When Lee Kuan Yew died recently, part of his legacy was a new form of government. Long before China adopted free market reforms, Lee was the first to demonstrate that capitalism and democracy do not necessarily go hand in hand. In Singapore he created a state in which citizens were free to turn profits but not to voice dissent. He showed that a free market economy could coexist quite comfortably with authoritarian government. (The swift response in the days after Lee’s death to a teenager’s critical YouTube video showed the strong arm of the government in action.) In some ways it’s a purer version of capitalism, in which trade can proceed without the potential disruptions of culture or political protest.
Some version of Lee’s authoritarian government exists in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Vietnam and Laos are explicitly one-party states; though Cambodia has opposition parties and a much freer press, Prime Minister Hun Sen and the Cambodian People’s Party have ruled the country for over 30 years. Patriotism and the veneration of leaders are more or less compulsory. There’s a particular approach too to the sites of power – the palaces and other government buildings that make manifest the might of the state. In Australia there’s a squat bureaucratic dullness to most government buildings: they’re not out to wow or intimidate, and no especial deference is expected towards them. Uncritical respect is the last thing Australians feel for their politicians and it was sometimes disconcerting to visit countries where this was the only permissible attitude.
It’s interesting to see how this veneration is expressed through iconography. In Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh is the face you see everywhere; a benign portrait of Ho against a light blue background can be glimpsed in many businesses and homes, much as older Australians hang portraits of Queen Elizabeth. He’s often in the background of propaganda posters, too, exhorting and encouraging. Ho’s image is common as Laos as well – Vietnam takes a special interest in its smaller neighbour – but his Laotian equivalent is Kaysone Phomvihane, the leader of the Pathet Laos when they took power in 1975. (He’s presented in the same format, smiling in a field of light blue.) Cambodia differs from its neighbours: the icon of the state is not Hun Sen or any of his colleagues in the CPP. It’s King Norodom Sihamoni. The current king is pictured on an elaborate gold throne, in a ceremonial uniform decorated with medals and a broad red sash and gold braiding at the collar and sleeves. Usually he’s flanked by simpler portraits of his mother and father.
Of the three countries, Cambodia is the only one that still has a monarchy. The last Nguyen emperor abdicated in favour of Ho Chi Minh in 1945; Bao Dai spent most of the rest of his life in the south of France. The last king in Laos was not so lucky: after the Communist takeover King Sisavang Vatthana and his family were sent to a remote re-education camp where they reportedly died of malaria, extinguishing the royal line. By contrast, the present king’s father Norodom Sihanouk was the prime political actor in Cambodia for the first twenty years of its independence, and returned to rule in a ceremonial capacity after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. The monarchy no longer exercises much political power, but it continues to be important as a symbol. In all three countries the belief persists that the king (or the Communist leader who supplanted him) is the embodiment of the state.
You can see this continued prestige in the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. It’s not a bombed-out wreck like the Nguyen Citadel in Hue or a modest, stale museum like the Palace in Luang Prabang. It’s a symbolic site that has retained its potency – the seat of the king. It’s situated at the confluence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers; there’s a public park between it and the water, a popular meeting place for locals at night. A huge double-sided portrait of Norodom Sihamoni dominates the park, in an elaborate frame two storeys high; at night this lights up, bathing the area in yellow light. The palace grounds are both opulent and precise. A team of gardeners trim the trees and hedges, the palms that open in perfect fans. The buildings are spaced for maximum clarity: each stands surrounded by broad paths and geometrical garden plots. Two small buildings flank the throne room, pointing up its size; appropriately enough, one houses gifts from other heads of state. The Cambodian king is viewed as the defender of the country’s Buddhist faith, and the palace grounds are neighboured by another complex of pagodas and stupas memorialising various kings. At the centre of this stands the Silver Pagoda, so named because it’s floored entirely in silver. The Palace is truly fabulous, its calm, ordered beauty a sharp contrast to the city outside its walls. One of the privileges of power is the ability to maintain these luxurious surfaces, to organise space in this rational way.
This privilege is present at the Reunification Palace in Saigon also. It’s been kept much as it was in 1975, when North Vietnamese tanks crashed through the front gates. We visited shortly before the 40th anniversary of the North’s victory: a stage had been set up in front of the Palace, and a troupe of young dancers rehearsed a routine for the upcoming celebrations. It was the home of the President of South Vietnam; it’s an impressive building, the exterior clad in concrete ribs that enclose it while still allowing air to circulate, the state rooms opening onto long cool balconies. There’s a real eloquence to this erstwhile site of power that’s now allowed to stand empty. There’s surprisingly little editorialising about the US-backed regime: the nearest thing to it is the information that President Nguyen Van Thieu converted a rooftop space – intended by the architect as a place for the leader to meditate on great matters of state – into a dancefloor. There’s no need for editorialising: the fact that the building’s now a museum testifies to its place on the losing side of history.