For all the luxuries they enjoy, dictators live in a state of constant fear.
Without the trust of their people they must always protect themselves against real, imagined, or even potential plots. They may be paranoid, but they’re right to be afraid. That’s true now more than ever.
These are scary times for tyrants. Some of the world’s most enduring dictatorships, the ones that looked as though they would never end, have met their demise in recent months. For now, the popular revolts have spread only through the Middle East. Unelected governments in other parts of the world are trying to make sure they’re not next.
In countries like Cuba, North Korea and Burma (renamed Myanmar), and others, unelected regimes are raising the walls as they try to keep themselves safe from the very people they claim have nothing but love for their long-time rulers.
As has happened throughout history, information and communications are pivotal to revolutions. That’s why the message, news about what’s happening in places like Egypt, is being either blocked or pre-digested for public consumption.
When Egyptian protesters, fed up with 30 years of Mubarak rule, forced the president out of power, Cuba’s Fidel Castro explained the events as a revolt against America. In his column in the Communist Party daily Granma, the iconic former Cuban president wrote, “After 18 days of harsh battling, the Egyptian people attained an important objective: to defeat the United States’ principal ally in the heart of the Arab countries.”
A similar narrative explained other events in the region. Castro defended Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi until the end, painting the uprising as a brutal NATO onslaught against the defenseless Libyan people, an example of colonialist Western aggression aimed at grabbing Libyan oil.
To protect against other versions, the government ordered CNN’s Spanish language network removed from the foreign programming available only to luxury hotels and foreign companies. The order came in January, as Cairo’s Tahrir Square was boiling with the heat of revolution.
Most Cubans have little if any access to the Internet or other sources of non-government-controlled media.
An American contractor, 62-year-old Alan Gross, was sentenced to 15 years in a Cuban prison after he was found to have brought equipment to allow Internet access for members of the country’s tiny Jewish community.
Information is even more tightly controlled in other dictatorships. In North Korea, television sets come factory-tuned to government propaganda channels and there is essentially no Internet and virtually no cellphone service. Even so, a report by South Korea’s Institute for National Unification says the North reacted to Arab rebellions with a number of urgent measures to prevent contagion. Police stations, according to INU, were ordered to intensify their ideological indoctrination programs. Other reports say additional security forces were deployed to prevent any trouble.
If any significant uprising happened to occur, there’s little doubt Pyongyang, with more than a million soldiers receiving privileges from their loyalty to the state, would quickly use force to suppress it.
Burma’s rulers have also shown a willingness to use force to stop protests. Long before the Arab uprisings, young Burmese took to the streets to demand democracy. It happened on Aug. 8, 1988 (8-8-88). The military killed thousands of demonstrators and imprisoned their leaders. Buddhist monks launched another protests in 2007. The government again responded with violence, leaving another trail of blood.
Still, the Burmese opposition lives on, and the regime has put on a democracy charade. Fraudulent elections produced a new, supposedly civilian, parliament, in fact dominated by the military. The new prime minister is a former general. But opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, after years under arrest, has been freed.
In an interview with the BBC she told Egyptian demonstrators, “We’re all with you.” But most Burmese find it difficult to get information. The government says 0.8 percent of the country has Internet access. Local newspapers offer a parody of the news. Stories from Egypt during the January uprising, for example, included news of secret chambers discovered in the pyramids.
The real news, of course, is that tyrants can be toppled.
No dictatorship lasts forever. For the people who have struggled against all odds, facing imprisonment and worse for demanding democracy, the truth about what is happening to Middle Eastern dictators will slowly filter in. Their rulers already know the truth. They are watching closely, and they are not sleeping well at night.