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April 05, 2005

Real Tyrants Eat Protesters for Breakfast

You'd almost think a new era had come, in which dictators felt they couldn't get away with oppressing their people -- at least that's how it feels in the afterglow of the peaceful resignations of the rulers of Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. Then you look at Belarus, where would-be protesters were immediately beaten up and hauled off to jail. Or Zimbabwe, where Mugabe literally restricts food for opposition voters and has left them so intimidated that they felt it wasn't even worth trying to stage protests of the dictator's rigged elections. Or Burma (Myanmar), where the junta continues to promise but not deliver an end to the policy of imprisoning opposition politicians. Or Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, where the dictators practice such a thorough policy of crushing potential opponents that no one even bothers to protest. Unfortunately, protesters' success in places like Ukraine amounts to winning in the easy places, not the hard ones. Nonviolent action can turn token democracies into real democracies. But the world's real tyrants, from North Korea to Zimbabwe, still happily starve, jail and kill all their opponents.

The world seems to be dividing into two extreme camps: countries that really are democratic, and countries that operate by total fear and repression. The nations in the middle, with real but corrupt elections and real but repressed politics, are getting pulled over to the side of true democracy. But the extreme villains aren't moderating. The countries that have just recently gone democratic have all been pretty mild on the scale of tyranny; Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine earned much better scores for liberty in 2003 than their fellow former Soviet republics Belarus, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Even Syria's puppet government in Lebanon was nowhere near as harsh as Kim Jong-Il's government in North Korea. In fact the statistics of the world's countries as a whole show this as a pattern: the extremes of true democracy and unlimited dictatorship are both more stable than countries that mix democracy and autocracy. And that's been true for at least the last couple of generations. Indians were able to use protests to get Britain to let India be independent, and South African blacks used largely nonviolent demonstrations and strikes to get equality from the white South African government; but protests completely failed to deter China from locking down its control over Tibet in the 1950s -- or shooting student and worker protesters around Tiananmen Square in 1989. Protests only work when the police and army aren't willing to shoot large numbers of civilians. Even today, a government whose police or soldiers are willing to shoot their fellow citizens can be as tyrannical as it wants.

So how do hard tyrants fall? If they're not overthrown by force, like Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and if they don't lose the loyalty of the army and police, like the Gang of Four in China, then basically the world's worst tyrants seem to have it easy: they get to rule unchallenged until they die in their beds, like Stalin in Russia or Kim Il-Sung in North Korea. As far as history can tell us, if you want a really nasty tyrant to change his ways, you either have to threaten him with serious force, or shake the confidence of his police and army so that they turn on him, or wait until he dies of old age.

I'd love to know a better answer. But it looks like there's no getting away from the truth: real tyrants eat protesters for breakfast.

[E1] Added a link to our favorite Beltway Traffic Jam.

Posted by danielstarr at April 5, 2005 10:12 AM

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