Jabl in central Aleppo. The city, Syria’s largest, has been ravaged by fighting this year, a sign of both the rebels’ slow but steady advance and of the war’s awful toll on a country that has seen tens of thousands of deaths, hundreds of thousands of refugees and the destruction of some of the oldest, continually occupied cities on Earth.
13. Plane crashes in Nigeria’s biggest city
(Sunday Alamba/Associated Press)
When a commercial airliner went down in a dense neighborhood in the heart of Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city, it was not just a tragedy that killed more than 150 people, but the worst in a string of horrific aviation accidents in sub-Saharan Africa’s most populous country. Nigeria has in many ways been an economic success story, but the crash was a reminder that the country still has serious problems to address.
14. Militant Islamists seize northern Mali
(Romaric Ollo Hien/AFP/Getty Images)
Members of militant Islamist group Ansar Dine, which along with allied groups seized control of northern parts of the West African country of Mali, wait for Swiss troops to arrive to pick up a Swiss hostage they had taken. Mali was stabilized this year by a military coup in the southern capital and by the war in neighboring Libya, which sent many ethnic Tuareg back to their homes in northern Mali newly armed. The country’s crisis, still unresolved, has led neighboring African states, as well as former colonial master France, to consider an intervention in 2012.
15. Queen Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee
(Sang Tan/Associated Press)
Celebrants gather on the mall in London for Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, which marked the 60th anniversary of her rule this June. It was only the second Diamond Jubilee in British history, although for most of that time it was meant to celebrate 75 years rather than 60, a change made just a century and a half ago.
16. Saudi Arabia sends its first female Olympians
(Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)
Runner Sarah Attar, along with judo fighter Wojdan Shahrkhani, became the first women to ever compete at the Olympics on behalf of Saudi Arabia. The conservative government had long forbidden women from competing, and even Olympic authorities at first resisted the Saudi requirement that their female athletes be allowed to wear head coverings. Attar, though a dual U.S. citizen born in California, became a symbol of women’s push for greater rights and recognition in Saudi Arabia.
17. The world watches America’s election
(Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)
Mitt Romney’s three-country tour during the U.S. presidential campaign, which included this controversy-generating stop in Jerusalem, were both a reminder of the role of U.S. diplomacy in the world and of the world’s fascination with American electoral politics. Romney’s remarks suggesting that Israelis were wealthier than Palestinians because of culture drew outrage and raised questions, after his flub-filled trip to the U.K., about Romney’s diplomatic skills. For the U.S., this was an issue about foreign policy, but for the world, it was just another episode in one of the world’s most watched dramas: American presidential races. The global reactions to this and many other moments in the campaign were a reminder of how much the world cares about an election that many non-Americans see as directly impacting them.
18. Blackout in India
(Bikas Das/Associated Press)
A Calcutta barber cuts hair by candlelight during a blackout that swept across India this July. Though it may have been the largest single power outage ever, it was in many ways normal for India, which has seen regular blackouts as the country struggles to keep up with the basic needs of its billion-plus citizens. The blackout was a reminder that, for all the talk of India as the next China, the country is still one of the world’s poorest per capita.
19. Kim Jong Eun cultivates a fuzzy public image
(KCNA via AP)
Kim Jong Eun, who has been rapidly consolidating power since replacing his father as North Korean ruler last December, has also shown a lighter side. Unlike his stern and reclusive father, the younger Kim is often photographed smiling, with children, with his attractive young wife, and in the photo above, even laughing while riding a roller coaster. Still, any hopes that this softer image would coincide with a softer rule have not come true: The country remains cruelly oppressive at home and provocatively aggressive abroad. Kim Jong Eun’s public image could not be more different than Kim Jong Il’s, but as rulers, this apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
20. Deadly crackdown on South African mine protests
The strikes that began at a platinum mine in Marikana, South Africa, ultimately led to clashes between strikers, police and mine security that killed 47, most of them striking miners. The clash drew attention to rising inequality in South Africa and the still-dismal working conditions for the country’s many miners, who are an important part of the country’s economic growth but have seen few of its benefits.
21. Russians protest Vladimir Putin’s return
(Sergey Ponomarev/Associated Press)
Riot police clash with protesters in Moscow, where thousands marched against the inauguration of President Vladimir Putin, whose election victory the previous winter was disputed. Putin had already served two presidential terms, the limit, before spending a term as prime minister in what appeared to be an attempt to avoid leaving power. Putin’s return to the top position, which has accompanied some curtailment of basic rights in Russia, has raised fears in the country and beyond that the days of Russian authoritarianism may not yet be over.
22. ‘Innocence of Muslims’ sparks global protests
Egyptian protesters, infuriated over released clips of an amateur anti-Muslim film, tear down a U.S. flag after scaling a wall at the embassy compound in Cairo. The protests, which spread across the vast Muslim world from Morocco to Indonesia, were a reminder of both the anti-Americanism that persists in much of the globe, as well as the gulf of misunderstanding between the Western and Muslim worlds. Many Americans watched the increasingly violent protests, puzzled that so many people could blame the entire United States for an amateur film that clearly reflected nothing more than the twisted views of the handful of amateurs who made it.
23. Deadly attack in Benghazi
An armed man waves his rifle as buildings and cars are engulfed in flames after being set on fire inside the U.S. consulate compound in Benghazi late on Sept. 11. The attack killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens. What precisely happened at Benghazi, and which agencies or individuals may have faltered, would become the subject of tremendous political attention in the U.S., particularly as the U.S. presidential election neared its conclusion.
24. A child’s death in Gaza
BBC journalist Jihad Masharawi carries his son’s body at a Gaza hospital as November fighting between Israeli forces and Gaza-based Hamas raged. Masharawi’s infant son was one of many civilians killed in the clashes. The photo would come to symbolize the disproportionately Palestinian death toll from the violence; though Hamas launched many rockets into Israel, many were blocked by U.S.-funded missile defense. It would also be one of many political footballs used by advocates in the conflict’s heavily contested media front, in which partisans have long sought to draw the world to their side by painting the other in as negative a light as possible.
25. Egypt’s Mohammed Morsi consolidates power
(Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)
An Egyptian soldier stands guard on a tank deployed to hold off protesters near the presidential palace. Clashes broke out in December between protesters and supporters of President Mohamed Morsi, who has been rapidly consolidating power and pushing through an Islamist-designed constitution. Morsi’s alarmingly autocratic gestures, the latest dire setback to Egypt’s democratic transition, have left the country in a sort of political limbo.