ASEAN’s movers and shakers of 2017

Photo: Gunawan Kartapranata/CC BY-SA 3.0

Who were the key players in ASEAN politics in 2017?

By Oliver Ward

2018 is here. We look at the winners and losers of 2017. Who will look back on 2017 as a pivotal year on their way to the top? Who will remember 2017 as an integral part of their downfall?

Winners of 2017

1. Chan Chun Sing

Chan Chun Sing positioned himself as an early front-runner to succeed Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Chan has held an integral role in domestic politics since 2015. In 2015, Lee appointed him leader of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC).

Chan Chun Sing strengthened his position as the likely successor in 2017. He made several unaccompanied visits to Chinese cities. Lee is evidently giving Chan exposure to international politics. Naked political ambition is not a welcomed trait in the Singaporean political system. However, Chan has indicated that he would take on the role of Singaporean PM. He told journalists he was “prepared to become the next PM if called upon.”

Moving into 2018, Lee has already announced a cabinet reshuffle. This reshuffle in 2018 will give a strong indication of who the next PM will be. We can expect Lee to give him more exposure to different ministries and portfolios. 2017 has put Chan on the road to PM, but there is still much to do in 2018 to secure the position.

2. Xi Jinping

Sources: BBC, TAP

Everything fell into place for Xi Jinping in 2017. He reached the echelons of Mao Zedong in China. His “Thought on Socialism” entered the Chinese constitution. Jinping propelled China forward as the new global economic leader. Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) allowed China’s Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) to emerge as the strongest free-trade agreement in the Asia-Pacific region in 2017.

In February 2017, Xi Jinping brought the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative to Southeast Asia. In January, a joint venture between China’s Guangxi Beibu Gulf Port Group and Brunei’s Darussalam Asset took over operations of the largest container terminal in Brunei. Construction also began on the China-Laos railway in March. The railway will span 414 kilometres when it becomes fully operational in 2021. OBOR will be Xi Jinping’s legacy. 2017 will go down as the year the project began in earnest.

The Worst Performers of 2017

1. Hun Sen

Hun Sen’s year took a turn for the worse at the communal elections in June. The Cambodian People’s Party (CCP) allegedly intimidated voters, and rigged election machinery. Yet the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) made the largest gains since local elections began in 2008. It took 44.2% of the vote, up from 30.6% in 2012.

From here Hun Sen began scrambling to hold onto power. Hun Sen closed one of the country’s most prominent independent newspapers. He also arrested the leader of the opposition, Kem Sokha. The biggest blow to Cambodian democracy came in November. Hun Sen dissolved the CNRP. He excluded its 118 members from holding political office.

Hun Sen will continue to trample Cambodia’s democratic freedoms in 2018. The National Election is due at the end of July. Even though the US and EU have withdrawn support for the election, Hun Sen can rely on China for financial aid. The Chinese government has already promised to provide Cambodia with assistance. It will give computers, camera equipment, ballot boxes and voting booths to Cambodia. It will also assist with the US$50 million cost of holding the election. China continues to financially condone Hun Sen’s democratic dictatorship. He has no incentive to stop trampling Cambodia’s democratic values.

2. Aung San Suu Kyi

Source: BBC

Aung San Suu Kyi’s reputation continued to slip in 2017. She stood idle while the Burmese Army committed genocide against the Rohingya population. The Myanmar government refused UN human rights rapporteur Yanghee Lee’s access to Rakhine State in January. In October, Suu Kyi’s State of the Union speech denied abusing the Rohingya’s basic human rights. A UN report compiled by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Anan explicitly stated the rights of the Rohingya had been eroded by successive Myanmar governments.

Her silence on the Rohingya issue is even more disappointing considering the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights pleaded with her to stop the ethnic cleansing. In February, High Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein urged her to intervene. His comments fell on deaf ears.

3. Yingluck Shinawatra

Yingluck Shinawatra was not a poor performer herself. But 2017 was not kind to the former Thai Prime Minister. Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha seized the opportunity to strike a blow to the Shinawatra political dynasty. He charged her for corruption. The charges stemmed from her involvement in her flagship rice subsidy program. The program led to billions of dollars in losses.

Two days before the court released its verdict, Yingluck fled the country. She initially fled to Dubai but is now in England. Although she fled, the dent to her family’s power would have been far more severe if she had stayed. She would have been put behind bars. The junta would have claimed a prominent scalp.

2018 looks bleak for Thai democracy. The junta’s repressive rule has crushed any organised opposition to its rule. The new constitution would limit the power of any elected government. The real loser this year has been the Thai population and their hard-won democracy.

2017 was a transitional year. For Cambodian politics, the leadership began its ugly mutation into a dictatorship. For the collective ASEAN, it was a year of Chinese dominance and US withdrawal. For Singapore, the spotlight began to move onto its next generation of leaders. The stage is set for 2018. The coming year will see these political changes take root, or fall into the margins of history.