2017 lookahead: What can Asia expect from its new leaders?

2017 lookahead: What can Asia expect from its new leaders?

Several countries across Southeast Asia - including the Philippines, Myanmar and Thailand - witnessed major changes in leadership in 2016. What does this mean for the region, and which other countries could see leadership changes as well?

lookahead 2017 - myanmar president, duterte

BANGKOK: Several countries across Southeast Asia - including the Philippines, Myanmar and Thailand - witnessed major changes in leadership in 2016.

Following a landslide election win, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has certainly made an impact after assuming office in June. Myanmar is now led by a civilian government after almost 50 years of military rule.

Change is expected as well in Thailand’s politics, as King Bhumibol Adulyadej – who reigned for 70 years – has died, and a new monarch has taken over.

The Thai people lost a much-revered monarch who was pivotal in maintaining a sense of stability in the country despite the sea change in its political landscape over seven decades.

Mourning the death of Thai King Bhumibol

A mourner clutches a picture of Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej after the hearse carrying the body of the late monarch passes the Grand Palace in Bangkok. (AFP/Lillian Suwanrumpha)

It is too soon to tell how the new king, Maha Vajiralongkorn intends to fill the gap, but his appointment of the people who will make up the Privy Council - and other important positions connected to the monarchy - gives a good indication.

It is significant that this new King will be the one to endorse the new constitution, drafted by a military appointed committee and approved by the public in a landmark referendum in August. Already, there are accusations that this constitution will empower the military government to extend control over Thai politics in the long term.

This could lead to further division within the country, according to analysts.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, Director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University said: “The divide and polarisation that we’ve seen over the last decade still persists. But for the time being it has been overwhelmed by grief and mourning. This is a time and a small window of opportunity for the military government to show some leadership by bringing people together… if this does not happen, there will be chances and growing risk that the old divide will reappear and that we will see more polarisation along the line of a power struggle again, as we have seen in the past.”

Thailand is poised to take a major step towards democracy in 2017, if all goes as promised. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha said in August that a general election would be held in late 2017.

But the military has already deviated several times from previous promises to hold an election. If one does come to pass, it would be the first polls since the military seized power in 2014.


Over in the Philippines, its newly-elected President has begun to make his mark both domestically and internationally.

In November this year, many in the Philippines protested against the burial of former president, Ferdinand Marcos, at the Heroes' Cemetery in Manila. His detractors cited the human rights' atrocities he committed. President Rodrigo Duterte was also a target of the anger for allowing the burial.

Some said he may have gone a step too far.

"(This) could probably affect his popularity especially (because) he's so gung-ho over the Marcos burial. No president has done that – even those who are close to the Marcoses, at least by affinity – like President Ramos, he was Marcos' protégé," said Professor Jean Franco of the University of the Philippines.

Mr Duterte made his presence felt very early in his leadership, with his no-holds barred war on drugs. But its high death toll has sparked criticism both at home and abroad. He has vowed to keep going, but the scale of the problem means his battle is set to continue well into 2017.

Under Mr Duterte’s leadership, other matters have also seen stark changes in the status quo.

Globally, old bonds have been shaken up, and new ones forged – this would have been unlikely under the previous administration.

Back home, analysts said in the coming year, the president must do more to reduce poverty, which was one of his campaign promises.

Professor Jean Franco pointed out: “He won on the platform that he’s anti-establishment. I think he must really give enough hope for people who voted for him that he might be different and that he’s going to change the lives of Filipinos.”

It’s too soon to tell if Mr Duterte will be able to do that as he is only just beginning his six-year term. But already the years ahead promises to be an eventful one.


Likewise, Myanmar saw a watershed event in November 2015, following which a democratically-elected government was installed after almost 50 years of military rule.

The civilian government is led by Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

The people’s expectations were overwhelmingly high with many anticipating immediate positive changes to their lives, but some saw this as unrealistic. As the year played out, Myanmar saw some highs but many lows as well.

The year started on a high note with Ms Suu Kyi appointing her close friend and confidante, Htin Kyaw as President. She in turn made herself the country's State Counsellor, effectively enabling her to govern as Myanmar’s de facto leader.

Ms Suu Kyi achieved some notable successes in 2016 – persuading the US to lift economic sanctions on Myanmar was one, and the other, her ability to warm ties with China after relations soured under Myanmar's previous government.

Ms Suu Kyi has several challenges ahead of her – among them, the ongoing conflict with Myanmar's ethnic armed groups. But the one with the most potential to damage her reputation as leader is the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar's Rakhine state. She has been criticised for doing too little to help the Rohingyas.

These major issues will no doubt continue to challenge her administration into 2017.

Inspiro Institute Principal Win Thu said come next year, Myanmar’s State Counsellor will need to fulfil the promises she has made to the people.

“But if she cannot … then the remaining years will be much worse, not for the government, but for the people,” he said.

There are great expectations of Ms Suu Kyi’s leadership, and 2017 will be no different as Myanmar continues on the path of democratisation and growth.

As for other countries in the region, 2017 will likely be the year the people of Thailand and Malaysia gear up to elect their new leaders, which will be something to watch out for.

Source: CNA/dl