ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia’s Princelings

From Indonesia to Cambodia and beyond, the children of politicians are keeping the family business going – for better or for worse.

David Hutt
Southeast Asia’s Princelings

Hun Manet

Credit: Russian Military photo

The latest political princeling set to break through the ranks in Southeast Asia is Gibran Rakabuming Raka, the 32-year-old son of Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo. He became the sole candidate for Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) in this year’s mayoral election in Surakarta, the historic royal capital on Java, after other candidates pulled out of the race last week.

Jokowi also served as Surakarta’s mayor before going onto become the governor of Jakarta and then Indonesia’s president – a route his son may now be tracing. The analyst Aaron Connelly tweeted that this sets up “the possibility of a dynasty there.”

Yet another dynasty for Southeast Asia. In Myanmar, the civilian government is led by the now-tainted democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, whose government not only defended and lied about genocide but also engaged in its own macabre censorship and crackdown on free speech. Suu Kyi, as she never tires of reminding people, is the daughter of Burma’s “founding father,” Aung San.

Over in Singapore, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is, arguably, a competent politician of his own, but has always clung to the coattails of his late father, Singapore’s own pater patriae, Lee Kwan Yew. And now “Lee The Younger” is embroiled in a family feud that has spilled over into politics.

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, the son of the country’s second premier, is currently on trial over the country’s largest corruption scandal. The Philippines was lucky to avoid having Ferdinand Marcos Jr, the son of the country’s former dictator, become vice president in 2016. (A full list of the region’s prominent political families would be exhaustive.)

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Meanwhile, we have more dynastic intrigue in Cambodia. Prime Minister Hun Sen has built his corrupt regime into a family business – with his sons in charge of the military, military intelligence, and the ruling party’s youth wing; his daughters controlling vast business and media empires; and his wife dominating the charity sector. For years, it has been known that Hun Sen wants to eventually hand over complete power to one of his sons, most likely the eldest, military chief Hun Manet. (See my piece from last year.)

Academics differentiate between “thin dynasties,” where members of the same family take power sequentially, and “fat dynasties”, where family members simultaneously run for office in different areas of government. In Cambodia, the bulging “fat dynasty” of Hun Sen risks being commingled with his “thin dynasty” at the same time.

Meanwhile, Cambodia’s exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy is the son of a leading politician from the 1950s, Sam Sary – himself the son of another famous politician from the 1940s, Sam Nhean – who was likely assassinated in 1963.

Southeast Asia isn’t exceptional for political dynasties. A study published by Historical Social Research in late 2018 found one in 10 world leaders comes from households with political ties, while another study published in the Conversation last year (which led me to the aforementioned paper) noted that 12 percent of all world leaders between 2000 to 2017 belonged to a political family.

According to this paper, political dynasties are actually less frequent in Asia than many other parts of the world. Moreover, they are equally common in democratic and authoritarian states. “In this region of robust democracies, 13 percent of European presidents and prime ministers between 2000 and 2017 came from political families – the same proportion as in Latin America,” the latter study explained.

In the United States, we’ve had recent clichés of the Bush and Clinton dynasties, and in the past, the Kennedys and Gores. (And there’s already talk of the coming Obama dynasty.)

Back on the western side of the Pacific, there’s now speculation about whether North Korea’s dynastic enterprise might be passed on to a woman of the family, Kim Jong Un’s younger sister Kim Yo Jong – or else it might break apart, if someone like Choe Ryong Hae gets the nod to replace the reportedly ill Supreme Leader.

Given the wide range of examples, there is some dispute about whether politicians from dynasties are any more authoritarian and corrupt than other politicians – clearly, dynasties are easier in authoritarian countries, but that doesn’t mean they are any more autocratic generally. In the Philippines, arguably the most dynastic of presidents, Benigno Aquino III, is now remembered as leading something of a liberal paradise between 2010 and 2016, compared to the current presidency of Rodrigo Duterte, who didn’t have a powerful father or mother. Yet it’s hard to miss how Aquino’s term created the conditions for a politician like Duterte to win the presidency.

And despite some interesting papers (like this one on political dynasties in Pakistan and flood relief competency), the jury is still out on whether dynastic politicians are any more or less competent. Lee Hsein Loong appears to be doing a good job, while Nabij Razak didn’t.

That said, there is something instinctively distasteful about dynasties. Thomas Paine once remarked that “a hereditary monarch is as absurd a position as a hereditary doctor or mathematician.” So, too, is a hereditary politician. And if it is as senseless to vote for (or against) someone because of the color of their skin or their genitalia, it is equally senseless to vote for someone because they happen to be progeny of a past leader.

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We should be as wary of politicians who seek office for therapeutic reasons as those who seek power for the sake of familial revenge or destiny. Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto – the daughter of former leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and herself a courageous figure when in opposition and a morally-bankrupt opportunist when in office, a la Suu Kyi – managed to commingle this genealogical determinism in the title of her autobiography, Daughter of Destiny.

Indeed, one problem with being the child of the “Father of the Nation,” as Lee Kwan Yew or Aung San are remembered, is that there’s a temptation to see yourself as inheriting that nation, and therefore its people. Worse still when the father was assassinated, like in the case of Suu Kyi, Benazir Bhutto, or Sam Rainsy. Then political aspirations become a pursuit to complete what one’s parent started decades ago, regardless of whether that was even a correct policy at the time, and regardless of whether it’s correct today.

But these questions aren’t just for citizens. After all, those in democratic states cannot help it if parties stack their candidate rolls with political children, like in Indonesia, and those in authoritarian states can do even less if their leaders feel the dynastic urge, like in Cambodia.

My query is also to the political children themselves. Why get involved in the family business at all — it often turns out badly?