Rise of the strongman: Asia’s top 10 newsmakers in 2017
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Rise of the strongman: Asia’s top 10 newsmakers in 2017

AH, 2017.

The first year of the Trump presidency couldn’t have gone better for authoritarians across the Asia Pacific. China’s influence in the region and indeed across the world, meanwhile, continued to grow.

Tensions on the Korean peninsula grew to their highest point in decades, while there was no resolution on competing territorial claims in the South China Sea. South Korea replaced a corrupt and unpopular leader, Thailand and Malaysia did not.

Religious extremism caused violence and instability across the region.

An alleged genocide took place against the Rohingya Muslims of Rakhine State, Burma, as more than 650,000 fled into Bangladesh in a few short months. As it lost ground in Syria and Iraq, Islamic State came to the region through an assault on Marawi City in the Philippines.

With democracy on the decline across Asia, individual political personalities more important than ever. Here are those who shaped the news this year.


Xi Jinping, President of China

In 2017, Xi Jinping became the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong though insertion of his own political thought into the Communist Party’s constitution. The Economist has now called Xi the world’s most powerful man. At the helm of the planet’s most populous nation and second largest economy, the president made strides towards his stated aim of restoring China’s historical glory this year. Highlights were aggressive investment across Asia through the Belt and Road initiative, staying in the Paris Agreement on climate change while Trump’s America pulled out, and refusing to back down on territorial claims in the South China Sea. Under Xi’s command, Beijing is tightening its grip over Hong Kong. In charge of “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, the world seems to be Xi’s oyster.

Kim Jong Un, Supreme Leader of North Korea

At least by his standards, 2017 was a successful one for North Korea’s eccentric dictator Kim Jong Un. While his leadership failed to prevent a raft of new sanctions against Pyongyang, Kim was successful in provoking the leader of the free world into an ongoing exchange of personal insults and by November had declared North Korea’s nuclear statehood. As we opined in September, Kim has repeatedly given the metaphorical middle finger to Western diplomacy. For his efforts, Kim was even named TIME magazine’s runner-up Person of the Year.

Donald Trump, President of the United States

Widely considered to have changed the presidency forever, Donald Trump dismantled decades of US diplomacy in Asia during 2017. Retreating from the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia”, Trump shied away from being too enthusiastic in the promotion of human rights and democracy. Instead, he welcomed a number of Southeast Asian autocrats like Duterte and Prayut to the White House. His support for the Philippines’ drug war has damaged the United States’ image in Asia while relentless Twitter shade directed at Kim Jong Un was ridiculed the world over. Most recently, protests broke out in Muslim nations like Indonesia and Malaysia over his intended decision to declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel. If America’s time in the sun wasn’t already over, Trump has made sure of it.

Shinzo Abe, Prime Minister of Japan

On track to become Japan’s longest serving premier, Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party won a shock election by a landslide after calling it in October. The Prime Minister has sought to overall Japan’s post-war pacifist constitution so as to allow the country to develop a strong military of its own, which he had initially promised would take place in 2020. While that unpopular move has been shelved for now, Abe has nevetheless declared he will “firmly deal” with North Korea, an aim towards which he has buddied up with Trump.

Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India

A staunch Hindu nationalist of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the leader of the world’s second largest country by population remains wildly popular. A Pew poll released in November showed that nine in ten Indians hold a “favourable view” of Modi. They are happy with his economic management, but his Hindu nationalist platform has emboldened communal violence aimed primarily at Muslims. More and more Muslim Indians in 2017 fell victim to vigilante mobs for killing cows. In March, Modi selected a radical Hindu accused of inciting violence against Indian Muslims to lead the country’s largest state Uttar Pradesh. This furthered long-held fears that India will ditch its secularism and become a “Hindu Pakistan” – in other words an intolerant, religious state which offers little protection for its diverse minorities. Given Modi has promised to create a “New India” by 2022, the march of hardline Hindu nationalism looks to continue throughout 2018.


Aung San Suu Kyi, State Counsellor of Burma (Myanmar)

The de facto leader of Burma emerged as the surprise villain of 2017. “I’m no Mother Teresa” she pronounced in April. Long a hero of democracy and human rights under the country’s brutal military dictatorship, Aung San Suu Kyi disappointed many around the world in 2017 for her failure to speak out on behalf of persecuted Rohingya Muslims and prevent them from falling prey to what some have called ethnic cleansing and even genocide. While Western criticism of Burma has been relentless, Suu Kyi has a friend in the Chinese Communist Party. Arrests of foreign and local journalists with the tacit support of the State Counsellor’s National League for Democracy do not bode well either for Burma’s difficult democratic transition. Suu Kyi may have been stripped of international accolades like the Freedom of Oxford during 2017, but she remains a popular figure amongst a huge portion of Burmese.

Hun Sen, Prime Minister of Cambodia

Almost single-handedly responsible for dismantling Cambodian democracy in 2017, Prime Minister Hun Sen had a ripper year. The Kingdom’s leader for 30 years, Hun Sen attempted to cement another 10 years in power by dissolving the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party, media outlets including the Cambodia Daily newspaper, and clamping down on NGOs like the US-funded National Democratic Institute ahead of 2018’s election. This crackdown has earnt condemnation from governments and human rights groups from around the world, but Hun Sen isn’t done yet – his government is pondering the introduction of ‘Thai style’ lese majeste laws before next year’s poll.

Rodrigo Duterte, President of the Philippines

Once dubbed the Filipino Trump, Duterte outdid even the American president when it came to ruthless top-down policymaking and outrageous language during 2017. Along with his US counterpart this year he mocked journalists as ‘spies’, bragged he had murdered somebody as a teenager and said cops should kill his own son should he be found to be involved with illegal drugs. During 2017, Duterte dismantled the peace process with communist insurgents by reclassifying them as a terrorist group and introduced martial law in the southern Mindanao, a tactic reminiscent of the country’s former dictator Marcos. While his government stands accused of gross rights violations including the extrajudicial killings of more than 10,000 people amid the drug war since June 2016, he turned heads in November when he offered to host a ‘world summit’ on human rights. As with Suu Kyi though, Duterte has a friend in China who is unperturbed by widespread human rights abuses. In fact along with Hun Sen, the president was in late 2017 even nominated for China’s Confucius Peace Prize.

Prayut Chan-o-cha, Prime Minister of Thailand

Thailand’s military seized power in 2014 for the 12th time since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932. At the head of its junta is Prayut Chan-o-cha, who insisted this year that he can “do whatever” without being held accountable. The country’s formerly vibrant civil society and political parties have come under the chill of military dictatorship, with rising prosecution of dissenters under draconian cybercrime and lese majeste laws. Having repeatedly promised a return to democracy via a popular vote, it has now been delayed to November 2018. Nevertheless, along with a number of Southeast Asian autocrats, Prayut was in 2017 invited to Trump’s White House. With the government pursuing former popularly-elected PMs Yingluck Shinawatra and her brother Thaksin, Thailand’s democratic future remains uncertain.

Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, former Governor of Jakarta

Jailed in May under Indonesia’s strict blasphemy laws for allegedly insulting Islam, Ahok may not be a strongman but rather represents a victim of the ugly identity politics which affected many societies around the world in 2017. After replacing now-president Joko Widodo as governor in 2014, Christian, ethnically Chinese Ahok enjoyed strong support but drew the ire of Islamic fundamentalists. Perhaps more importantly – he made enemies with his no-nonsense style of leadership and anti-corruption drive. Fears have grown for Indonesia’s historical religious tolerance amid rising fundamentalism – of which Ahok is seen to be the most high-profile victim to date. As the world’s third largest democracy, his case is emblematic of the perilous nature of democratic values and human rights as we move into 2018.