Modern Dictatorships through the Mirror: Time for us to be Conscious

In legal and political literature, the term ‘dictatorship’ includes authoritarianism and is synonymous with traditional terms such as absolutism, absolute governments, despotism and tyranny. In political and constitutional legal theory, a dictatorship is a political regime under which the power of government is not limited by any law.  Perhaps the main feature in all types of dictatorships is that there is a concentration of political power in one power center and generally in one person occupying a single high government, party, religious office or it may be located in a small and cohesive elite group. The world has now seen such concentration of dictatorial power be in the hands of a single leader, a  popular majority or in its democratically elected executive or legislature. The common feature of all these systems, whether it is a rule of one person or a group of persons, is that it dominates the government while dictating to the entire society its rules without any checks and balances.

As Justice Douglas said in a celebrating US case: 

“As nightfall does not come at once, neither does, oppression. In both instances, there’s twilight where everything remains seemingly unchanged, and it is in such twilight that we must be aware of change in the air, however slight, lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness.” 

Having been a close observer of the events unfolding in Sri Lanka in the recent past, I believe this is the time for the Sri Lankans to be aware of the changing in the air before we fall in complete darkness.

In the modern era, dictators do not want to be known as dictators but rather to be known as saviors of their respective nations. Though there are fundamental differences in various forms of dictators, there are fundamental similarities as well.  This article is an attempt to understand few of such similarities, irrespective of the type, so that we recognize them and understand where we stand with modern political realities. Let us pose for a moment and reflect on these realities.

Elections, a form of entry and then a form of justification of dictatorship

Unlike a complete military dictator grabbing power through a coup, most of the dictators have come to power or sustained power, through “democratic” elections. Centuries ago, Plato said “Dictatorship naturally arises out of democracy and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme liberty”. Even most of the military dictators later consolidated their power with electoral victories.  The dictators know the art and science of elections more than those who practice democratic values. In a dictatorial set up, all elections are won by the party of the dictator. Continuous electoral victories for one party are an indication of a questionable regime because people naturally prefer changes and something unnatural is happening to prevent it. Opposition political leadership is generally wiped out, incarcerated or manipulated to be weak.  The tool that is being used by all dictators is to use all state resources for their political agenda and propaganda. Under a dictator, all social and public institutions are generally run by coteries of stooges or relations and manipulation of any steps in an election is just simple.

Needless to mention that the media would first be a victim of the dictatorship and then be an effective supporter of a dictator.  The public tend to  believe that all elections are won by the dictator and are therefore convinced that there is no point supporting the opposition. All what the public hear from media is the personal achievements of the dictator, his family and his untested vision. In the modern world, powerful images will dominate all media to present the dictator as the most pious, respected and courageous leader who was  born to liberate the country against all possible evil. All institutions that support electoral integrity collapses though there is a seemingly independent election authority who genuinely believes that elections are fair.  Generally no institution is capable of setting aside an invented result of a flawed election due to multiple reasons; viz. lack of proper legal structures, weak judicial systems and lack of integrity in electoral adjudication process. Elections are held while the dictator holds power and not under a custodian government.  Unless a serious external and detailed observation is done, it is difficult to understand the real reasons for the electoral success of a dictator.  The dictator will always claim victory at all elections in a flawed but seemingly fair electoral process. Then  media manipulation seals the public opinion.

Public Opinion – the Key to Hide Cult Personality

All dictators are master stroke players in manipulating public opinion. The entire state mechanism is restructured for that purpose. Whether Gaddafi’s Libya, Ben Ali’s Tunisia, Military Junta’s Burma,  Idi Amin’s Uganda or Hitler’s Germany, the propaganda was at its best. They exploit “nationalism”, “national unity” and similar sentiments most attractively.  Public tend to believe the dictator,  because all avenues of dissenting views are either closed or controlled.

Interestingly, in all dictatorial regimes, there is a high percentage of best brains and minds supporting dictatorial regimes. Professionals, academics and economists are not the only ones to cheer a dictator; in some countries even business leaders, trade unionists, historians and religious dignitaries would join the cheering troop. There are many reasons for it but, of all, the hypocrisy can only be understood  by the enormous rewards and advantages that have been bestowed on those individuals. After all, the governance theories prove beyond doubt that “formal education” and  “integrity”  are two  totally different and unconnected values and principles. All the hard work of those crony intellectuals is used by dictators to cover cult personalities of the dictators and their families.

Dictatorial regimes have an advantage of sustaining public opinion, with the over mighty executive powers. They generally come to power with an overwhelming victory after exploiting culturally sensitive issues. Victory or threat of a defeat in a war is yet another benefit. They generally create a common enemy, even if there is no such one so that the public will be  busy in thinking rather than scrutinizing the regime! In almost all dictatorial regimes, propaganda machinery will stress the need for the continuation of the present political leadership to secure the interest of the country against external interference.  All those who challenge the dictators will run the risk of being called collaborators with a known or yet unknown external enemy!   Internally, the dictator’s thinking is simple. “You better say I am “nice” or you are “out.

Dictators are in general cult personalities and many of them have come to favor increasingly grandiloquent titles and honours for themselves.   Idi Amin, the notorious Ugandan dictator who  had once been a British army lieutenant before the independence of the country in 1962,  later styled himself as His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular”.

Corruption & Development

There is nothing called benevolent dictators in real life. All dictators grab power and abuse power for their personal gain. They commit robbery of public wealth with impunity but the public are made to believe otherwise. When the institutional set up is deliberately emasculated, the public believe it is only the dictator who can revitalize sanity and develop the country! This is true in any dictatorial regime. The basic definition of corruption ( meaning abuse of entrusted resources for personal gain) is valid for all state actions in dictatorial regimes.

People suffer from innumerable economic hardships but reports of the Central Bank (or similar regulatory institution) will always show otherwise. Natural resources and most profitable industries and businesses are always exploited by few individuals in the regime.   Economy and strategic institutions are controlled by a family oligarchy or cronies. Governor of the Libyan Central Bank  Farhat Bengdara, one time a politician and who was giving rosy picture of Gadaffit  defected to anti Gadaffi side. Then he was temporarily replaced with by Finance Minister; During the last few months the Central bank was only busy with preventing freezing of its assets by foreign nationals.

Dictators do not spend their money but the state pays for the dictator and their siblings. Unrealistic expenditure for fake development projects and waste of public finance for massive constructions and popular donations at public expenditure are common. In the final analysis, the state revenue is a collection for the regime to have their fun! Generally a dictatorship is a group enterprise in the modern context. The dictator has himself and a strong and trusted circle. Whenever a dictator does not have a military background, a family member controls the military. Similarly, all strategic engagements are controlled by the inner circle.  Though there is no space to measure the wealth of the dictator, the family and close circle while in power, the recent examples from the Middle East and North African countries establish beyond doubt that the dictators have accumulated unimaginable wealth, which would otherwise have improved all basic standards for the entire citizens. How did the dictators amass so much of wealth? Here are my thoughts.

Firstly, the regulatory institutions and law enforcement mechanism are controlled by the regime through selected cronies. They make sure that checks and balances are all ornamental. Secondly, there is no accountability of any actions/engagements of the dictator’s close circle.  Quite interestingly, in almost all dictatorial regimes, extractive industries, defence expenditure, investments and major infrastructural developments are not subject to scrutiny at any level.   Thirdly, there is a well-organized set of beneficiaries of the regime, who will do anything to prevent an accusation against the higher up in the regime. The law enforcement agencies are equipped to track the critics and those who blow the whistle. There is generally an elite law enforcement agency which operates effectively but as an integral part of the political arm of the regime. Fourthly, the dictators have a network of friends to hide ill-gotten wealth inside and outside the country. There is no effective financial scrutiny on the transfer of assets of dictators and their families outside the country.  Fifthly, with an established dictatorship, there is no effective opposition or active civil society. Generally, the legitimate powers are used openly, while using political tactics to weaken them. Naturally there is no readymade opposition to challenge the dictator’s accumulation of wealth. Sixthly, there is no freedom of information for the public to know the important information. Powerful dictators, in particular, the elected dictators have much to hide because they fear adverse public opinion. Their public appearance is not the actual character.  All dictators oppose right to information for obvious reasons. More than the dictators themselves, their family and cronies fear information and hence the public will not get to know the wealth of the dictators while in power.   Finally, the public opinion created by the dictatorial regime paints a saint picture so that the public never believe that the dictator is corrupt. Propaganda is the key and they lie so much but people do believe those lies. Very few will say openly that the dictator is a perjurer and corrupt, obviously due to fear of reprisal. The last thing the dictators want to hear is that public has got to know their true character, corrupt deals and actual wealth.

National and International Accountability   

Dictators have never been held accountable for their atrocities, corruption and abuses in their own country unless they are thrown out of power. They generally know that the international scene is different and risky;  therefore they either openly clash with international actors or strike deals with powerful international figures. How dictators manage international relations is quite interesting. They have the advantage of the legal principle of sovereignty, which they believe covers all abuses they commit domestically. There are also opportunities for some dictators (whose countries have natural resources) to engage themselves with extractive industries (such as oil, gas, diamond), which give them opportunities for corrupt deals at international level. These types of business relationships have created different comfort zones for dictators outside the country.  The authoritarian rulers generally use all their personal and business connections to sweep under the carpet mayhem created by them in their own jurisdictions. Those rulers and regimes flock together internationally to look after their own interests at all forums. To give just two examples: They share intelligence and they put up a united opposition against the non-governmental movement and human rights defenders. Their statements and reactions on international affairs are mostly similar.

With the development of the international criminal law and with the emerging trends on international anti-corruption legal regimes, there is a possibility of despotic dictators being held accountable for their atrocities outside their jurisdictions.  By nature they fear human rights and see human rights as a western concept or some other nonsense. They do, however, know that it is the human rights regime that holds them accountable one day internationally.  What matters for them is the security for the regime and not the security of the people of the respective countries. There is no dictator who did not call human rights a conspiracy to weaken the nation, which he “preciously guard”. All these dictators without exception say “our country is sovereign and do not interfere; we can manage our own affairs”.

Conclusion

Most of the dictators have fallen due to people’s sacrifices; not by electoral defeats. There are a few dictators who were chased away by international actors and some due to political changes in the political parties they represent. All despots line up a successor but few have ever succeeded.  The regime and cronies will then realize the old saying “when the tree falls, the shadow falls too.”Till then, as José Reyes said  “ A Dictatorship is a long, never ending, narrow, straight road with no exits on it and you will stay on this road until all your freedom is taken from you.”

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The author is an Eisenhower Fellow, Senior Ashoka Fellow & Constitutional Lawyer.

  • http://www.twitter.com/ThilinaRa Thilina Rajapakse

    Excellent read! Portrays an interesting spectrum of views and the many vantages of Dictators and their destructive political leadership trajectories. It is consistent with the systems perspective of leadership too: focused on the confluence of leaders, followers, and circumstances rather than just the characteristics.

  • wijayapala

    JC, thank you for the read. Aren’t you relieved and grateful that Sri Lanka does not have a dictatorship?

    • Ravana

      Hik hik hik.

    • silva

      Very mild dictatorship?

      ‘’ The 18th Amendment to the Constitution which was recently passed by Parliament with a two thirds majority has removed restrictions on the term limits of the President and has also strengthened his hands by replacing the Constitutional Council by a Parliamentary Council consisting of five members. This Amendment has virtually made the incumbent President the equivalent of a monarch or more precisely an all powerful sovereign head of state. …. Having received a nearly two thirds mandate the incumbent President opted to further consolidate power in the Presidency as one of the first steps after receiving the mandate. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, they say. The incumbent President’s stand to continue the presidency despite his repeated pledges to the nation to abolish it is a gross betrayal of a nation which held him in high esteem’’ – 18th Amendment to the Constitution -A Critique, Prof Ashley Perera, 11October 2011, http://www.srilankaguardian.org/2010/10/18th-amendment-to-constitution-critique.html

      • wijayapala

        Dear silva,

        MR still has to win elections without the term limits. The biggest loser from the 18th Amendment was not democracy but Basil Rajapaksha.

  • Aadavan

    Great piece of work and a possible ‘eye opener’.

  • lankamitra

    Dictatorship is the word used by American and western block and their media to undermine people friendly leaders of other nations who do not allow to manipulate resourses of those nations on the request of Western agenda. Western funded NGO’s in those countries and people living from those NGOs;follow the masters voice. Wirter seems to be
    re-imposing the word in to current Sri Lankan context with an ulterior motive.

    • sabbe laban

      You mean “people friendly” leaders like Idi Amin, Mubarak, Sha, Marcos, Pinochet, Stalin and Gadhafi? Wonderful, friend…..

  • Daduwam

    A very good piece. I would have liked it even better if the writer had illustrated each characteristic with examples from around the world.

  • Cheena

    I felt like I read the story ‘sky is falling’ or ‘1984’ by Orwell. Mr. Weliamuna, [Edited out], has the right to express his and his employers views. Still we should be aware of the histroy of the writer before accepting his or her view as true and apply to the current situation.
    Can we apply Orwellian theory to any country? Yes I think so. During certain times of the development cycle of a country, more and more Orwellian signs can be seen. If you look at contries’ development histories, you will be able to see there were many Orwellian signs. That doesn’t mean all of those signs are going to be there at the end of the period. Two countries that jump out are Singapore and Malaysia. Both of these countries saw the ‘night falling’, but they did not experience the mid night. Why was that?
    Another time a country can see signs of dictatiorship is during a crisis. One good example is U.S. after 9/11. Even U.S. Suprime courts acknowledged that there will be a reduction of rights at a time of crisis. When things settle down people will try to get those rights back. It’s not going to be easy but that is the natural power struggle.
    Sri Lanka is going through both of these situations at the same time. So it is too natural to see Orwellian signs. Specially for Welimunas and Harsha de Silvas-economist who became a politician and stop being an economist-Orwellian signs are bread and butter. The see them everywhere.
    Please, give me these ‘Dooms-day’ sceanarios with a pinch of salt and a hand full of scepticism.

    • Ravana

      Cheena,

      How’s the Konde? Let me tell you a little story.

      I was sitting on a seat waiting for a lecture to begin. Yes, it was a lecture on how one of my favourite dictators was managing the economy of all he surveys.

      An old man came and sat beside me. He had the demeanour of a former civil servant. One who would gladly extend the hand for what ever comes his way. The conversation suddenly got around to Singapore.

      “My nephew lives in Singapore. He said that the Lee Kwan Yu family owns two thirds of assets in Singapore. That hasn’t done Singapore any wrong. So why not in …. (mentions another little island).”

      After a short debate about how Lee Kwan Yu had a trusted deputy to keep the seat warm when he “retired”, until his son could take over (after a popular election!),
      I asked him , “So, where would your nephew rather live? Singapore or Australia?”

      He was thoughtful for a second as if he was wondering whether it is worth being honest. Then replied:

      “Australia; pay would be better… and there’s more freedom!”

      My friend Konde, I see many people like you scrambling to go to the West where the “masters” are. But none of you ever want to migrate to China or Russia. You just don’t seem to have got George Orwell’s message.

      • lankamitra

        isn’t it better manupilated by a local leader rather than by a foreign
        companies?

      • ram

        Well, Ravana, if you are a type of person who lives up to his name then you must be a sick perv’ who will travel thousand of miles to grab someone else’s woman. nevertheless, we all know what really happened to ravan and his brothers.

        talking of singapore, true Lee family plays a pivotal role, yet, the President is a tamil minority, the deputy prime minister is of sri lankan tamil origin who was previously the finance minister.

        you want to learn from singapore and try singapore method, then we will all love you for it.

        but will you ever?
        No. Because you are a ‘ravana’ remember?

  • Trueman

    Just because you have ability to write you must not write crap. And, please do respect the people who have liberated the country from both the known and unknown terrorists. The writer seems to have some personal issues against the president and the government, and, trying to illustrate that this is everyone’s problem, I think you’ve mistaken and you need to manner up!

    • Ravana

      Hee Hee Hee,
      Are you talking about President Gaddafi?
      Or is it, the last King of Scotland? “His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular”

      Perhaps you can think of some one with an equally magnificent honorific from another part of the World.

  • justitia

    The writer forgot to say that in general, dictaters of the world support each other in the international arena.

  • georgethebushpig

    Dear J.C. Weliamuna,

    There it is, all in black and white, and the usual suspects will pause while making transers to their international bank accounts to throw in a defence for their favourite, lovable and inevitably chubby dictator of choice.

    Your article is a brilliant exposition that provides insight into the nature of the slippery slope that transits us into dictatorship. Of the many interesting points your article highlights, the one that caught my attention was the reference to “Whenever a dictator does not have a military background, a family member controls the military”. The antecedents to this model dates back to ancient history and in many of those instances the demise of the dictator comes not through popular revolt but from internecine fueding.

    It will be interesting to see how history writes this one….

  • http://srilankalandoftheblind.blogspot.com/ PresiDunce Bean

    A Family Dictatorship is not the only evil plaguing this country. Blind patriotism is the other evil. The first was possible only because of the second. The “Muhammad Ali Syndrome” aka “We Are The Greatest Syndrome” is one of the root causes for the ethnic conflict and many of the ills that has plagued this country since Indepen Dunce.

    Patriotism is proud of a country’s virtues and eager to correct its deficiencies; it also acknowledges the legitimate patriotism of other countries, with their own specific virtues. The pride of nationalism, however, trumpets its country’s virtues and denies its deficiencies, while it is contemptuous toward the virtues of other countries. It wants to be, and proclaims itself to be, “the greatest,” but greatness is not required of a country; only goodness is.

    SYDNEY J. HARRIS

    • Ravana

      Well said.

  • Rita

    “ A Dictatorship is a long, never ending, narrow, straight road with no exits on it and you will stay on this road until all your freedom is taken from you.”

    For the oppressed in an island of geopolitical significance, the road is endless.

  • Tissa Wije

    This articleis somewhatconfusing.

    WE know that the war in Iraq was conducted to eliminate weapons of mass destruction. Before and after the event there weremany who questioned thishypothesis. The war was conductedby democratically elected mostpowerful countries. Despite the deaths of hundreds of thousands that resulted no country faced sanctions; no decision maker faced criminal charges of Nuremberg sort.

    By the writers definition is not the whole world under onder various forms of Dictatorships.

  • http://www.pattapalboru.blogspot.com Patta Pal

    Let us sincerely hope we do not have to wait for 42 years before we can reclaim the space for real freedom in Sri Lanka

    • http://srilankalandoftheblind.blogspot.com/ PresiDunce Bean

      @Patta Pal

      It all depends on the “Budhimath Janathaawa” of this country whether Mr.U No Hoo and his family rule for 42 or 84 years.

  • Srilankan

    This is a very good article. This is what happens to a country when the majority of the population cannot think for themselves. In one of the past elections, Paba received more votes than a veteran politician like KJ. This is the kind of people we have in SL. MR is using the same tactics used by our invaders. Few hundreds of Europeans were able to control a country for years with the support of greedy Sri Lankans. No one is willing to criticize MR because they don’t want to loose what they get from him. Even though general public has the power to send these people home, we only see green and blue when it comes to elections. After all our government represent who we are. I really feel sorry for those Sri Lankans who want to see a better SL. I believe that one day SL will be a like Brazil or Venezuela.

  • sabbe laban

    NATO’s military intervention in Libya is said to be due to,”…Gadhafi is killing his own people”. Why don’t they interfere is Syria when the Syrian dictator too goes on killing his own people in hundreds daily? Is it because he is in good books of the “policeman”?