Charismatic Queens of Southern Asia

Anthony Reid traces some surprising precedents for the many recent women rulers in South and Southeast Asia.

With the election of Megawati Sukarnoputri to the Indonesian presidency in July 2001, Indonesia became the largest country to be governed by a woman, usurping the title previously held by Bangladesh, whose rival women leaders, ‘the battling begums’, have been alternating in power since 1991. The most populous country ever to have been governed by a woman is India, where Indira Gandhi was prime minister in two long stints, 1966-77 and 1980-84. In the ASEAN club of Southeast Asian leaders, Megawati joined her childhood acquaintance Gloria Macapagal Arroyo of the Philippines. Arroyo had been in that country’s highest office since ‘people’s power’ toppled President Estrada the previous January. The path had been beaten by Cory Aquino, who filled the same office from 1986 to 1992. More than half of Southeast Asia’s half billion people are now governed by women. Had the results of Burma’s only recent open election, in 1988, been honoured, Burma (Myanmar) would also be governed by the charismatic Aung San Suu Kyi. Sri Lanka, Pakistan and India in South Asia, as well as Bangladesh, have all elected women heads of government since Sirimavo Bandaranaike blazed the trail in Sri Lanka in 1960.

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