Why is it that Southeast Asia’s political leaders seem to come exclusively from the ranks of the thin-skinned and the easily offended? Southeast Asian citizens, after all, have had to grow thicker skins and broader backs because of their rulers’ peevishness.
Indeed, by far the biggest problem facing the region’s political environment is that those in charge are unable, or unwilling, to listen to criticism. Nor is this not the wont of only autocrats. Myanmar’s ruling National League for Democracy moved quickly to silence critical newspapers after it won the 2015 election. Aung San Suu Kyi, surprising many, has worked tirelessly to stuff shut her ears, lest the sort of verbal criticism she used to excel at is now directed at her.
During a recent visit to my country of birth, the United Kingdom, I was reminded of something that fills me with both pride and bile. “Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition,” the official name given to the largest opposition political party in parliament, is a reminder that my country is still ruled by a hereditary clique, but also that it originated what has been described as the “greatest contribution of the nineteenth century to the art of government.”
It is, sadly, an art most Southeast Asian nations have yet to master (or even attempt to learn). Only last week, we saw this explicitly in Cambodia. The Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the country’s largest opposition party, was dissolved because it was accused of conspiring with foreigners (namely the United States) to overthrow the government. The CNRP’s president, Kem Sokha, was arrested in September for similar treason charges and could now face 30 years in jail.
But this is only the logical conclusion of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) long considering its opponents as treasonous. Even the casual observer of Cambodian politics understands the Hun Sen government has for years treated the CNRP not as an opposition but as a threat to the nation. Sam Rainsy, the CNRP’s president until earlier this year, most likely understood this, and that is likely the reason why, in 2014, he called for a formal creation of a loyal opposition in Cambodia. “We want the opposition to be recognized as in the British system, as ‘Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition,’” he said.
There were attempts in the 1950s and 1960s to establish the concept of a loyal opposition to Sihanouk’s Sangkum Reastr Niyum party*. Of the 1950s, Sam Rainsy, in his autobiography, We Didn’t Start The Fire, writes that “the concept of loyal and legitimate opposition was not accepted. Those who questioned government policy were pushed underground.” Indeed, his father, Sam Sary, later joined the Khmer Serei rebels and was likely killed near the Laos border years later.
Decades on, across Southeast Asia the nation has become synonymous with the ruling party. Partly, this is to be expected. After all, Communist parties in Laos and Vietnam, Cambodia’s CPP, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) in Malaysia, and Singapore’s People’s Action Party (PAP) have been in power for decades, either virtually since independence or for the better part of their modern histories.
What this means is that any criticism of the ruling party is seen by that party as a criticism of the nation. Criticism of the ruling party’s legitimacy, then, becomes treason. And since the ruling party becomes inseparable from the nation or, just as important, the state, political disputes aren’t only zero-sum, they’re apocalyptic. But this kind of thinking seeps into the opposition, pro-democracy parties, too. The problem can be rendered thusly: for a “loyal opposition” to exist, it itself must accept the legitimacy of the ruling party.
Consider Cambodia again. Throughout Cambodian history the legitimacy of the ruling party is seldom accepted by opposition parties. This is as true for Sihanouk’s Sangkum party as it is for today’s CPP. Take one comment by Sam Rainsy, from 2014. “We, in the bottom of our hearts, know we won the last election…but we have to be realistic,” he was quoted as saying by the Cambodia Daily, referring to the 2013 general election that the CNRP long contested it won. “Our objective now is to create, to try to lay the grounds for a change in the culture.” So, first he states that CPP didn’t legitimately win the 2013 general election and then swiftly follows this with the appeal to change how each party views the other. In a matter of sentences, he says that the CNRP wants to be a “loyal opposition” to a government it doesn’t consider legitimate.
The CNRP becomes even more millenarian when one considers that sangkruos cheat translates as “salvation,” as well as “national rescue,” and sounds ominously similar to the name given to the Front that toppled the Khmer Rouge. The CNRP’s rhetoric has long rested on the (incorrect and self-damaging) assertion that the ruling party is a puppet controlled by Hanoi, which would make it illegitimate. The CNRP’s underlying motive then becomes not merely a transition of power but the removal of foreign-seeded party: “national rescue” then becomes far more literal. What we have, then, is a situation where the CPP considers the CNRP’s mere presence to be treasonous and the CNRP considers the CPP’s rule equally as illegitimate. It would be difficult, one is left thinking, to create a “loyal opposition” in such a climate.
*Correction: This article has since been corrected to more accurately reflect Sam Sary’s role in the opposition movement to create “loyal opposition.”