Viva la Vida

I’ve been reading a book by journalist David Wallechinsky in which he profiles tyrants and dictators both past and present. One can see many common strands of behaviour among tyrants. Suppression of human rights, use of death squads to silence opponents and torture are all too common.

Bizarre behaviour
But another trend he identifies is the tendency to pass bizarre laws. For example, Ne Win, the former dictator of Burma, once ordered all vehicles to start driving on the right one morning (meaning bus passengers must get on and off buses in the middle of the street!). The late dictator of Turkmenistan, Niyazov passed all sorts of strange and bizarre laws, ranging from the banning of lip synching, smoking (only after he had to quit for health reasons), dogs, long hair and ballet.

Gaddafi, never to be outdone in weirdness, once ordered all Libyans to start breeding chickens, even those living in apartments (and presumably making jokes about not counting chickens before they’ve hatched were banned too!).

In another example Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov has this strange thing about keeping lions and tigers as pets and has also passed laws that include banning of energy drinks, although murdering and torture of his opponents is still apparently legal.

Meglomania
Meglomania is another all too common trait. Lukashenko of Belorussia insists that he be called “Batka” (dad) by Belorussians. In another example, Niyazov had the month of January renamed after him (and April after his mother, plus September after a book he wrote…which is required reading for anyone joining the civil service!).

In Africa, Obiang Nguema (the dictator of Equatorial Guinea) has claimed to be “in permanent contact with the almighty”. While in Cameron (the country not “call me dave” ;D) under Paul Biya, it is reported that one cannot get a job with the state, even that of a lowly police officer, without “you have to show that you support the president actively, that you love him and his party”.

Corruption
And of course we have the squandering of public funds. Niyazov (again!) for example had a 12 metre high gold statue of himself erected on a platform that rotated so that it always faced the Sun.

The Kim’s of North Korea have spent billions of their impoverished countries money on a grand capital with numerous gaudy landmarks, vast (largely empty) skyscrapers and vast boulevards (in a country where practically nobody is allowed to drive).

Saudi Arabia under the house of Saud, is considered so institutionally corrupt (regularly topping the poll for Transparency International) most companies doing business in the kingdom have to set aside hundreds of millions in their budget to pay for kickbacks and bribes.

Similarly Karimov, the dictator of Uzbekistan, was lambasted in the wikileaks diplomatic cables for squandering most of his country’s wealth on himself and his family, notably his daughter, described as “the most hated person in the country” by the diplomatic cables.

Suppression of the Media
Dictators also have a habit of suppressing the media and tend not to be terribly happy with those who criticise the regime. For example in Laos, under the communist dictator Sayasone, it is illegal to “propagate information or opinions that weaken the state or slander the state”. Lukashenko once threatened to “wiring the necks” or protestors. A law in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe is so broad that merely making a statement such as “don’t be a thinkhead like Mugabe” to a friend on a bus can get you imprisoned.

A good example of the effects of this media manipulation can be seen via the ongoing saga over the missing Malaysian Airliner. There have been some slightly bizarre reactions from the Chinese relatives, with some convinced the airliner is okay or not able to understand why they’ve been searching in the wrong place. Some have threatened to go on hunger strike, as if that is somehow going to magically make the airliner (or more than likely now its wreckage) appear.

Of course the problem here is that the Chinese are used to being lied to by their government or have facts hidden from them, as much for their own protection as to hide the bungling incompetence of the Communist party. While we in the West are well used to seeing politicians running around with they’re hair on fire or standing around in the middle of a crisis looking stupid (G. W. Bush was particularly skilled at this one!), Chinese citizens are not.

Elections – Tyrant style
It is quite common for dictators to try and justify their actions with a veneer of democratic legitimacy by holding highly suspect “elections” or referendums. Such “elections” tend to be passed with results of +90%, e.g. Obiang’s “election” in 2002 saw him get 97.1% of the vote, Niyazov 99.5%, Karimov 90% and Saddam out did them all with 100%.

Such results are usually borne out by the fact that the ego of most dictator’s cannot stand the notion that someone might actually disagree with them. I mean, one suspects that David Cameron is all too aware that a sizeable proportion of the British population regard him as an upper class twit and would sooner eat a ballot paper than vote for him (hence why his tactic is to ignore them and try to bribe the rest of the country with tax cuts while blaming everything bad on Nick Clegg, the EU and immigrants). But dictators cannot tolerate the idea of any form of opposition, failing to realise the total hypocrisy that this reveals of themselves and their regime.

Psychology of the Dictator
But what goes through the mind of a dictator? Why do they do it? In some cases it’s because they are basically evil cruel bastards (Francisco Nguema and Duvalier are good examples of this), with little thought for anyone. Many are clearly vain and insecure egomaniac’s. In other cases they are simply deluded fools surrounded by a bunch of cronies and yes men who won’t dare not tell them the truth.

Nicolae Ceaușescu the late dictator of Romania is a classic case study here. He was apparently oblivious to how much he was universally hated by his people until the 21st of December 1989, when in the midst of a mass propaganda rally, with the Warsaw pact imploding around him, he was booed off the balcony by the crowd (see here). His regime, once one of the most iron fisted of the Soviet bloc effectively ceased to be right there and then. He was captured an executed by partisans a few days later, still largely at a loss as to why he was loathed so much. Similarly the downfall of Erich Honecker’s East Germany is another classic example of a deluded dictator unaware of how is universally loathed, suddenly learning the truth the hard way.

Overthrowing dictators
Unfortunately the overthrow of dictatorships isn’t easy. More than a few have been replaced by a regime not much different from the one before. Perhaps a more relevant question is to ask how to stop dictators achieving power.

In this regard, Wallechinsky considers G. W. Bush (then in power at the time of publication) as a sort of “special case” as Bush demonstrated many of the same tactics of a dictator. Be it a contempt for human rights laws (such as prohibitions on torture), rendition of suspects, secret trials (or imprisonment without trails), starting wars illegally, disputed elections (Florida and all that), manipulation of the media (Foxnews and the swiftboating of John Kerry) and corruption (Cheney’s secret energy committee the minutes of which are still unpublished and the matter of many billions of money for Iraqi reconstruction that just disappeared).

While Bush didn’t become a dictator as such, he shows the dangerous slippery slope which occurs when you allow any leader to ignore or violate those all-important checks and balances. Clearly maintaining these are the best way of protecting people from tyranny.

As for those dictators already in power, well most won’t be there were it not for the support by the West and other major powers. An economic boycott (either an official one or a public unwillingness to shunt said nations products) could also serve to put pressure where it is needed. And also there is the international criminal courts. Seeing the likes of the rogues I’ve mentioned brought to account would certainly act as a firm deterrent to the rest.

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One thought on “Viva la Vida

  1. A bloodcurdling list, Daryan … we lived in Romania for a while, after the revolution, and witnessed at first-hand how a dictator can warp the psyche of a whole nation.

    Like

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