Southeast Asia’s leaders generally do not go gentle into that good night, as a poet once wrote. At 97 years old, Mahathir Mohammad hasn’t lost any of his enthusiasm for racism and political bumbling, although it could also be said that he had few mental faculties to lose in old age. Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew remained active behind the scenes until his death in 2015, aged 91. Who knows what will happen in Myanmar, but the sensible punter wouldn’t bet against the return (someday) of Aung San Suu Kyi, now 77.
Succession is gathering pace in Cambodia. Prime Minister Hun Sen, 70, and now the world’s longest-serving head of government, will someday soon hand over the premiership to his eldest son, Hun Manet. On occasions, his mind flits to thoughts of what he’ll do once he steps down. In 2020, he spoke about becoming a “lawyer to further help vulnerable people.” A week ago, he said he is now thinking of running to become a commune chief because he wants to know more about how local government works.
No one, including himself, really expects Hun Sen to retire from politics after stepping down as prime minister. He is the honorary president of so many associations that they’ll occupy his time, and some genuinely do matter. He has already said he won’t step down as president of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), a position now with greater powers over personnel after constitutional changes last year limited the National Assembly’s authority over the hiring and firing of government officials. Some pundits reckon he’ll create a “Minister Mentor” post for himself (à la LKY) after stepping down as prime minister. My guess is he wants the Senate presidency; it’s an untaxing job most of the year but means he would be acting head of state when the King is out of the country, which he often is. (Senate elections are next year, so that might indicate when he plans to resign as PM.) That post would cloak Hun Sen with immense powers to intervene if anything went haywire with Hun Manet’s prime ministership.