South and Central America, with the smallest number of Muslims of any continent and where Catholicism holds sway, has had the worst record of dictators and tyrannical rule.
(Published in Daily Times, 19 September 2012)
Moving from Africa to Asia and South America in our survey of non-Muslim autocrats, dictators and tyrants, let’s start with Burma, which has been in the news recently. General Ne Win ruled Burma for nearly twenty years after he seized power through a coup in 1962. Resigning as president in 1981, he continued to control the government indirectly as party chief in his one-party state, finally quitting in 1988.
When the candidates of the National League for Democracy party led by Aung Sun Suu Kyi won 80% of the seats in the 1990 elections, rather than being sent to parliament, they were sent to jail by Ne Win’s successors, who annulled the results.
Army chief General Than Shwe rules under various titles since 1992. His prisoners have been many, besides the famous Aung San Suu Kyi, who was released a few months ago after spending 15 of the last 21 years under house arrest. They have included Khin Nyunt, once Than Shwe’s deputy and intelligence chief, as well as Khin Nyunt’s sons, and Ne Win’s three sons and a son-in-law. Ne Win himself, along with his favourite daughter, was put under house arrest in 2002, where the sad old man died a few months later.
Ferdinand Marcos’ despotic rule in the Philippines lasted from 1965 till 1986, when he was overthrown through a “people power” uprising. The unlikely leader of the uprising was Corazon Aquino, the widow of the popular Senator Benigno Aquino, who was shot dead in 1983, almost certainly by Marcos agents, as he alighted from a plane returning from the US after a three year exile.
In Nepal, the attempt by King Gyanendra Shah (2001-08) to grab absolute power in 2005 ended sadly for him. Under the pretext of crushing the Maoist insurgency, he dissolved parliament, repeatedly fired his prime ministers and ruled unfettered until popular discontent led ultimately to the abolition of the monarchy itself in 2008.
In South Korea, General Park Chung Hee seized power in 1961 and was not quite finished when he was assassinated in 1979. Having survived a couple of assassination plots by North Korea, he was shot by one of his own, the director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency.
In an earlier failed attempt, a North Korean agent had fired at Park from the front row while the president was delivering a speech in the National Theater. The bullet missed its target, but killed his wife instead. As she was carried away from the stage, President Park continued with his speech.
While Park’s rule was merely authoritarian, self-promoted Field Marshall Thanom Kittikachorn established a tyrannical military rule in Thailand from 1963 to 1973. Mass public protests forced him to step down and flee the country. His return from exile in 1976 sparked protests which led to a massacre of demonstrators, followed by another military coup. Kittikachorn was assisted in his foul work by his son Colonel Narong and the latter’s father in law. Together they became known as the “Three Tyrants.”
Both Park and Kittikachorn took advantage of US obsession with the “containment of Communism” and winning the war in Vietnam by adopting a strong anti-Communist and pro-US stance, thereby gaining American support while they felt free to continue with their anti-democratic policies.
South and Central America, with the smallest number of Muslims of any continent and where Catholicism holds sway, has had the worst record of dictators and tyrannical rule, helped in no small way by the American quest for profit, stability and the containment of a putative “Communist threat”.
With US support, the Somoza family ruled Nicaragua as a hereditary dictatorship from 1936 to 1979. Three of the Somozas (father and two sons) served as President for 33 of those 43 years. For the other ten years, they controlled the nominal President through the National Guard, which was their “private” militia. This ruthless, corrupt dynasty was overthrown by the Sandinista National Liberation Front.
Under Alfredo Stroessner, president of Paraguay from1954 to 1989, kidnapping, torture and extrajudicial killings were routine and systematic. In 1974 the UN accused Paraguay of slavery and genocide, particularly of its Ache Indian population. To quell protests against the regime, security forces virtually destroyed Asunción University in 1972.
The chief of Stroessner’s secret police, Pastor Coronel, reportedly had some of his victims drenched in a mixture of human urine and faeces for interrogation, during which electric cattle prods were rammed up their rectums. In 1975, the Secretary of the Paraguayan Communist Party, Miguel Soler, was dismembered alive with a chainsaw while Stroessner listened to the victim’s screams over the phone.
Seizing power in a coup d’état in 1973 with CIA support, which led to the death of the elected President Salvador Allende, General Augusto Pinochet ruled Chile from 1973 until 1990. Under Pinochet’s dictatorship, a few thousand people were killed, up to 80,000 interned, and about 30,000 tortured.
Pinochet’s 17-year regime was given a legal framework through a highly controversial plebiscite in 1980, which approved a new Constitution drafted by a government-appointed commission. After stepping down in 1990, Pinochet continued to serve as Commander-in-Chief of the Chilean Army for another eight years. He was accused later of having corruptly amassed a wealth of at least $28 million.
The farcical plebiscite through which the Catholic Pinochet perpetuated his rule was copied in Pakistan by General Ziaul Haq, a devout Muslim. What works for one dictator is just as good for another, regardless of country or religion.
There were other similarities between the two dictators. Pinochet donned his General’s uniform until the ripe old age of 83. If Zia had not blown up in mid-air in 1988 at the comparatively “young” age of 64, he might not have shed his khakis until he limped and drooled. “Field Marshall” Tantawi of Egypt hunched under the weight of his starched, medal-bedecked uniform, which he still wore at the age of three scores and seventeen!
By Razi Azmi