This article introduces a special issue on the emergent relationship between the rhetoric and implementation of the rule of law concept in Southeast Asia. It thematically introduces four country case studies (Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam), and the case of ASEAN's adoption of the rule of law in region-building, which are included in this special issue. We highlight how ideals that are arguably central to the "tradition" of the rule of law are being excised, marginalised, defended and/or undermined in Southeast Asian contexts. We emphasise how the very concept is deeply contested and far from neutral-at stake is the very notion of "law" for whom, and for what. The article offers insight into the social dynamics affecting how the rule of law is being interpreted by political actors and how it is being contested and consolidated via governance practices in the region, and proposes new avenues for research in assessing how the rule of law is operating in transitional and authoritarian state settings.