ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

How Strong are Southeast Asia’s ‘Strongmen’?

A closer look at a new book on dictators and the applicability of its insights in Southeast Asia.

How Strong are Southeast Asia’s ‘Strongmen’?
Credit: Flickr

What makes a dictator? This is the subject that Frank Dikötter tackles in his aptly titled book, How to Be a Dictator. While the book relates to dictators more generally, it is worth assessing what it says and how it might apply to some of the leaders in Southeast Asia.

As Dikötter’s subtitle – The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century – indicates, what defined dictators in the last century, from Hitler to Mao and Romania’s Nicolae Ceaușescu, was their cult of personality. They weren’t only above their ruling parties, they were akin to God.

Who among Southeast Asia’s leaders might fit that description – whether as a dictator strictly defined or as a strongman more generally? Some may say Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, but among others that would follow would be Thai counterpart Prayut Chan-o-cha and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.

It is worth noting, though, that little connects the three. Duterte, for all his numerous flaws, was voted into office democratically and – despite his dictatorial cravings and barring any constitutional coup – must exit the Malacañang Palace in 2022.  Prayut came to power in a military coup in 2014, but had to go through a sham election in 2019 and prop up a new monarch to be where he is today. Hun Sen, by contrast, has now emasculated the Cambodian monarchy.

On the face of it, Hun Sen would be most closely resembling a dictator. He dominates his party, has weakened all internal and external rivals to the point where not one can seriously threaten him, and chances are that his will be able to safely guide his eldest son into office as part of a dynastic succession. But compared to the dictators in profiled by Frank Dikötter is his aptly titled book, How to Be a Dictator, Hun Sen is no dictator.

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Dikötter’s choice to begin his book by referencing France’s King XIV, the so-called “Sun King” – “around whom everything revolved” and who uttered the historic words, “L’etat c’est moi” – is revealing. Hun Sen could plausibly intone “I am the state” and it would be an accurate description of Cambodian politics, but unlike Dikötter’s 20th century dictators, Hun Sen has no real cult of personality.

For sure, his name appears above many state-funded schools and hospitals; his face on every ruling party poster that adorns rubbly walls on almost every street in Cambodia. And he tirelessly tours the country to hand out graduation degrees and cash payments to fawning workers. But Cambodians are not expected to constantly heap unyielding praise on him every day. Unless you read a newspaper or watch a news program on the numerous television stations his family and friends own, you don’t have to listen to him talk.

In fact, unlike past dictators, Hun Sen is from the modern school of autocratic thinking, where less is more. The average Cambodian can, indeed, go most of his life without having to think about Hun Sen. The deal is that if people stay clear of politics, politics will stay clear of them.

“A dictator must instill fear in his people, but if he can compel them to acclaim him he will probably survive longer. The paradox of the modern dictator, in short, is that he must create the illusion of popular support,” Dikotter wrote, referring to the 20th century dictators profiled in his book.

The modern dictator or “strongman” of 21st century must still instill some fear. Though, except Kim Jong-un of North Korea, Dikotter notes, they “are a long way from instilling the fear their predecessors inflicted on their populations at the height of the twentieth century.” They also struggle to earn some acclaim. But, rather, the paradox of the 21st century dictator or strongman is that he must create the illusion of popular apathy. The strongmen of the 21st century have surely learned from the mistakes of their dictatorial predecessors.

Where exactly the dictator begins and the strongman ends is unclear. Even most so-called strongmen have little in common. But, I reckon, what does united them is this: their desire for extreme order in society. While Hun Sen, Duterte, and Prayut were brought to power by remarkably different political processes, and will eventually fall from grace through varying processes, they are, almost by nature, extremely reactionary. “Orderism” is what united them.

How much order is inspired by a cocktail of fear, forced admiration, and apathy is questionable though. As Dikotter’s book makes clear, almost never do dictators retire peacefully. Most either die in office or are gunned down by their former allies. Loyalists coming back to bite was something Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia learned last month.

Though rare, there are some who get out of the game with their necks intact and their reputations unscathed.  Writing the script to how a strongman can successfully step away from high office, enjoy their retirement and make sure their progeny remains in power was Lee Kuan Yew, the late Singaporean prime minister. The way he stepped down in 1990 – though retained some power behind the scenes and became something of a regular at conferences on the international circuit – was a masterclass in the political exit. How did he do it?

First, because the Singaporean economy was doing so well, meaning most people had no reason to be hostile. Second, his rivals were weak. Third, he was still competent in office and necessary for government operations, so any potential rival knew that if he fell the government would weaken. And, fourth, of course he had rigged the system but the hierarchy wasn’t so top-heavy and corrupted that the spoils were seen as disproportionately going to only a few people at its apex. In others words, he ensured that enough people benefited from the status-quo.

The other solution is to have good friends abroad. U.S. President Ronald Reagan through back-channels told the Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos to “cut and cut cleanly” as revolution engulfed Manila in 1986, and he spent his final years in Hawaii, under America’s watch. In 1970, after being ousted in a military coup, Cambodia’s king-cum-dictator Norodom Sihanouk fled to China and spent two decades in Beijing before returning to Phnom Penh as monarch in the 1990s.

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The likes of Hun Sen and Prayut can only hope to follow these steps. Chance are, though, they won’t.