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Female Leaders in Southeast Asia: Resilience, Legacy, and Change

  As early as 1986, a Southeast Asian country produced its first female supreme leader—Philippine President Corazon Aquino. In fact, to this day, several women have reached the pinnacle of power in Southeast Asian countries. In addition to Mrs. Aquino, there are also Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, Indonesian President Megawati Sukarno, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, and Myanmar State Counselor Aung Shan Suu Kyi. Even within the entire world, the phenomenon of frequent female top leaders in Southeast Asian countries is very unique. Statistics show that from 1960 to 2009, a total of 71 women from 52 countries in nearly 200 countries around the world served as national-level leaders. The ratio of 5 people in 11 Southeast Asian countries clearly exceeds the world average.
  So, how do female top leaders emerge when the overall level of female political participation is not high? If we conduct a certain analysis on the political experience of several female leaders, it is not difficult to find that these women often become associated with politics because of a male relative. Arroyo’s father, Diosdado Macapagal, served as the ninth president of the Philippines. Megawati is the eldest daughter of Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno. Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, General Aung San, was The people of Myanmar respect him as the Father of the Nation. In fact, not only in Southeast Asia, many female leaders, including Indira Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto, etc., were able to enter the political arena because they inherited their father’s political capital. Many female leaders have their father’s surname or first name in their full names. In many underdeveloped countries with imperfect electoral systems and poor information dissemination, a famous surname or familiar name is enough to attract a large number of votes for candidates. . Likewise, similar political capital may be inherited from husbands and older brothers. From this perspective, the emergence of female leaders is not a challenge to patriarchy. On the contrary, to a large extent, it is the result of the development of dependence on the basis of patriarchy.
  Another phenomenon worthy of attention is that the emergence of female leaders is often closely linked to political violence such as assassinations and coups, and is often accompanied by large-scale mass movements. As some scholars have pointed out, negotiated political transformation often excludes women. On the contrary, political transformations led by women are more “vigorous” – they often stand at the forefront of mass movements and overthrow dictators through popular uprisings.
  At this point, the experiences of Aung San Suu Kyi and Mrs. Aquino are very representative. General Aung San was assassinated when Aung San Suu Kyi was just two years old. In 1988, large-scale public demonstrations broke out in Myanmar. It was during this mass movement that Aung San Suu Kyi stepped onto the political stage under the appeal of all walks of life and established her position in the entire democratic movement in Myanmar. leadership. Mrs. Aquino’s husband, Benigno Aquino, is the leader of the Philippine opposition party. After being arrested by the government, he fled to the United States and continued to engage in activities against the Marcos government of the Philippines. On August 21, 1983, Benigno Aquino returned to the Philippines from exile. He was shot in the back as soon as he got off the plane. The entire process was filmed by accompanying reporters. Within hours of the assassination, massive demonstrations broke out in the Philippines. Afterwards, Mrs. Aquino was elected as the leader of the opposition party and participated in the presidential election held in early 1986. Due to serious electoral fraud, the Filipino people once again took to the streets. Under the impact of this “people power revolution”, the Marcos regime finally fell.
  In Indonesia, Megawati also played a leading role in the social movement against Suharto, while her father was forced to step down in a coup launched by Suharto 30 years ago. In Thailand, the 2006 coup ended Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s term prematurely, and five years later the Pheu Thai Party, led by his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, won the election again. Similarly, Wan Azizah of Malaysia entered politics because her husband could no longer continue his political career. In 1998, Wan Azizah’s husband, Anwar, who was the then Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia, was dismissed by Mahathir and subsequently imprisoned for multiple crimes including dereliction of duty. Since then, Wan Azizah has played a leading role in the “Fire Will Not Extinguish” movement against government autocracy in Malaysian society, and established the National Justice Party in 1999. In the nearly 20 years since then, Wan Azizah has won several parliamentary seats in general elections. In the Malaysian general election held in May 2018, the opposition coalition-Hope Alliance, chaired by Wan Azizah, finally defeated the National Front, which had been in power for more than 60 years, and Wan Azizah became the deputy prime minister of Malaysia.
  In a sense, it is political violence and suppression by authoritarian governments that shaped martyrs like Aung San and Aquino. During their time in power, the governance of these male leaders was not perfect. Aung San and Sukarno both had a disgraceful history of cooperating with the Japanese invaders during World War II, but their “martyrdom” made them ” From a politician who might make mistakes, he became a symbol of morality, or a symbol of democracy and people’s livelihood. As a result, they enjoy almost unreserved respect and support from the public.
  Such a precious political legacy must be inherited by someone. But a question that arises is, who has the right to inherit such a legacy? Why are their female relatives always pushed to the forefront? It should be said that this result is caused by many factors. First of all, these female leaders are from the elite class, are well-educated, and have basic leadership qualities. In addition, in some cases, male relatives of former leaders often do not want to get involved in politics for various reasons. For example, Aung San Suu Kyi’s brother Aung San Oo lacked interest in politics and became a U.S. citizen at an early age. In addition, one of the main reasons why female leaders can become the leaders of democratic movements and successfully promote the change of national power is that they are better able to maintain unity within the opposition camp. In a democratic movement, there are often intricate line disputes and interest struggles within the opposition camp. As “widows” and “orphans”, female leaders tend to give people the impression of being weak and lacking in political experience. This can actually Effectively appease various forces within the opposition and their representatives.
  In addition to these specific reasons, we should also see a more important background factor, which is the underdevelopment of the party systems in some Southeast Asian countries. Because this explains to a large extent why it is the family members of the “martyr” – not his “comrades” – who should complete his unfinished revolutionary cause.
  Despite their lack of political experience, Southeast Asia’s female leaders undoubtedly demonstrate an impressive capacity for learning. Mrs. Aquino defeated a total of 7 coups during her 6 years in power, which also laid the foundation for the consolidation of the Philippine democratic system. Megawati also set a record for a woman to serve as the top leader in an Islamic country like Indonesia. Aung San Suu Kyi gradually established her leadership position in Myanmar’s democratic movement, and ultimately promoted the peaceful transfer of power between the military government and the civilian government. Although these female leaders are often pushed onto the political stage as “stand-ins” for their male relatives, the role they can play is by no means merely symbolic. Facts have repeatedly proven that the changes they can bring to politics are beyond many people’s imagination.

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