SPEAKING FREELY A must-read for aspirant dictators
By Nancy Hudson-Rodd
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The following is a review of a so-far notional work, The Dictator's Guide: How to Keep Power and Gain the World's Respect, as it might have been written by Thein Sein, a former general and the present president of Myanmar.
The Dictator's Guide: How to Keep Power and Gain the World's Respect recounts Thein Sein's biggest challenge to date in establishing a flourishing, modern, developed democratic
Myanmar in which all the official 135 national races live together in peace and harmony. The removal of thousands of Muslim "Bengalis", people whose claims for decades to be ethnic Rohingya citizens of Myanmar are rejected by the government, has proven especially difficult, though not insurmountable, in keeping the international community on-board with his country's supposed liberal transition.
Thein Sein shares his personal perspectives on how to overcome this problem and many others in the volume. Most importantly, he details how to successfully silence individuals and organizations, both locally and internationally, which do not understand Myanmar's "true" historical social, cultural heritage yet continue to press for progressive change. Such straightforward talk from a man in the thick of orchestrating what some have referred to as genocide is essential reading for other aspiring dictators who desire to bring their personal version of peace, development, and democratic rule to their true national people with not only the support of international organizations and leaders of the Western world, but with their ill-gotten wealth and investments intact.
Thein Sein's secret political recipe is to take advantage of the state's ownership of all the land, air, and sea, ie all that exists above and below Myanmar. To ensure that top members of the previous ruling junta will be allowed to keep their ill-gotten gains amid a "democratic" transition, he argues the key is to offer a share of the nation's wealth of minerals, gemstones, oil and natural gas reserves, and abundance of cheap labor to international corporations eager to take advantage of his country's underdeveloped markets. The heads of well-established military-owned businesses are now members of parliament, so it is a double win for continued control of wealth.
Next, recognize your enemy as your best opportunity to maintain control. Myanmar was blessed with the most internationally recognized and admired woman for her peaceful commitment to democracy, human rights and reconciliation in Myanmar. It took the regime decades to understand this. After holding her in house or prison detention for 15 years, releasing her occasionally, thinking wrongly that she had lost her public appeal, and failing to kill her in 2003 during a release from house arrest, Thein Sein and other military leaders realized belatedly that their most formidable enemy could not be defeated. Instead, it was essential to make her part of their team.
Both Thein Sein and Suu Kyi are now welcomed around the world as representatives of the new "democratic" Myanmar. Both speak of needed changes to the 2008 Constitution to enable those not fully "Myanmar", including Suu Kyi, who was married to a British foreigner, to legally become president. Neither mentions changing the laws that deny the Rohingya citizenship. In international media interviews that ask questions about allegations of ethnic cleansing, both have emphasized the suffering of recent pogroms has also affected Buddhist communities. The book notes that legal change must be presented as "reform" while effectively buttressing the Burman-led status quo.
Each chapter of the volume provides invaluable advice to incumbent and would-be dictators angling to bring the international community on-side:
Chapter one: Hold firm to your ideals
First and foremost, do not be discouraged by poor publicity and media coverage. Deny countless human rights violations supposedly committed by the military, including systematic rape, torture, the burning of villages, forced labor, abductions, and the recruitment of child soldiers.
Since 1992, when the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar mandate was established, revolving rapporteurs have reported serious violations of human rights, and have denounced the military regime's failure to cooperate with the international community and to take steps to end violence against citizens.
Each year the Myanmar delegation to the United Nations has persistently denied the allegations and called for a new rapporteur, one more sensitive to their reality. It's a strategy that worked: foreign countries applied sanctions but failed to intervene under the UN's "responsibility to protect" initiative, despite the substantial evidence of persistent and systemic abuse.
Chapter two: Recognize your authority
Create and pass in a bogus referendum a constitution that ensures that 25 % of the seats in parliament are kept for military members. After staging rigged elections, your regime will be recognized as democratic and legitimate. The people will thus have a moral obligation to obey. You need the support of your people to keep power and that support is easily manufactured through manipulated democratic processes.
Embrace Western countries that speak fondly about your new "civilian government", all the while dangling lucrative concessions in resource extraction and other industries. Welcome the World Bank, foreign investors, government officials, and technical experts into your country to support your supposed political and economic transitions. Manipulate local property markets dominated by military cronies to price gouge foreign companies and organizations aiming to establish in-country offices.
Chapter three: My material resources
The 2008 Constitution ensures the military state control of political power, property, natural and financial resources, and economic systems. Promote and sell off resources to international corporations, ensuring continued personal wealth and funds to purchase arms to overpower aggrieved ethnic minority groups in resource-rich areas. Conscript Western militaries in the fight against ethnic insurgencies with the quiet promise of access to resources in contested areas once the fight is won.
Do not share revenues from mining, oil and gas exploration and extraction with citizens. Ignore reports like the 2013 Resource Governance Index which measures the quality of governance in the oil, gas, and mining sector of 58 countries. Myanmar was ranked at the bottom, after Equatorial Guinea, Turkmenistan, and Libya. Pass new restrictive laws, such as the Peaceful Demonstration and Gathering Act, under the guise of promoting civil liberties. The law should allow security forces to identify and crack down on activists and farmers who protest against their land being taken or damaged due to military-backed mining, oil and gas developments.
Chapter four: Take prisoners, redefine the cage
Sanctions and legitimate punishments threatened or applied against the disobedient are required to ensure submission and cooperation of people and institutions of society. Accept local gratitude and international kudos for releasing political prisoners but refuse to change the national laws that allowed for their detention and rearrest if necessary. Make the judicial system work for you and not the people. All presidential amnesties of political prisoners should be conditional and reversible. Maintain presidential power to detain released prisoners again to complete their sentence if you deem them a national security risk. Control of released political prisoners is crucial: do not allow them freedom of movement or passports.
Chapter five: Inflame old hatreds
Claim sectarian, religious or ethnic tensions are the "unwelcome by-product" of political liberalization. These words deny the truth of genocide and gloss over the culpability of state actions. Ignore UN claims that continued acts of violence against Rohingya are systemic, widespread and state supported. Build on psychological and ideological factors that induce people to react strongly to obey and aid your rule. Be clear on who is a citizen and who is not. Refuse to change the 1982 law which strips Rohingya of citizenship. As the presidential author stated: "I believe the law is meant to protect the country and the government has no plans to revise it."
The Rohingyas' lack of legal status effectively gives state approval to endemic discrimination. Support those who state racist claims against Rohingya, including state-backed Buddhist monks. Refer to Rohingya in racist terms to stir grass roots ethnic hatred. Be open about your beliefs and actions, not secretive. Isolate Rohingya in internal camps that you control, with the aid of army, police forces, intelligence services, and other state authorities.
Ask for and accept international funds under the guise of humanitarian help for Rohingya whose homes, lands, places of worship, and business have been destroyed in recent pogroms. However, do not let aid workers actually visit the camps, just take their money. Intimidate foreign aid workers who attempt to violate the no-go order, including through the threat of imprisonment. Arbitrarily detain Rohingya elders, deny them lawyers, hold them incommunicado, refuse then medical care, refer to them in racist terms and deny they are prisoners of conscience. Charge them with inciting violence, despite their active roles in attempted peace-making with angry mobs. Ignore the UN rapporteur's call for their immediate release.
Chapter six; Stand firm
The book does not resolve the issue of future actions or inactions which may constitute genocide. It does demonstrate that authoritarian regimes can encourage others to commit such crimes without retribution, despite the documented evidence of these state atrocities. Take comfort in the words of scholars such as Leo Kuper, who in his book Genocide: A Critical Bibliographical Review explains that nations will always continue to express their optimism about government reforms despite abundant evidence about continued systematic repression.
Make the technology of denial developed by member states of the United Nations and frequently used to shield various favored rights-abusing governments work for you. Thein Sein's abusive policies cloaked in the terms of democracy are now openly supported by Western governments. His political strategy is a must-read for all aspiring tin-pot dictators and would-be genocidal regimes.
Nancy Hudson-Rodd is a human geographer at the University of Tasmania.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.