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     Volume 6 Issue2 | January 19, 2007 |

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Remembering the old Dictators

Syed Badrul Ahsan

Augusto Pinochet will be remembered for his crimes against his people

The death of Augusto Pinochet Ugarte some weeks ago ought to have made millions of people around the world feel good. That feeling quite did not arise, though, for the good reason that Pinochet went to his grave unpunished for the sins he committed for many years in Chile. You might say the degree of humiliation he went through in the final phases of his life was punishment enough, that old dictators somehow skirt around the trap laid for them once they move out of the power orbit. You would certainly have a point there. When Pinochet was detained in Britain towards the end of the 1990s on the strength of a warrant issued by a Spanish judge, there was a celebration of sorts that the world erupted into --- and for all the right reasons. Here was a man who had overthrown his country's government and pushed its elected president to his death. Following it all up by murdering thousands of Chileans on the suspicion that they were communists. He was now getting his just desserts. And when later the Chilean parliament stripped him of his immunity from prosecution, Pinochet was shamed for all time.

For men who have usurped office, history has always been an instrument of shaming. When Generalissimo Franco died in Spain in 1975, not many mourned his passing. His forces had brutally put to death thousands of Spaniards through the civil war of the 1930s. Those who called themselves Republicans, and among them was the poet Federico Garcia Lorca, saw life and the land going beyond their reach. Thousands of them perished. Thousands more found refuge in Latin America, where they grew old in nostalgia while Franco presided over a fascist state for decades. The biggest humiliation for Franco, though, came through the alacrity with which the people of Spain opted for democracy soon after his death. Today the country is a model of democratic stability. It has had men like Felipe Gonzalez and Jose Maria Aznar to buttress its democracy. But if Spain went through a renaissance in the post-Franco era, Pakistan has continued to suffer in the grip of its soldiers. The fact remains true, though, that the men who have seized power at various points of time in that country have all made their exit in unenviable manner. Ayub Khan was compelled to leave office in the face of a popular upsurge against his autocracy. His successor Yahya Khan presided over the break-up of the country before being shown the door. The sadistic Ziaul Haq exploded in the sky before falling to earth in pieces. These days, Pervez Musharraf rides a tiger he cannot dismount. His future, and Pakistan's, remains an uncomfortable question mark.

When you reflect on the dictatorships which have sprouted around the world, you cannot but marvel at the way bad men have forced their way to the top before collapsing in a heap on the ground. Nigeria's Sani Abacha and Congo's Mobutu Sese Seko went through power refining their kleptocracies. Abacha died suddenly, some believe in the act of committing the immoral. Mobutu fled his country and died far away from the land he had ravished for more than three decades. In our times, one of the most enduring of dictatorships has been the Suharto regime in Indonesia. Having emerged through the murder of a million people following what was given out as a communist-led coup attempt in 1965 (the communist leader D.N. Aidit was done to death by the army), Suharto went on to rule a country where his family and cronies mattered. In inconspicuous retirement these days, the old dictator conveniently goes through illness and does not remember the past. It was a trick that Pinochet resorted to in his final years.

There have been dictators who turned democrats. Think of Olusegun Obasanjo, again of Nigeria. Another Nigerian military ruler, Yakubu Gowon, pursued academic studies in Britain after his fall from power. While most dictators have emerged from within the military, some have made sure that they convert the democratic system that made their rise possible into a ruthless authoritarian dispensation. Ferdinand Marcos was a fresh new beginning for the Philippines when he beat President Diosdado Macapagal at the elections in 1965. By the early 1970s, he had imposed martial law and through his draconian powers flung the respected Benigno Aquino into prison. Aquino, subsequently freed and forced into exile in the United States, returned to Manila in 1983. He was shot on the tarmac on arrival. Three years later, a people power revolution would send Marcos into exile and install Corazon Aquino as president.

Argentina's Leopoldo Galtieri lived a dissolute life after his overthrow in the aftermath of the Falklands war. The colonels who seized power in Greece in 1967 and threw out King Constantine quit in ignominy seven years later. In Algeria, Houari Boumeddiene ousted Ahmed Ben Bella in 1965 and ruled for a long time before a brain tumour killed him. He is a forgotten man today and Ben Bella grows old in obscurity.

The stories of dictators are tales of a rampant desecration of societies. Pinochet left a country maimed for years. Others of his kind around the world have done quite the same. And there lies the pity.



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