Call yourself a dictator? | South China Morning Post
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Call yourself a dictator?

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 December, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 December, 2003, 12:00am

The executive officers of the Dictators' Hall of Fame are as disgusted with Saddam Hussein as United States President George W. Bush is. In the glare of the international media, they disavow their allegiance to the ousted Iraqi leader and agree that he is indeed a despicable tyrant who deserves what he has coming.

If that means a swift trial, a guilty verdict and execution, so be it, they glower. The humiliation of it all - the 'Tiger of Baghdad' found cowering in a rat-infested pit. The world will be a much better place without him, they declare in unison.

Then, with the television cameras and microphones turned off and the reporters leaving, they adjourn to the executive lounge for much-needed refreshments.

There, the membership secretary scrubs Hussein's gold-lettered name from an honour board and the conversation turns to strongmen of the past and present. Much as in a fishing competition, the talk centres more on the ones that got away rather than those that got caught.

There is, after all, no honour in being a dictator if the lasting image is that of a bewildered, dishevelled wretch peering up from a hole like a cornered rodent. What use did Hussein have for a pistol if he was not even brave enough to use it on himself?

Indeed, what good are weapons of mass destruction if you do not use them as your capital city is falling to foreign troops? Just what sort of a dictator was he anyway?

The talk quickly turns to the Soviet Union's Josef Stalin, who died in 1953 having exterminated 20 million of his own people through starvation and genocide - and the world did nothing. Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot ordered the killing of 1.7 million Cambodians and still died a free man on his own terms in a jungle clearing near the Thai border.

What about Idi Amin, the Ugandan president who died this year in exile in Saudi Arabia, having overseen the killing of half a million of his own people - even participating in a well-documented dozen or more cases of slaughter?

The first bottle of malt whisky polished off, the conversation becomes livelier. Hussein had brutally crushed ethnic divisions and political opposition in Iraq, killing maybe one million or more during 35 years in office. He had tried to seize Iran and failed, and had briefly captured Kuwait. Through partnerships with foreign governments starting in the 1960s, he had acquired the weapons or technology to achieve his aims.

But the world had many dictators just as bad or even more ruthless, they concluded, certainly enough to keep the hall of fame in business for some time. As the cigar box circulated, an eager scanning of the Roll of Honour began.

North Korea's Kim Jong-il topped the list. Humanitarian groups estimate up to a third of his country's 22 million people face starvation this winter because of crop shortfalls. Millions of people are believed to have died in the past decade from food shortages.

Myanmar's military leader Than Shwe heads a leadership structure whose hallmarks are forced labour and ethnic cleansing.

Saudi Arabia's royal rulers have promised a measure of democratic freedom to their subjects following months of agitation - but what that means and whether it will placate the increasingly poverty-ridden kingdom remains to be seen.

Then there are the others in Africa and the former Soviet Union's republics - Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, Equatorial Guinea's Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, Turkmenistan's Saparmurat Niyazov, Belarus' Alexander Lukashenko and Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe among them.

Liberia's former president Charles Taylor, responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people throughout West Africa, was on the list until September. Despite being charged with genocide by the international war crimes tribunal for Sierra Leone, he has managed to evade justice and lives in comfortable exile in Nigeria.

The hall of fame executive committee was by now well into the case of whisky and in reflective mood in a swirl of cigar smoke. Names of the not-so-lucky came to mind. Nicaragua's Manuel Noriega was languishing in a US prison, while Yugoslavia's former strongman, Slobodan Milosevic, was before a war crimes court in The Hague. Like Hussein, sometimes the big fish got caught.

As the executive officers shuffled out of the Dictators' Hall of Fame and the lights went out, one certainty hung in the air - Hussein would not be the last. The question on worried minds was, who was the greatest?

Peter Kammerer is the Post's foreign editor


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