The Enduring Role of Mistresses in Southeast Asian Politics – The Diplomat

Vietnamese politicians are no strangers to mistress scandals. In 2009, dissident author Duong Thu Huong, whose work is banned in Vietnam, claimed that a Ho Chi Minh mistress had been murdered by Communist authorities to protect the moralizing myths the party employs around the legacy of uncle Ho. Nong Duc Manh, the general secretary of the communist party between 2001 and 2011, was long considered the illegitimate son of Ho Chi Minh. “We are all children of Ho Chi Minh,” he reportedly replied, when asked by a diplomat if the gossip was true.

An alleged mistress scandal is back in the headlines after an arrest warrant was recently issued for Nguyen Thi Thanh Nhan, a businesswoman and apparent middleman between Vietnamese and Israeli arms deals who now lives in Europe. She is suspected of fraud and rigging a bid for medical equipment worth around $7 million. According to rumors, which cannot be substantiated, she was the former mistress of both the current Prime Minister, Pham Minh Chinh, and the current Defense Minister, Phan Van Giang. For some, his arrest warrant stems from an ongoing battle between the country’s top politicians.

And the rest of Southeast Asia? Some of the public anger that erupted in 2020 against Thailand’s King Vajiralongkorn must be down to his private life, from his preference to live in Germany to his embarrassing snaps in skimpy outfits. Her “royal noble husband”, Sineenat Wongvajirapakdi, was reportedly ostracized from court in 2019 and then brought back into the fold the following year. Again, mistress scandals are the mainstays of Thai politics. In 1991, following a military coup, junta leader Sunthorn Kongsompong was forced to intervene after a public war of words between his wife and 39-year-old mistress. He would resign in 1992 and die in 1999, but two years later the case would escalate into a full-fledged national controversy over official corruption when his widow tried to sue his former mistress, revealing the extent of Sunthorn’s wealth.

In Singapore, the reactions are a little more moralizing. In 2012 the Speaker of Parliament, Michael Palmer, resigned over an extramarital affair, despite the ruling People’s Action Party avoiding opposition calls for new elections. In the same year, a rising star in Singapore’s opposition politics, Yaw Shin Leong, was forced to resign following a mistress scandal. The absence of a mistress also aroused intrigues. In his obituary for Suharto, Indonesian dictator Benedict Anderson noted that Suharto was believed to have $73 billion in various accounts in the mid-1990s. But, he added, “the psychology behind this astonishing accumulation is a interesting puzzle. Suharto’s personal tastes were quite simple, and he did not keep an expensive stable of mistresses.

A rare opportunity for private intrigue in otherwise politically hermetic Laos came in 2010 with the surprise resignation of Prime Minister Bouasone Bouphavanh. The Vientiane Times reported that Bouasone quit due to “family issues”. Martin Stuart-Fox, a Laos expert, said at the time that it was “a reference to Bouasone’s recent divorce and growing resentment that his mistress had used her position to enrich herself and herself. his family”. This was not the main reason Bouasone quit; it was a complicated web of intra-party rivalries and apprehensions. Yet the spiral of corruption was an important reason why many communist party members turned against Bouasone. But, again, it wasn’t such a massive overhaul. It was one of the few times a Lao leader had resigned, but the succession was quick and smooth, and Bouasone would likely have been replaced the following year.

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Then there are “what ifs”. In November 1970, American actress Dovie Beams went public with her alleged affair with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, including releasing audio recordings of their alleged date. In 2019, researcher Caroline S. Hau published a lengthy essay on the scandal that is well worth reading. Some analysts believe the case gave Imelda Marcos, his wife, an excuse to wield greater influence in politics. Others suggest it might have knocked Marcos out of prime ministership in 1970. But it didn’t. He had been re-elected in 1969, a year before the scandal broke, and in 1972 he declared martial law, making himself dictator for more than a decade. Still, Hau reasonably argues that the memory of the scandal gave Marcos opponents ammunition until his downfall in 1986.

Another “what if” is the mistress scandal that surrounded Malaysia’s Najib Razak after 2008. At the time, Najib was Deputy Prime Minister and widely seen as the heir to the highest post, which he would take in 2009. But in 2008 it came under intense scrutiny after a Mongolian model, Shaariibuu Altantuya, was shot and blown up with explosives outside the capital Kuala Lumpur two years earlier. Altantuya is believed to have been the mistress of a prominent Najib associate, Abdul Razak, who was cleared of any involvement in 2008. That year, however, controversial blogger Raja Petra alleged that Najib’s wife, Rosmah Mansor, was present at the scene. of the crime, an allegation which saw him arrested for sedition. Najib’s reputation remained intact and he became prime minister the following year. In 2019, Azilah Hadri, one of two people convicted of Altantuya’s murder, claimed that Najib ordered his murder, which he disputes.

But it is in Cambodia that the mistress scandals have arguably had the greatest impact on politics. The first case concerns Kem Sokha, the Cambodian opposition leader, who spent much of 2016 hiding at his party headquarters to avoid a court summons in a case involving his alleged mistress. Several workers from civil society groups have been jailed for allegedly trying to bribe the alleged mistress to deny the affair. Sokha was sentenced to five months in prison after refusing to appear in court. His relationship with Sam Rainsy, then chairman of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was strained following the legal troubles. They crumbled further when Sokha accepted a royal pardon in late 2016 to spare him the prison sentence. Rainsy would be forced to step down as CNRP president shortly thereafter. Sokha was arrested for treason in mid-2017 and the CNRP was forcibly disbanded on the false grounds of plotting a US-backed coup.

Would all of this have happened without the court case related to Sokha’s mistress occupying most of 2016? Most likely. But the CNRP was weakened and distracted throughout 2016, allowing the ruling party to introduce legislation that slashed the CNRP. It’s tempting to think about how events would have unfolded in 2017 if most of the previous year hadn’t been taken up with the drama surrounding Sokha’s alleged mistress.

Hun Sen, the prime minister of Cambodia, is himself no stranger to mistress scandals. Piseth Pilika, actress and mistress of Hun Sen, was murdered in 1999. French magazine L’Express (a magazine that employed Rainsy’s sister-in-law) alleged that Hun Sen’s wife, Bun Rany, may have played a role. But a more impactful, if less scandalous, case came years later – and was used by Hun Sen to fundamentally change Cambodian politics. This journalist has long believed that the beginning of the end of Cambodian democracy dates back to 2006, when the constitution was changed so that a government could be formed by a simple majority, instead of the two-thirds majority previously necessary. The ruling CPP, which previously governed in coalitions, could then start from government alone. Hun Sen no longer needed to compromise. He and the ruling party had full control of the patronage networks of the bureaucracy and the military. And the country’s three-party system disappeared into a two-party system, which made it easier for Hun Sen to destroy a single main opponent, as he did in 2017.

At the time of this constitutional change, Hun Sen had parliament debate new legislation that would punish any politician who uses state resources to support a mistress, as well as whether that mistress uses political access for financial rewards. . It was well known that Prince Norodom Ranariddh, Hun Sen’s coalition partner and leader of the country’s second party, had mistresses, one of whom is believed to be the divorcee of a former tourism minister. Rumor has it that Ranariddh bought two villas from her after her divorce and asked Hun Sen in 2005 to make her the new Minister of Tourism. He had recently taken her on a tour of Manila, during which Filipino media had called her a “princess”. Knowing that new legislation could land him in hot water, Ranariddh was uncharacteristically quiet as parliament began debating single-majority reform. A leaked US cable reads: “The press corps noted that… Norodom Ranariddh never shunned journalists during his two terms as Speaker of the National Assembly.” If it hadn’t weighed on him, perhaps Ranariddh would have more actively fought the single-majority reform that would make him obsolete in Cambodian politics.

Rainsy’s wife, Tioulong Saumura, reportedly told Hun Sen that Rainsy’s opposition party “fully supports” his recent remarks about ministers and their mistresses. Rainsy, who had just returned to Cambodia after a stint in exile, could not ignore the intended target of Hun Sen’s legislation. Nor, indeed, would Rainsy have felt much sympathy for Ranariddh, who had twice abandoned him. He later told journalist Sebastian Strangio: “I wanted to get rid of Funcinpec…The CPP used Ranariddh to create problems for me…They had some influence because they use the two-thirds majority; so I said, to hell with the two-thirds majority.

Lyle L. Maltby