Burma began its chairmanship of ASEAN this year in praiseworthy fashion when President Thein Sein remarked that the constitution could be amended to allow “any citizen to lead the country”, another magnanimous gesture to Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
Yet while the country once seen as a pariah continues to confound its critics, other Southeast Asian leaders are now grumbling over challenges to their power.
Dictatorial and authoritarian strongmen from different cultural, religious, and educational backgrounds have used different approaches over the years to deal with rivals. Some played the role of benevolent democratic fathers, others proclaimed themselves liberators or saviours from conquerors and aggressors, and others marketed themselves as builders of national prosperity and unity. For some, portraying themselves as regional leaders was the choice.
The fact is, post-imperialist nation-building is still a work in progress in many ASEAN states, and democratisation has therefore not yet fully taken shape.
Old-generation leaders are finding it more troublesome to govern diverse and globalised citizens and outspoken emigrants in their realms. Some refuse to accept the reality that they cannot monopolise power forever, so they refuse to bite the bullet of reform or share power with others. Instead, they defiantly insist on simply transforming power within their