The Dictator’s Survival Guide

Mar 11, 2011
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Why do some dictators fall after popular uprisings, while others remain in power? A Burmese blogger explains.


Illustration by Carlos Latuff


Let's take a look at the Arab world and the national protests that seem to be spreading like wildfire from one country to another. Egypt and Tunisia saw their despots fall to mass uprisings, and the people of Libya, Syria, Yemen and Algeria are now taking to the streets in an attempt to remove their own authoritarian regimes.

The popular revolts that led to the demise of Tunisian leader Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak seem to have sprung out of nowhere. But who in fact kicked them off?

In Tunisia, it all started when a young Tunisian vegetable seller, Mohamed Bouazizi, was slapped by a policewoman in broad daylight and his wares were confiscated. As a result, the 26-year-old set himself on fire, and his subsequent death on 4 January sparked an uprising that led to the downfall of a dictator who had ruled the country for 23 years.

But that was not the end of the story. The successful revolt in Tunisia inspired the people of Egypt to topple Mubarak, whose 30-year rule ended only 18 days after the uprising began. So the tragic act of defiance by a young vegetable vendor acted as the catalyst that brought down two powerful dictators who had ruled for decades — with more possibly to fall before the political sandstorm in the desert finally settles.

We Burmese had our own Bouazizi, but unfortunately not the same end result.

Phone Maw was a fifth year student at the Rangoon Institute of Technology who was killed by riot police on March 13, 1988. His death sparked a nationwide popular uprising that toppled the Socialist regime of Ne Win, Burma's first dictator who had ruled the country for 26 years. But Phone Maw's sacrifice did not eradicate dictatorship in Burma. His death led to Ne Win’s downfall in 1988, but the military dictatorship carried on since then, and in 1992 it appointed Than Shwe — an even more ruthless and oppressive dictator—as the new junta chief.

Two decades later, Snr-Gen Than Shwe is still in power. But he is aging and desirous of a legacy, so he is now orchestrating Burma’s transition to a ‘civilian dictatorship’

Two decades later, Senior-General Than Shwe is still in power. But he is aging and desirous of a legacy, so he is now orchestrating Burma’s transition to a “civilian dictatorship” in an effort to prolong the life of one of the world’s longest-running regimes while at the same time attempting to prolong his own.

Between Ne Win and Than Shwe (and a couple of caretaker despots in between), the Burmese people have now been ruled by a dictator for almost 50 years during a time when many other dictators have bitten the dust.

Ferdinand Marcos ruled the Philippines from 1965 to 1986 before he was ousted by “People Power.” The Philippines later became one of the leading democratic nations in Southeast Asia despite experiencing several insurgencies.

Indonesian dictator Suharto ruled for 31 years until mass protests led to his political demise in 1998. The fall of Suharto brought democracy and a promising economy to Indonesia. In 1989, East Germany’s Erich Honecker lost the power he had held for 18 years when the Soviet Union collapsed.

Likewise, dictators Mobutu Sese Seko of the Congo, Augusto Pinochet of Chile, Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania and Jean-Claude Duvalier of Haiti were all deposed during the last few decades.

But in Burma, the dictators have managed not just to cling to power, but to build a foundation for maintaining their stranglehold on the country for the foreseeable future. Clearly, they have studied the unwritten rules of the “Dictator’s Survival Guide” and taken its lessons to heart. What are some of the secrets to a dictator’s survival? Here are some that Than Shwe and the

Burmese generals have practiced:

— Crush all protests as soon as possible
— Consolidate all security forces, especially the military, under one command
— Apply divide-and-rule techniques among dissidents and the public

— Show no sympathy toward any dissent (as Tunisian leader Ben Ali did for the street vendor.)
— Never negotiate with opponents
— Pay no attention to pressure or suggestions from the international community

Than Shwe has applied these techniques since taking power and they are still working well for him. His recent formation of a “civilian government,” following the convening of a “civilian parliament,” appears to be his attempt to plant his seed of power in Burma and watch it grow even from beyond the grave.

If Than Shwe’s seed sprouts and grows to its intended fruition, he may become known as the “greatest” of all the world’s dictators — the man who rewrote the book on authoritarian rule and became revered by future generations of despots.

The people of Egypt and Tunisia should take note and learn from the experience of Burma. It's not yet clear that the collapse of Mubarak and Ben Ali will wash away authoritarian rule from their societies, and they each may have their own Than Shwe waiting in the wings, ready to make a move when the time is ripe.

Most likely, the Arab dictators-in-waiting, as well as those clinging to power right now, are already studying the moves of the master—Than Shwe.


This post was originally published on The Irrawaddy in February 2011.

Kyaw Zwa Moe is managing editor of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]

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