Let’s start with Hafez Assad of Syria. When the Arab Spring came to Syria in 2011 with peaceful demonstrators marching for basic freedoms and democracy, he labeled them all terrorists and brutally suppressed them, just as he and his father before him had suppressed all dissent. For a lot of strongmen, once they have power, they find it impossible to give it up. Holding on is an ego thing, self-aggrandizement, puffing themselves up to claim wealth and power. There’s also, I assume, a fear of retribution for their many misdeeds and reckoning regarding their amassing of wealth through greed and corruption. As long as they remain in power the millions keep rolling in. If they are deposed, they may find themselves in prison.
Assad has been fighting for seven years to stay in power. So what has he accomplished for his country? To start with half a million dead, 12 million people displaced, part turned into refugees, part internally. Finally large areas have been completely destroyed. It will take a generation to repair the damage. All for one man’s ego.
Assad is an Alawite, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, which made up about 18% of Syria’s, pre conflict population. 80% were Sunnis and as it happens in nearly every society, the party in control keeps most of the spoils for themselves. Opening the country to more freedom might’ve allowed for a peaceful transition, since Syrians are educated and the society secular, but by basically saying to the demonstrators, Bring it on, Assad, brought out the worst in the form of radical Islamists who took over large swathes of the country and, in the case of Islamic State, were arguably worse than him in regards to human rights. They will be totally vanquished at some point, but in any case the country will be left in an awful state.
I don’t believe a violent insurrection is possible here, though many people are, to put it mildly, extremely distressed and disgruntled about the country’s current political situation. The opposition took 45% in the last election in an amazing turnout of 86%, a better turnout than almost any western country. The opposition no longer exists through a tactic called lawfare. As long as you control the government, you can devise laws that target your opponents and put them out of commission.
There’s also not a small matter of threats of violence the leadership has made against any who demonstrate against a ruling party win at the polls. The big guy said he’d be willing to kill 100 or 200 people to prevent demonstrations. As a result, opponents have been laying low, but they haven’t forgotten and have only been pacified on the outside: Inside many are seething. When you need to take another’s life to maintain power you are playing God, which, if it doesn’t come back to haunt you in this life, will punish you in the next. (Forgive the religious tone, sometimes I can’t help myself.)
Memories of the Khmer Rouge are still fresh in many people’s minds and we have no radical groups to threaten the peace, no malcontents itching to blow things up. In that way we are blessed: no ethnic tensions, the country’s Muslims are completely peaceful.
When 92-year-old Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe was forced to step down, peacefully but unwillingly, he had been the longest serving leader in Africa. He remained in power partly from his legacy of being an original fighter for independence and the usual vote-rigging, intimidation and beating of opposition figures: The kind of chicanery practiced all over the world by tin-pot strongmen as well as the US and some other places in the developed world.
At the time a lot of people compared him to our head man, who’s now the longest serving leader in Asia, wondering if the same fate would befall him and while there were some parallels; long serving, autocratic, eccentric impulses and strong opposition, there are great divergences.
Most importantly, Mugabe practically destroyed the Zimbabwean economy. He’s probably most famous for a staggering inflation rate of 69,000,000%. A friend from there showed me a 50,000,000,000 dollar note, but the highest one was a cool one trillion, that’s 1,000,000,000,000. But then at a certain point the people began refusing that funny money and demanded something of value. The government was then forced to use the US Dollar.
He indulged in a lot of racial politics, always blaming the substantial white population and colonialism for the country’s problems. For instance, he set up a land redistribution scheme, which, in itself, I don’t consider a bad idea considering the country’s colonial past, but what really happened was productive white farms were parceled out to military men and cronies who knew nothing about farming and production plummeted. The country went from one of Africa’s breadbaskets to a basket case. He clung to power until essentially the whole country rose up and said, Time to go.
In contrast, our big man, has led the country into being one of the 10 fastest growing economies in the world. As a result a lot of people have risen out of abject poverty and their lives improved. No matter what else he’s noted for, a lot of people appreciate that part of his rule.
An extensive patronage network helps him survive. For instance, we have 3000 generals here. In contrast, the US with 1000 times the budget has 500. It’s a good chance that a lot of our top guns drive luxury vehicles of higher status than America’s generals. That, added to a similar padding of many government offices, constitutes a lot of loyal people to back him up.
Another factor in our success is the country’s openness to the world. Making it easy for people from all over the world to settle here has brought income and innovation and world culture.
Our currency is pegged to the USD and in the 16 years I’ve been here it’s never strayed more than 5% from 4000 to a dollar. Having a stable currency and use of the dollar has been a big boost for development. The country’s leaders would really like to change that, to dedollarize, but can’t for many reasons. Eliminating the use of the dollar would allow them to manipulate the local currency, which has its good points but also sometimes leads to problems, Zimbabwe being the best example.
Speedy development looks good and adds to GDP, but not all development is beneficial. The country has a mania for converting urban wetlands and public park space to development. In the latest example a 1600 meter public walkway on the river in Phnom Penh just south of the Japanese bridge is going to be sold off for development. In a city where only 1% of land area is public and much of that is inaccessible traffic circles or small areas surrounded by traffic, every loss is a bad idea. It’s the same in the countryside. Large areas of national parks and wildlife refuges have been converted to plantations. There’s not much that’s natural left in some parks.
A Chinese company was given 40 kms of coastline in Ream National Park near Sihanoukville for a reportedly 2 billion dollar resort development. If history is any guide, the resort will, to all intents and purposes, be off limits to non-Chinese. Here in Kampot all the main tourist spots are jammed at every holiday; traffic gets backed up for kilometers. Now that wealth is coming to our country and many people have cars there is pent up demand, they want to get away from the crowded city and enjoy a little of the countryside and its fresh air. Maybe Ream wasn’t used much when the concession was granted, so it wasn’t considered much of a loss, but now it’s clear if the park had been developed with locals in mind it’d be crowded now. A resource for all citizens has been reserved for privileged others.
It’s hard to talk about political intransigence without mentioning Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela. He took over from Hugo Chavez when he died in 3013. Chavez was the first indigenous leader of Venezuela and he did wonders in bringing people out of poverty and creating a fairer society. At the same time he was reviled by the country’s establishment and mercilessly denounced by the US, regularly referring to him as a dictator when he won every election by a large margin. What he did was break the hold of the right-wing establishment on the country’s politics. Meanwhile he was revered by the people. The right wing opposition demonstrated against him on a regular basis only because they were pissed that he won the election.
What he didn’t do was diversify the economy to be less dependent on oil so when the price crashed there wasn’t the cash to keep all of its programs going. If you then try to keep them going by printing money without reserve, the whole monetary system goes haywire and the result is an inflation rate of about 17,000%, prices double every month. If you then try to keep basic food staples cheap while inflation is raging by setting prices, and those prices are below the cost of production, well then manufacturers will stop producing. The average Venezuelan has lost five to ten kilos in the last couple years because food is simply not available. This in a country with the world’s largest oil reserves and great natural wealth.
When the people soured on his leadership and the opposition won 70% of the seats in the country’s legislature, he stripped the assembly of its powers. He’s jailed opposition leaders and acted autocratically. He obsessively clings to power, refuses to accept the will of the people and continues to drag his country down. He has given socialism a bad name. No matter your ideology, at a certain point practicality has to reign. You can’t maintain your socialist stance while people aren’t getting enough to eat.
We too have a leader who clings to power which is fine as long as it’s legitimate; that is, earned through the ballot box without using legal artifice to eliminate your opposition, without threats and intimidation, without rigging the vote or the system.
It gets silly when the government goes after a woman who threw a shoe at a ruling party sign and subsequently put it on social media. She fled to Thailand, was returned at government request and is now in jail. You have to be really insecure to be frightened of a thrown shoe. Putting her behind bars and punishing others whose only crime is to object or dissent is no way to win hearts and minds, but it is a way to crystallize opponents resolve.
Excessive time in office tends to cause leaders to do silly things, to forget simple norms. When our number one saw pictures of himself being burned in Australia prior to a trip there he said, If you burn my picture, I can beat you (paraphrasing). Maybe he forgot he didn’t have the same prerogatives in a foreign country and had to walk his comment back after it created an uproar.
Finally, there’s a feel good story from Malaysia to end this essay on political intransigence. Mohammed Mahathir who ran Malaysia for 20 years until the early 1990s has made a surprise comeback at the age of 92. While he was in power the country made great economic strides, but he was quite autocratic also and put much of his opposition out of commission. He began as partners with Anwar Ibrahim but when he and Ibrahim had a falling out and Ibrahim challenged him at the polls, Mahathir used trumped up, politically motivated charges of sodomy to put Ibrahim out of commission. He spent 6 years in prison and was quite severely beaten at times, to the point of causing permanent damage.
Meanwhile, when Mahathir retired about 20 years ago, Najib Razak, took over. Mahathir’s victory over Razak in the latest election ended one party rule by UMNO – United National Malays Organization – that had been maintained since independence in the sixties. They had kept their power by giving special privileges to the 60% Malay Muslim population and by establishing an electoral system heavily weighted towards rural voters where Malays are concentrated.
Just a few years ago it was Razak’s turn to jail Ibrahim on sodomy charges. Whether or not you thought the charges of sodomy were plausible the first time, the second time was a farce. A big strong young man claimed he was abused by an old, small and frail Ibrahim.
Meanwhile Razak engaged in corruption on a massive scale. His 1MDB development scheme wound up losing 13 billion dollars of state money and seven hundred million dollars appeared in his personal bank account… a gift from a Saudi prince was his laughable claim. All that was too much for Mahathir so he reconciled with Ibrahim, who was still behind bars, to challenge Razak and won. Mahathir immediately pardoned Ibrahim and has promised to step down within 2 years and let Ibrahim become president. Some people see Mahathir’s working with and freeing Ibrahim as an act of atonement for wrongs committed. Taking a person’s freedom for personal gain is another one of those bottom-of-the-barrel karmic lows.
I can’t end this essay without a mention of China. President Xi Jin Ping, not long after starting his second term, decided to change the constitution to end term limits. They had been in place since Mao’s time to prevent the rise of an all powerful individual. But Xi wants to rule forever so he brought together the country’s rubber stamp congress to change the rule. Not surprisingly the change was approved, and also not surprisingly, the vote was 2995 to 2 with 3 abstentions. When the tally was announced almost the entire assembly cheered wildly. I mean, who’s going to publicly go against an all powerful leader. The kicker is that the words term limits were censored in the country’s internet search engines. Such a momentous change and the people aren’t even entitled to ask about it.
Just a few words before I close about Xi’s social credit system. By 2020 every Chinese will be rated according to their social merits. Good grades in school, follow all the laws, visit your parents regularly, you get a good score. Bad grades, demonstrate (against pollution for instance), break the laws, bad score. Currently in China there are 11 million people who are banned from air travel and another 4 million who can’t even ride trains because, in the eyes of the state, they are bad people. Talk about Big Brother.