Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Asia’s Time Wasters

Last year this blog published an article called Africa’s Time Wasters. It was an attempt to draw attention to the excesses and abuses of the current worst leaders on the continent of Africa and show how their mismagement and brutality were hindering the development of their respective countries. This article attempts do the same for Asia.

This not-too-serious article, in no particular order, attempts to draw attention to and rate out of 5 three of Asia’s present day worst leaders and highlight their policies, legacies and crimes, all of which add up to their inclusion, with Africa's worst leaders, in the list - the ‘Time Wasters of Development’.

Burma - Senior General Than Shwe

As head of the Burmese armed forces and effectively head of state in Burma since 1992, and as the head of several puzzlingly titled councils (including the ‘State Peace and Development Council’ and the ominous sounding ‘State law and Order Restoration Council’) Than Shwe has consolidated power in Burma to a degree not achieved by his predecessors.

This army man has overseen the addition of many ignoble suffixes to Burma’s recent history, including the continued detention of Noble Prize winning Democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi, the relocation of the nation’s capital from Rangoon to the centre of the country (a decision Than Shwe made after consulting ‘expert astrologers’) and the overseeing of the suppression that followed the Monks' protest of 2007.

Than Shwe was central in introducing a law whereby any head of state of Burma cannot have a foreign-born spouse. This seemed an unlikely law to enforce, until it was pointed out in the foreign media that Aung San Suu Kyi had married a British man and - although he had died several years ago - she would still thus be considered forever unable to become head of state. Ms Suu Kyi remains under house arrest in Yangon (Rangoon) where she has been for most of the last 18 years - separated from her family.

Foreign media is virtually all banned from Burma and the penalties for any Burmese seen talking to, or worse assisting foreigners are harsh. The organisation Reporters Without Borders ranked Burma as 164th out of 168 nations in its 2006 Press Freedom index. Outside news equally is hard to obtain, with CNN and the BBC World Service frequently jammed and made unavailable within the country.

Though coverage of the recent Monks' protests and subsequent crack-down was hard to obtain, one glimpse into the world that Than Shwe has created did leak out from Burma and can in fact be found in 24 parts on YouTube. It is a film made at his daughters wedding to one of his most senior Burmese ministers. The cost of the wedding, largely covered by the state, came to over three times the amount of Burma’s entire healthcare budget. The video of bride, groom and guests surrounded by lavish food and gifts has been widely distributed in Burma and has not surprisingly caused considerable anger. It is thought that, soon after, Than Shwe’s wife and children fled to Laos fearing a possible backlash.

Since the New Year the United States has announced that it has stepped up sanctions against Than Shwe and his junta, but existing sanctions have had little impact other than to make the life of ordinary Burmese virtually intolerable. Meanwhile the military are able to consolidate their power and prolong the wait for free elections. The educated people of Burma, who have known freedom and democracy in the past will, for the time being, it seems, have to wait for a return to a more enlightened leadership.

Time Wasting Score: (3)

Uzbekistan - President Islam Karimov

Like many other autocratic Central Asian leaders President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan rules his people with an iron fist. Head of the Soviet republic of Uzbekistan at the time of the collapse of the USSR, Karimov inherited leadership of the strategically placed Uzbekistan, its geography proving very useful to the United States for the establishment of airbases in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11th, 2001, and the invasion of Afghanistan.

Karimov’s grasp of democracy is only nominal, however. He ‘won’ the first election (of sorts) held in Uzbekistan after independence - his political opponents, for some reason, chose to flee. Then in 1995 Karimov held a referendum to extend his term until the year 2000. This he won with ease. Then when 2000 arrived he announced that presidential terms of office would be extended from 5 years to 7. This he had backdated, so that his term would last until 2007. In 2007 and presumably running out of ways to manipulate the law in order to remain in power, Karimov simply broke it and announced that he would run for another term in office. His would-be opponents denounced this as an illegal move but their words were blunted by the fact that through fear every speech they gave started with praise for the incumbent President. Unsurprisingly Karimov won with a convincing-sounding 88.1% of the vote.

Islam Karimov’s terms in power have been characterised by corruption, and by detention and torture of political opponents, but his most notorious moment came in May 2005 when troops loyal to him opened fire on demonstrators in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijan. According to human rights groups several hundred people were killed in the massacre and in the subsequent ‘clean up’ operation. International criticism followed with the EU barring Uzbek leaders from visiting and banning the sales of weapons to the country. Belated US criticism of the shootings led to America closing its airbases in the country and withdrawing its military.

Karimov looks as unlikely as ever to relinquish power. His forces frequently torture opponents including boiling them alive. He is amassing a vast personal wealth, as is his family. His daughter, despite having a US warrant out for her arrest, has first dibs on many state contracts and has grown extremely rich and powerful within the country as a result. In the meantime, it is difficult to see how ordinary Uzbeks have benefited at all from the rule of their ‘elected’ dictator.

Time Wasting Score: (4)

North Korea - Kim Jong-il

Kim Jong-il, the ‘Dear Leader’ of the locked-in people of North Korea, its armed forces (ranked as the fourth largest in the World though far from fourth best equipped) and of its rudimentary nuclear-weapons, assumed power upon the death of his father Kim il-Sung in 1994.

Kim Jong-il is an obvious candidate for one of Asia’s worst leaders. He has for a long while been much parodied around the world as a ‘Bond villain-esque’ leader, at home in his underground headquarters. This might not be so far from the truth as amongst his many palaces is a retreat reportedly equipped with bunkers, anti aircraft missiles and surrounded by multiple fences.

The news agency Reuters once reported that he keeps a 10,000 bottle wine cellar and that he spends an annually $700,000 on importing Cognac, whilst a report from the BBC suggested that in China, aboard his armoured train (he is terrified of flying), he ate with silver chopsticks as a precaution against being poisoned. The fact that he was eating lobster that had been flown in especially was also mentioned. His ex head-chef has recounted to the international media how he was sent on a mission to Beijing to go to McDonald's and to buy a beef burger for his boss.

The cult of personality attributed to Kim Jong-il began under the rule of his father. School textbooks recount how the ‘Dear Leader’ was born in a military camp in North Korea, his birth foretold by a swallow, a double rainbow and a new star appearing in the sky. Kim Jong-il was in fact born in a village in Russia and only moved to North Korea following World War 2. Many in the North know this and are almost certainly privately insulted by their children being taught about 'the appearance of a new star', but still they are forced to attend a pilgrimage to Jong-il’s supposed birthplace, which now resembles a theme park built in his honour.

The International Herald Tribune noted in 2004 that "if the North had competitive elections, Kim would have a tough record to campaign on. During his decade in power, fuel consumption has dropped by one-third, per capita income has dwindled to 8 percent of South Korea's, and during the famine years almost 10 percent of the population is believed to have starved to death".

That we have in South Korea a modern Asian liberal democracy exemplifies the ruinous path that Kim Jong-il and his father have taken the north. Their mixture of Marxist ideology mixed with Confucianism has done little for the impoverished masses and has only served to isolate the north in a world that has moved on. The fact that Kim Jong-il is breathtakingly corrupt, that he squanders vast sums on luxuries whilst portraying an image to the people of a comrade-in-arms and of the common struggle against capitalism (which he shamelessly indulges in) would be an utter betrayal to the people - were they ever to find out.

Time Wasting Score: (5)

Like the previous article the scores must not be taken seriously and this list of timewasters leaves several Asian leaders absent. The three leaders above were chosen largely on the basis of the helplessness of their people at being able to end their rule. China, Iran and Indonesia should probably also be listed here, though all three do have varying degrees of accountability and their leaders (generally) do not employ any cult of personality.

As was the case with Africa, it should be a cause of grave concern to the World that these leaders remain in power, although the way the world chooses to deal with them (as in the case of North Korea) can risk solidifying their grip on rule. However, they, like their African colleagues, are indisputedly ‘Time Wasters’ in the way of their countries' development.

Links & Resources:

The World's Top 20 Dictators -'s annual look at the World's worst misusers of power

The Burma Campaign - Homepage of a British based NGO which promotes Human Rights and Democracy in Burma - Article examining the mixed messages the US is giving to Uzbekistan

World Movement for Democracy
- Report from inside North Korea

Korean Central News Agency - Bizarre site of 'official news' from North Korea

Blogging by Dan

1 comment:

Mark said...

Great post - the stuff about Kim Jong-il is amazing. Nice one.