The Enduring Role of Mistresses in Southeast Asian Politics

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ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

The Enduring Role of Mistresses in Southeast Asian Politics

From the Philippines to Cambodia, male politicians’ adulterous behavior has shaped political careers and national trajectories.

The Enduring Role of Mistresses in Southeast Asian Politics

Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn, center, and his royal noble consort Sineenat Wongvajirabhakdi, right, arrive at the Wasukri pier during a merit-making ceremony for her 36th birthday in Bangkok, Thailand, on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021.

Credit: AP Photo

Vietnam’s politicians are no strangers to mistress scandals. In 2009, the dissident author Duong Thu Huong, whose work is banned in Vietnam, claimed that a mistress of Ho Chi Minh was murdered by the communist authorities to protect the moralizing myths that the party employs around Uncle Ho’s legacy. Nong Duc Manh, the communist party general secretary between 2001 and 2011, was long rumored to be the illegitimate son of Ho Chi Minh. “We are all children of Ho Chi Minh,” he was said to have replied, when asked by a diplomat if the gossip was true.

An alleged mistress scandal is once again in the news following the recent release of an arrest warrant for Nguyen Thi Thanh Nhan, a businesswoman and apparent broker between Vietnamese and Israel arms deals who is now living in Europe. She is suspected of fraud and rigging a bid for medical equipment worth some $7 million. According to rumors, which cannot be substantiated, she was the former mistress of both the current prime minister, Pham Minh Chinh, and the current defense minister, Phan Van Giang. For some, her arrest warrant stems from an ongoing battle between the country’s most senior politicians.

What about the rest of Southeast Asia? Part of the public anger that flared in 2020 over Thailand’s King Vajiralongkorn must be down to his private life, from his preference to living in Germany to his embarrassing snap-shots in skimpy outfits. His “royal noble consort,” Sineenat Wongvajirapakdi, was reportedly ostracized from the court in 2019 but then brought back into the fold the following year. Again, mistress scandals are mainstays of Thai politics. Back in 1991, following a military coup, the junta chief Sunthorn Kongsompong was forced to intervene after a public war of words between his wife and his 39-year-old mistress. He would step down in 1992 and pass away in 1999, but two years later the affair would escalate into full-fledged national controversy over official corruption when his widow tried to sue his former mistress, revealing the vast extent of Sunthorn’s wealth.

In Singapore, reactions are a little more moralistic. In 2012, the speaker of parliament, Michael Palmer, resigned due to an extramarital affair, although the ruling People’s Action Party avoided calls from the opposition for a fresh election. The same year, a rising star of Singapore’s opposition politics, Yaw Shin Leong, was forced to resign over a mistress scandal. The lack of a mistress has also been cause for intrigue. In his obituary for Suharto, the Indonesian dictator, Benedict Anderson noted that Suharto was thought to have $73 billion in various accounts by the mid-1990s. But, he added, “the psychology behind this astounding accumulation is an interesting puzzle. Suharto’s personal tastes were quite simple, and he did not keep an expensive stable of mistresses.”

A rare occasion of private intrigue in the otherwise politically airtight Laos came in 2010 with the surprise resignation of Bouasone Bouphavanh, the prime minister. The Vientiane Times reported that Bouasone had resigned because of “family problems.” Martin Stuart-Fox, an expert in Laos, commented at the time that this was “a reference to Bouasone’s recent divorce and growing resentment that his mistress had used her position to enrich herself and her family.” That wasn’t the main reason why Bouasone stepped down; it was a complicated web of intra-party rivalries and misgivings. Yet spiraling corruption was an important reason why many inside the communist party turned against Bouasone. But, then again, this wasn’t such a massive shakeup. It was one of the few times a Lao leader had resigned, yet succession was quick and smooth, and Bouasone would have likely had been replaced the following year.

Then there are important “what-ifs.” In November 1970, the American actress Dovie Beams went public with her alleged affair with the Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos, including releasing audio recordings of their purported tryst. In 2019, the scholar Caroline S. Hau published a lengthy essay on the scandal that’s well worth a read. Some analysts reckon the affair gave Imelda Marcos, his wife, the excuse to take on greater leverage over politics. Others suggest that it could have brought down Marcos’ premiership in 1970. But it didn’t. He had been re-elected in 1969, a year before the scandal broke, and in 1972 he declared martial law, making himself dictator for more than a decade.  Yet, Hau argues reasonably that memory of the scandal gave ammunition to Marcos’ opponents up until his downfall in 1986.

Another “what-if” is the mistress scandal that surrounded Malaysia’s Najib Razak after 2008. At the time, Najib was deputy prime minister and widely regarded as heir to the top job, which he would take in 2009. But in 2008 he came under scrutiny after a Mongolian model, Shaariibuu Altantuya, was shot dead and blown up with explosives outside the capital Kuala Lumpur two years earlier. Altantuya was believed to have been the mistress of an important associate of Najib’s, Abdul Razak, who was cleared of any involvement in 2008. That year, though, the controversial blogger Raja Petra alleged that Najib’s wife, Rosmah Mansor, was present at the scene of the crime, an allegation that saw him arrested for sedition. Najib’s reputation survived intact and he became prime minister the following year. In 2019, Azilah Hadri, one of the pair convicted of Altantuya’s murder, claimed that Najib had given the order for her murder, which he contests.

But it’s in Cambodia where mistress scandals have arguably been the most impactful on politics. The first case involves Kem Sokha, Cambodia’s opposition leader, who spent much of 2016 hiding in his party’s headquarters to avoid a court summons over a case about his alleged mistress. Several workers from civil society groups were jailed for allegedly attempting to bribe the purported mistress to deny the affair. Sokha was sentenced to five months in prison after refusing to appear in court. His relations with Sam Rainsy, then the president of their Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), were strained as a result of the court turmoil. They frayed further when Sokha accepted a royal pardon in late 2016 to spare him the prison sentence. Rainsy would be forced to step down as CNRP president soon after. Sokha was arrested for treason in mid-2017, and the CNRP forcibly dissolved on spurious grounds of plotting a U.S.-backed coup.

Would all this have happened without Sokha’s mistress-linked court case taking up most of 2016? Most likely. But the CNRP was weakened and distracted throughout 2016, allowing the ruling party to introduce legislation that salami-sliced the CNRP. It’s tempting to think how events would have played out in 2017 if most of the previous year wasn’t occupied with the drama around Sokha’s purported mistress.

Hun Sen, Cambodia’s prime minister, is no stranger to mistress scandals himself. Piseth Pilika, an actress and rumored mistress of Hun Sen, was murdered in 1999. The French magazine L’Express (a magazine that employed Rainsy’s sister-in-law) alleged that Hun Sen’s wife, Bun Rany, may have played a role. But a more impactful, though less scandalous, affair came years later – and was used by Hun Sen to fundamentally change Cambodian politics. This journalist has long been of the opinion that the beginning of the end for Cambodia’s democracy was in 2006, when the constitution was changed so that a government could be formed with a simple majority, instead of a previously-needed two-thirds majority. The ruling CPP, which previously ruled as part of coalitions, could from the government thereafter alone. Hun Sen no longer needed to compromise. He and the ruling party had complete control of the patronage networks of bureaucracy and military. And the country’s three-party system disappeared into a two-party system, which made it easier for Hun Sen to destroy a single main opponent, as he did in 2017.

Around the time of this constitutional change, Hun Sen had parliament debate new legislation that would punish any politician who uses state resources to support a mistress, as well as if that mistress used political access for financial rewards. It was well known that Prince Norodom Ranariddh, Hun Sen’s coalition partner and head of the country’s second-largest party, had mistresses, one of whom was believed to be the divorcee of a former minister for tourism. Ranariddh was rumored to have bought two villas for her after her divorce, and had asked Hun Sen in 2005 to make her the new tourism minister. He had taken her on a recent tour of Manila, in which the Philippine media referred to her as a “Princess.” Knowing that the new legislation could land him in hot water, Ranariddh was uncharacteristically quiet as parliament began debating the single-majority reform. A leaked U.S. cable reads: “The press corps noted that…Norodom Ranariddh has never avoided reporters during his two terms as President of the National Assembly.” Had this not hung over him, perhaps Ranariddh would have more actively fought against the single-majority reform that would make him obsolete in Cambodian politics.

Rainsy’s wife, Tioulong Saumura, reportedly told Hun Sen that Rainsy’s opposition party “fully supported” his recent remarks about ministers and their mistresses. Rainsy, who had only just returned to Cambodia after a stint in exile, could not have been in the dark about the intended target of Hun Sen’s legislation. Nor, indeed, would Rainsy have felt much sympathy for Ranariddh, who had twice jilted him. He later told the journalist Sebastian Strangio, “I wanted to get rid of Funcinpec…The CPP used Ranariddh to create problems for me…They had some influence because they use the two-thirds majority; so I said, to hell with the two-thirds majority.”