By W.A Wijewardena –
The Little Red Book of Authoritarian Regimes and the Green Book response by global powers
At the launch of ‘Asirimath Greesiya’ or ‘Wonder that is Greece’ by dramatist-novelist Ranjith Dharmakeerthi last week in Colombo, Colombo University’s senior Don Sarath Wijesoriya, who introduced the book to the audience, drew its attention to a short story written by Dharmakeerthi some 20 years ago. The short story titled ‘A man who has become isolated’ is wound around a writer who is being interviewed by a journalist to get his views on the year just past. It was a series of questions and answers relating to a wide spectrum of topics. About artistes, the writer says they are a group of sycophants praising the every move of those in power for personal gains. About art, it is again eulogies of those in power. Rule of Law? It is only for people in power. Judiciary is appropriately subdued to deliver judgments in favour of those in power. Aren’t there honest judges? Yes, the writer says, only a handful but they are subject to constant humiliation and persecution so that they too are effectively silenced.
The Police, according to the writer, are simply protecting the powerful and not the citizens who have paid their salaries through taxes. What about media? They all publish only rosy stories that are helpful to those in power. Thus, in every aspect, it is a regression of society to an unbelievably sad state. The writer was frank and bold in his opinion. But after the journalist had left, his wife rushes to him and start blaming him for speaking without foresight. He has put, she charges, the lives of the entire family to an immense danger. She asks: “Why are you so thoughtless? What will happen if our son or you or I disappear into oblivion without trace as it happens every day? Haven’t you thought of the danger to which you have pushed all of us?” The writer, all of a sudden, finds that he has become isolated among his own kin. Wijesooriya asks the audience to compare the situation today with what Dharmakeerthi had portrayed as a writer two decades ago.
Discipline should come from within
How did Greece survive as a great civilisation for more than a thousand years? Dharmakeerthi who wrote the book after travelling the length and the breadth of the country has found the answer in three basic pillars in ancient Greek society. They were respect for religion, art and law. There was no one who was above the law and it disciplined the entire society.
Wijesooriya stressed that that discipline should come from heart and not induced from outside. He gave an example from Japan narrated to him by a friend. In this example, this friend had travelled in a vehicle driven by a Japanese friend who had been caught by the traffic police for speeding. The traffic policeman who had been extremely polite had issued the Japanese friend with a ticket involving a thumping fine. “Why didn’t you try to get out by speaking him out of it?” the Sri Lankan who knew of the ways back home had inquired. The answer was straight from the Japanese friend: “No, we are expected to observe the law and not to break it by using our personal positions. So, I should set an example to others by willingly paying the fine for the traffic offence I have committed”. Wijesooriya compared the in-built discipline of an ordinary Japanese citizen to a reported recent story of a son of a top politician trying to host a gala of music to students of a leading girls’ school uninvited. Such a thing would not have happened in Japan or in any other country where there is rule of law in force.
The ominous emergence of authoritarian regimes
What Wijesooriya has pointed at is the emergence of authoritarian regimes as a model of government and the silence of even those who can speak out against them through fear or favour. In ancient Greece, this was not the case. Dharmakeerthi has highlighted in his book that the type of participatory democracy that was prevalent in Greece about 2,500 years ago had served as the best model of government. The acceptance of that model by nations throughout the world has led to the fall of dictatorial monarchies in many countries. The refusal of some monarchs, such as those in Nepal, to accept the growing people’s power has resulted in bloody street fights leading to the overthrowing of such powerful monarchs. An opposite example comes from Bhutan where the monarch being sensitive to the changing popular moods has voluntarily abdicated his powers for elected people’s representatives. In this background, it is unthinkable that popularly elected rulers of some countries, mostly developing and emerging, choosing to establish authoritarian regimes in their lands.
Authoritarianism does not work in the long run
Authoritarianism has been hailed by some as a sure way of ensuring faster economic growth. The arguments which are often presented in support of authoritarianism take the following: It enables governments to make unpopular but essential choices easy; it calls for people to sacrifice today for the future; it also unites people of a country for a common goal; it suppresses the people’s unproductive movements for the benefit of producing more and it forces people to save more and invest more. This writer in a previous article in this series under the title “Authoritarian Regime for Economic Prosperity? Not even a little bit will work in the long run” has discounted all these arguments. Yet, many countries have chosen this path without considering its long-term economic, social and political costs.
Hungary, the newest member of the authoritarian club
Almost all the previous satellite states of the former Soviet Union in Central and Eastern Europe have emerged as authoritarian states following the master, the new Republic of Russia. The latest addition to this list has been Hungary where Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has returned to power with a large majority (available here ). Given his track record, after he won the elections with a thumping majority, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, had congratulated him with a polite request that he uses his large majority with special responsibility “with a sense of proportion, restraint and sensitivity” (available here ). What it meant was that he should treat his opponents fairly. However, events since then, according to analysts Thorsten Brenner and Wolfgang Reinicke, has shown that he had done exactly the opposite of what he was advised.
Acting in unison by authoritarian regimes
What Orbán had done is simply following the ways of other authoritarian regimes in the contemporary world. These ways, one might say, are contained in a hypothetical Little Red Book, similar to that containing the quotations of Mao Tse Tung, for authoritarian rulers. It appears that all these authoritarian rulers from Latin America to Africa to Asia to Central and Eastern Europe have, as if they all act in unison, followed the same despite the cultural, political and economic differences.
Then, the reaction of the world community consisting of advanced democracies to such authoritarian rulers has been lukewarm. Their approach to such authoritarian rulers has been more on economic and military lines than on morality and ethics that they very often pronounce as their high grounds. If an authoritarian regime can deliver new business or an assured supply of a rare raw material such as energy or could be a valuable military ally, then, the advanced nations conveniently ignore how such a ruler could destroy his people, country and society. They behave as if they are following the guidelines contained in a Green Book that that has stipulated the common response to such authoritarian rulers. Thus, the high morality and ethical grounds on which they should stand are overlooked for personal gains.
The following are the common ways which authoritarian rulers adopt for sustaining their regimes.
Use of nationalism as a rescue
First, authoritarian regimes always and everywhere arouse nationalism among citizens in order to marshal popular support. It creates an enemy outside the borders of the country waiting to grab its resources and subdue its sovereignty. If there are minority ethnic or religious groups in the country, the hatred is directed toward such groups. In Russia, Vladimir Putin becomes instantly popular if he militarily intervenes in a neighbouring country because it promotes Russian nationalism. Orbán in a recent speech at the Free University and Student Camp declared that Hungary will build an ‘illiberal state’ on ‘national foundations’ (available here ). Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe created an enemy in the style of white farmers holding land grants in the country. Thus, without nationalism, it appears that it is unlikely that authoritarian regimes could survive.
Hating freedom of thought
Second, authoritarian regimes hate freedom of thought and freedom of expression. To brainwash young generations, they reorient education to rouse nationalistic feelings in students by propagating nationalism and sometimes even twisting historical events to the regime’s advantage. History is shown as an exploitation of their nation by a foreign enemy. This tactic is being effectively used by Cuba, North Korea and Russia today. The end result is the isolation of the nation from the rest of the world closing the door for cultural cross-fertilisation.
Societies progress not by being stagnant but by changing according to changing cultural patterns. However, the cultural nationalism practised by authoritarian societies make it difficult for nations to move forward since it irrationally highlights that one’s own culture is superior to all other cultures. Holding such views prevents members to acquire new knowledge from other cultures. The effect of cultural nationalism on the progress of nations was analysed by this writer in a previous article in this series under the title “Cultural Nationalism: Boon or Bane?”.
Muzzling free media
Third, authoritarian regimes effectively control the freedom of expression by muzzling media directly or indirectly. They directly control media by taking over media institutions or imposing taxes that are prohibitive for media institutions to pay. For instance, Orbán has imposed a prohibitive tax of 40% on advertising income of media houses in Hungary. The media are indirectly controlled by threatening to take over them under false pretexts or bribing or threatening media personnel into submission. The recalcitrant media are attacked by inciting mobs or getting personnel attached to armed forces to destroy them. There are instances of private media houses being burned by unknown mobs and there have not been proper inquiries into such incidents with a view to delivering justice to the victims.
Castigating civil society organisations
Fourth, civil society institutions are being frowned upon by authoritative regimes. They are branded as local collaborators who have been employed by interested foreign agents to destroy the sovereignty and the territorial integrity of the nation concerned. Laws are therefore passed by such regimes to control the affairs of civil society organisation under the pretext of safeguarding the nation’s interests. However, civil society organisations are necessary for democracies to function properly. They allow people to raise their collective voice on public issues, act as an effective controller of indiscipline in rulers and introduce checks and balances to powers enjoyed by rulers. Thus, institutions serve the rulers more than the citizens by helping them to realise the goals of society.
Citizens in two groups: Supporters and critics
Fifth, authoritarian regimes classify citizens into two groups: those who support the regime and those who criticise it. Laws are applied discriminatively between the two groups. Accordingly, supporters have all the legal rights and protection which are extended even when they misuse their powers. Those who have been classified as opponents do not enjoy legal rights and protection. They are indiscriminately penalised on every count by not observing the Rule of Law properly. This subject was discussed in an article in this series titled “Rule of Law or Rule of Men? What will usher prosperity and development?” earlier.
Bending judicial system to persecute dissidents
Sixth, those who criticise the regimes – known as dissidents – are jailed without trials or trials fixed and managed by the regimes thereby making it a travesty of justice. The system including the public prosecution branch of the government is fully twisted in order to take revenge of dissidents and critics. In many cases the Police act on an arranged complaint lodged with it by a supporter of the regime. The victim is dragged to a police station in full view of his family members and neighbours in a bid to humiliate him and frighten others. Judges pass remand orders without inquiry and in the final adjudication process, justice is twisted to impose jail sentences on the victims.
Lukewarm approach by international community
These are practised by all authoritarian regimes in unison as if they have found them in a Little Red Book of Rules for authoritarian regimes. The global community, especially those rich Western Nations just pay lip service to them. In many cases, their response is too short and too late. It is like they are reacting to these countries by following a given set of rules. Such a set consists of a polite request or a strong statement against the culprits, threatening to impose economic sanctions which are not binding on them and just leaving the authoritarian regime untouched. The result is that authoritarian regimes breed unimpeded and the citizens of such regimes remain victims forever.
*W.A Wijewardena, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, could be reached at email@example.com