Michael Peel in Bangkok
10th Nov 2016
Region’s autocratic leaders look for change in US approach after Obama years
Donald Trump’s election win has thrilled autocratic leaders in several countries in Southeast Asia, an area of strategic and security focus during the Obama years. Some have bridled in the past against US criticism of their human rights and corruption records. Most are strongmen who might see in Mr Trump’s victory a tacit endorsement of their tactics — and a repudiation of the outgoing Washington administration’s agenda.
Outspoken Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte welcomed the election of a man he appears to see as a kindred spirit — and as having the potential to patch up relations that have frayed amid US criticism of his bloody war on drugs. Mr Duterte, who has called President Barack Obama a “son of a bitch” and told him to “go to hell”, noted that he and Mr Trump were “both making curses. Even with trivial matters we curse.” He also said he hoped he could now stop arguing with Washington, whose longstanding security alliance with Manila is crucial to the US military presence in Asia’s seas. Mr Duterte has attacked Washington frequently, announcing a “separation” from the US and claiming it has treated the Philippines like a dog tied to a post. There may yet be obstacles between the two new leaders, however: Mr Trump last month said Mr Duterte’s pledge to expel US troops from the Philippines showed “a lack of respect for our country”.
Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak appeared jubilant at a result he claimed was a sign voters wanted fewer “foreign interventions” by the US. Mr Najib has faced the embarrassment of a US investigation that has alleged billions of dollars were looted from Malaysia’s 1MDB state investment fund, whose advisory board he used to chair. A US Department of Justice lawsuit to recover $1bn in assets allegedly bought with stolen 1MDB money claimed in July that $681m had been paid into the account of “Malaysia Official 1”, whose biography matches Mr Najib’s. The Malaysian leader has always denied any wrongdoing and his government has stifled efforts to investigate the 1MDB case in Malaysia. Now he has the chance to develop his relationship with a new president whom, according to the statement, he already knows. “I congratulate him on this extraordinary victory, and look forward to meeting him again soon,” Mr Najib said.
Thailand’s Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha also offered congratulations. The prime minister, who overthrew a popularly elected government in 2014, noted that Mr Trump’s victory was the will of the people and so must be accepted, according to the Bangkok Post. The junta has long bridled against criticism of its putsch by the Obama administration. The generals have tentatively promised elections for late next year and are pushing through a new constitution that will entrench their powers in the name of stability. Liberal critics counter that this is an effort to rig the system in favour of traditional establishment interests.
Cambodia’s Hun Sen, Asia’s longest ruling leader, gave Mr Trump an especially warm welcome. Mr Hun Sen, a leader who stood out for endorsing Mr Trump before the election, has for 31 years led a government with a “lock them up” approach to political opponents. A Cambodian court this week sentenced an opposition legislator to seven years in jail over comments he made on Facebook attacking Cambodia’s contentious border arrangements with Vietnam. Kem Sokha, deputy opposition leader, has taken refuge in his party headquarters in Phnom Penh after being sentenced to five months in prison over what he says is a politically motivated case over his alleged procurement of prostitutes. Sam Rainsy, opposition leader, has been in exile for a year after authorities revived an old criminal defamation conviction against him — and this week he was found guilty of defamation in another case because he alleged a top government official had bought “likes” for the prime minister’s Facebook page in an attempt to make him look more popular.