Is time up for the faltering, flawed 'beacons' of South-East Asia?

Talented opposition politicians deserve the chance to step out of the long shadows of a septuagenarian trio

Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi at her home in Yangon on November 5, 2015. Reuters

Myanmar’s ousted leader and fallen human rights icon, Aung San Suu Kyi, appeared in court in prison uniform last week. She has already been sentenced to four years in jail, later reduced to two, and next week two more verdicts are due which could lengthen her imprisonment further.

In Cambodia, the fortunes of the country’s long-term opposition leader Sam Rainsy look little brighter. Earlier this month Hun Sen, who has been prime minister for 36 years and whose party has every seat in the country's parliament, announced that he supports his son Hun Manet to succeed him, possibly after an election in 2023, and endorsed the idea of political dynasties.

And this last weekend in Malaysia, after Anwar Ibrahim’s PKR party was wiped out in the Sarawak state elections, having suffered the same fate in the Melaka state polls last month, the calls for Mr Anwar to consider his position as president of PKR and leader of the opposition are growing louder and louder.

Cambodia's prime minister Hun Sen (L) poses with his son Hun Manet during a ceremony at a military base in Phnom Penh, on October 13, 2009. AFP

The three were once considered – by their ardent followers, at least – to be reformers and beacons for democratic revival in South-East Asia. Mr Rainsy once specifically said the trio should work together for that purpose. But it increasingly looks as though their time is drawing to a close, and not just that they have little constructive to offer any more but that their continued presence in national politics is blocking the way for younger generations with ideas more relevant for the future.

The reformist credentials of all three were never in fact as clear cut as their cheerleaders in the west supposed. Even before she became Myanmar’s de facto leader in 2016, Ms Suu Kyi was known for her haughtiness and unwillingness to delegate. Once in power her administration was accused of being “as enthusiastic about jailing journalists and government critics as the military government that preceded hers” by Bill Richardson, a former governor of New Mexico and a former friend as well. After she as good as denied what most of the world believes to have been acts of genocide against Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya minority at the International Court of Justice in The Hague in 2019, Ms Suu Kyi’s transformation into an international pariah was complete.

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With all three, there has also been a sense that it was always too much about the individual

Sam Rainsy’s high point came in 2013, when his Cambodia National Rescue Party fell only four percentage points short of winning that year’s general election. But the former finance minister is no unblemished liberal – he has been accused of stirring up domestic prejudices against ethnic Vietnamese, including saying that Hun Sen’s leadership was giving them “the chance to kill Cambodia”.

As for Mr Anwar, many have noticed incongruities between his friendships with progressive American politicians such as former vice president Al Gore and his Islamist background and close association with Muslim Brotherhood figures. Arguably his biggest failure as a “reformist”, however, was the way the opposition coalition he led reacted to the then prime minister Najib Razak’s introduction of his 1Malaysia policy in 2009.

A mural vandalised with yellow paint depicting former Malaysia prime minister Najib Razak at Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, December 8. EPA

This was the greatest attempt in decades to overcome entrenched communal divides in Malaysia and forge a new national unity based on everyone thinking of themselves as one race, rather than as Malays, or members of the other ethnicities, first.

Mr Anwar’s coalition would, perhaps, have been justified in offering support but insisting that Mr Najib’s government show they meant what they said. Instead, they did everything they could to undermine it, dismissing it as a PR exercise that signified nothing of substance. The country lost a once-in-a-generation genuine opportunity to work together towards national harmony. Rank opportunism on Mr Anwar’s part only resulted in a deepening racialisation of politics, which is the opposite of what he claims to stand for.

With all three, there has also been a sense that it was always too much about the individual. This may not entirely be their fault: lone figures can be lightning rods for popular appeal when they appear to stand against “the system”. But in the case of Ms Suu Kyi, the British human rights activist Benedict Rogers said in 2018 that he was “beginning to wonder how much of her motivation in the whole struggle was truly for democracy and how much of it was more based around her own sense of destiny as the daughter of [Independence hero General] Aung San, and for that reason she wanted to be in power. I think that may be more of a factor than any of us had realised.”

Cambodia’s Mr Rainsy has often been accused of being driven by ego, a charge that is harder for him to dodge given that for many years his main political vehicle was called the Sam Rainsy Party.

Mr Anwar has been the “nearly man” of Malaysian politics since he fell out with his former mentor, then prime minister Dr Mahathir, in 1998. The former deputy premier came close to winning the top job in the 2013 general election, and Mr Anwar is entitled to feel aggrieved that he did not become prime minister within two to three years of his Pakatan Harapan coalition winning the 2018 election, as the country had been promised. But even before the Pakatan government fell in 2020, many were criticising Mr Anwar for being “entitled” and too hungry for power.

With even members of his own party now suggesting that the next election may be Mr Anwar’s last chance, and his coalition looking weak and lacking momentum, we may be seeing the waning of Anwar Ibrahim, just as we are of Aung San Suu Kyi and Sam Rainsy.

For young people who were not even born when the septuagenarian trio’s struggles began, and have no lived memories of the 1990s, that may be no bad thing. In all three countries talented opposition politicians in their 30s, 40s and 50s also deserve the chance to step out of the long shadows cast by the faltering, flawed “beacons” of South-East Asia.

It may be time for them follow the example of the UK’s former prime minister John Major, who said when he lost the 1997 general election: “When the curtain falls, it's time to get off the stage – and that's what I propose to do.” He did, and is all the more respected today as a result.

Published: December 21st 2021, 2:00 PM
Sholto Byrnes

Sholto Byrnes

Sholto Byrnes is an East Asian affairs columnist for The National