Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Year Zero (odometer: 546,944 KM)

Fans of King of the Hill will recall that feisty family patriarch Cotton Hill is forever trying to raise a few bucks selling, what he claims, is Adolf Hitler's own personal canoe, which Cotton claimed to have seized as a war trophy.

Apparently, Cotton isn't alone on trying to cash in on a dictator's transportation. Someone recently put a 1973 Mercedes Benz stretch limousine allegedly belonging to the late Cambodian dictator Pol Pot (funeral pyre pictured) up on eBay with a minimum bid of $71,000 US. Or so the story goes, anyway. I searched exhaustively for the listing on eBay, but came up empty - it seems the sale ended late last night. The alleged ad copy, however, certainly caught my eye:

"For Sale - one classic 1973 Mercedes Benz Stretch Limousine ...previously used by one infamous owner - Pol Pot"

I'd buy it, if only to keep it in the garage ... right next to Hitler's canoe.

UPDATE: Want to buy the Lancia Astura given to Adolf Hitler by Benito Mussolini? It's up for sale, too.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

An urgent message from Omar al-Bashir

Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir, better known as the architect of the Darfur nightmare, has a message for all you Western busybodies:

Western nations have no ethics or morals and we will export it to them. These countries have the political, military and economic strength. We are strong with our values and we are waiting on Allah’s promise to obliterate them!
Thanks for clearing that up, your excellency.

UPDATE: Jimmy Carter will be talking to Omar al-Bashir personally to complain about the lack of appropriate immigrations and customs procedures in Sudan. Look out, Omar!

Monday, October 29, 2007

Chávez furious with Spanish pop star

Venezuelan caudillo Hugo Chávez has told Spanish pop star Alejandro Sanz, not in my house, motherfucker!

In 2004, Sanz told a reporter that he supported the recall referendum aimed at ousting Chávez, adding jokingly, "if that many people told me to quit singing, I would do so".

Fast forward to 2007, the Venezuelan government has canceled Sanz's appearance at a municipally owned and operated arena because of his three year old anti-Chávez comment. The Chavista Minister for Higher Education, Luis Acuna, blasted Sanz, saying:

If an artist comes to Venezuela to criticize Chávez and his movement, how do you think the people of this country would respond?
Judging by Sanz's immense popularity in Venezuela, the answer appears to be "just fine", but Luis Acuna went a step further by saying that from now on, the government will ban any event promoting "anti-educational" values from taking place in municipal venues. The sudden space freed up on the schedule can, and probably will be, filled by Chávez himself, who is fond of holding massive political rallies at the stadium.

Then again, Chávez's motivations may be somewhat more petty. While Sanz is a massively popular singer with a reputation as a ladies man, Chávez is short, squat, and has a face only Fidel Castro could love. And while Chávez has tried to branch out into a music career, for some reason, Sanz continues to outsell him, even in Venezuela. Perhaps Chávez would lighten up if someone would just buy his CD already?

Friday, October 26, 2007

Ribs, chicken, and a side of Kim Jong-Il

Ladies and gentlemen, DotW readers, meet Bobby Egan of Hackensack, New Jersey. Bobby is the owner of Cubby's Barbecue Restaurant, and besides his penchant for mouth watering baby back ribs, Bobby also has another passion - a passion for North Korea. So how did a man who makes a living slinging ribs take a shine to Kim Jong-Il's kingdom?

Bobby Egan's career in what can only be described as amateur diplomacy began over 20 years ago, when he contacted the Vietnamese mission to the United Nations and offered his services on repairing relations with Washington. Why the Hanoi government thought a guy who runs a rib shack could help thaw relations with the United States remains a mystery, but the Vietnamese, eager for a thaw, heeded Egan's advice about "coming clean" about the fate of US soldiers missing in action in Vietnam. Before it was all over, Egan was making trips to Hanoi (one of very few Americans to do so in the 1980s) and testifying before congress on the POW/MIA issue. None of Egan's leads ever panned out, but the rib man made his mark.

It wasn't long before the North Korean government picked up on Egan's volunteer work on behalf of Vietnam, and contacted them on how to improve their image with Washington. Egan's solution? Luring North Korea's infamously reclusive UN staff out to New Jersey for ribs, and tickets to see the New York Giants. After the death of Kim Il-Sung, Egan ingratiated himself with the new heads of the North Korean UN mission in New York, serving (by his own accounts) in roles from everything as a doorman to chauffeur. Somewhere along the way, the North Koreans began to use Egan as their point man for backroom negotiations with the US State Department, who were less than pleased with Egan's role with the North Korean government.

In 1996, a North Korean spy submarine became stranded in South Korean waters, letting loose a pack of 26 heavily armed North Korean commandos in South Korean territory. By the time it was all over, the commandos had killed 13 South Koreans, while 24 of the North Koreans had been killed, one captured, and one escaped. South Korea and the United States demanded an apology from Pyongyang, so the North Korean government threw Egan into the fray. Egan attempted to convince a gaggle of incredulous State Department officials to drop the demand of the apology in exchange for the release of five American prisoners of war rumored to still be held in North Korea. US President Bill Clinton's Asian affairs specialist, Colonel Charles "Jack" Pritchard, went to Cubby's in Hackensack to personally tell Egan to butt the hell out. Unfortunately for Egan, the United States got their apology from North Korea.

Pritchard's suggestion that Egan should stick to ribs has, apparently, fallen on deaf ears. Egan has resumed offering his advice to the North Koreans, even telling them that they should go ahead and conduct nuclear weapons testing in order to knock "Bush off his chair". The North Koreans went ahead and did just this, although the results haven't exactly thawed out relations with the United States as intended. The North Koreans, however, have rewarded Egan by making him the head of the United States of America-Democratic Republic of North Korea Trade Council, an organization that basically consists of Bobby Egan, because of the complete lack of trade ties between the US and North Korea. His bizarre dedication to helping the regime has also had another reward - a snazzy lapel pin bearing the image of the Dear Leader himself, Kim Jong-Il.

Quoth Egan, "I'm one of only two westerners to get this, me and some guy from Romania, I was told."

It makes me wonder just what that Romanian guy had to do to get his.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Lukashenko blasts Jews, but wants their money

The dictator of Belarus, Alexandr Lukashenko, made the news recently for his bizarre comments on Jews, both within Belarus and without.

Commenting in a radio interview on his recent visit to the city of Babruysk, Lukashenko said:

"It was scary to enter - it was a pigsty! That was mainly a Jewish town, and you know how the Jews treat a place they are living in."
When asked to elucidate, Lukashenko noted:
"Look at Israel, I've been there. Now I don't really want to offend anyone, but they don't care as much about cutting the grass, unlike in Moscow."
No Muscovite Jews were apparently available to comment on their landscaping habits. Lukashenko did, however, call on Jews to return to Babruysk, asking them to bring their money to revitalize the formerly Jewish city.

You know, because the Jews are all rich. Another image boost for Belarus courtesy of Alexandr Lukashenko.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Attack of the Super Soviet Apemen!

It's an old story, sure - but since it's an otherwise slow news day for dictator updates, DotW would be remiss if we didn't revisit the story of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's plan to build an army of super Communist Apemen to attack and overthrow the bourgeois, decadent capitalist West.

The story begins in the early 1920s when Uncle Joe approached famed Soviet animal husbandry expert Ilya Ivanov with a startling proposition:

I want a new invincible human being, insensitive to pain, resistant and indifferent about the quality of food they eat ...
Now, some would argue that the bulk of the Soviet Red Army already fit this description, but Stalin was thinking big. The Politburo rubber stamped Stalin's directives for creating bioengineered soldiers, and ordered the Russian Academy Of Sciences to proceed with plans to create a "living war machine". Ivanov, who was not actually a crackpot unlike many of Stalin's pet scientists, pioneered horse breeding with his crude, but successful, artificial insemination techniques. So, Ivanov reasoned, if we can build a stronger, faster horse, we can certainly build a stronger, faster man.

The problem Ivanov faced is that selective breeding for humans is an extremely tricky business. Besides, even Russian soldiers drawn from the peasantry had, from time to time, been known to complain, feel pain, and even mutiny. So Ivanov took a page from Charles Darwin and looked to man's closest primate ancestor - the chimpanzee. Armed with a small fortune provided by the Politburo, Ivanov traveled to West Africa to collect the chimps and transport them back to the Soviet Union. At his hastily constructed breeding facility in Georgia, Ivanov repeatedly tried, and failed, to impregnate the chimps with human sperm samples. Moving on to plan two, peasant girls were "volunteered" for attempted impregnation with chimpanzee sperm.

Naturally, the harder Ivanov tried, the more he failed. When Stalin grew impatient and demanded a progress report, Ivanov knew his time was running out. In desperation, he tried (and failed) to obtain newer (somehow better?) monkeys from a Cuban heiress, but the story leaked to the Western press, and Ivanov became an international laughing stock. The jig was up. Failing Uncle Joe was bad enough without making the Soviet Union look bad, and Ivanov died shortly after his exile to Karaganda.

The moral? No man could make a monkey out of Josef Stalin.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Venezuelans reject glass Guevara gimmick

Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez is reportedly seeing red after ingrates demolished a pricey glass statue dedicated to the deader-than-a-doornail Ernesto "Che" Guevara.

A group describing itself as the "Patriotic Command of the Plateau" shot the glass statue six times, and thoughtfully left a note explaining their motive:

"We do not want a monument to Che, he is not an example for our children"

Considering for a moment that Che Guevara was an incompetent, bigoted terrorist, the protesters may be onto something with that sentiment. The real target, of course, is Chávez himself, and his endless love affair with all things relating to the Cuban revolution. Chávez has spent most of the month in Cuba, swooning over Che Guevara, and engaging in a romantic (if somewhat sickly) pas de deux with the zombielike remains of Fidel Castro. Chávez can't possibly be happy that one of his own ingrate peasants had the nerve to bring a token of his infatuation down to the ground in a sea of glass splinters, but that's the Venezuelan people getting all revolutionary on his ass, no?

Or perhaps it's simply a cry for attention? Hey, big spender, spend a little time with your electorate! With all the time Chávez has spent in Cuba during his rule, it's possible that the people just wanted to remind him which country he's actually president of! Either way, el caudillo hasn't seen fit to comment on the demolition of the Che memorial yet, but I'm sure there's a three hour televised rant on the subject coming soon.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Getting to know Iosef Dzhugashvili

Do recognize the unassuming young man in the picture? No? What if I told you his name - Iosef Dzugashvili. Does that help?


What if I told you his famous pseudonym: Koba. Would that tell you more?


Ok, it's time to let the cat out of the bag. The picture is of Josef Stalin, born Iosef Dzugashvili in the small town of Gori in then Russian Georgia. It's also Dzugashvili as opposed to his more ferocious and infamous adult incarnation that is the subject of Simon Sebag Montefiore's new book Young Stalin, a book the New York Times has cheekily (but not inaccurately) described as a portrait of the "dictator as a young poet-thug". Montefiore's book apparently expands on where Donald Rayfield and Robert Conquest have tread only briefly to provide what may be the most comprehensive biography yet of the man who would become Josef Stalin. While I haven't read Young Stalin yet, I certainly intend to do so soon, but I'd already learned about Iosef Dzugashvili surprised me at first, as it surprises everyone who first learns about the man who become the powerful man of the 20th century.

Unlike his German contemporary, the young Dzugashvili has a credible claim to being an artist, with a talent for Georgian poetry. Also unlike Hitler, Dzugashvili was a quick study and an adept student - when not rebelling against the monastery where he was educated. Though an avid reader, the young man was also a street brawler, who managed to intimidate with his brawn despite losing much of the use of an arm that withered after it was run over by a horse drawn carriage. Undoubtedly, a vicious streetfighting intellectual seems to be a contradiction in terms, but not for Dzugashvili, who quickly learned to hide his brains and overemphasize his strength - a decision that served him extremely well for the rest of his life. And when young Dzugashvili had finally morphed into Stalin, the Man of Steel, his Bolshevik rivals - especially Trotsky - bought into his ruse, continually underestimating him as some sort of uneducated, bloodthirsty country bumpkin. This image alone kept Stalin out of the picture while the party intellectuals fought each other for power, allowing Stalin to sit back and wait to see who would emerge victorious.

Stalin invented a ridiculous biography to obscure what were, frankly, his more interesting (if infinitely more humble) origins, and I eagerly await reading Young Stalin to learn yet ever more about the man behind the monstrous myth. Perhaps I'll even read it by candlelight on Halloween, just for the effect ..

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Bob Denard: dead as a doornail

While not a dictator, French mercenary Bob Denard was responsible for no fewer than eight military coup d'etats, including a mindblowing four in the Comoros Islands alone. Read his obituary here.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Chávez y Fidel por siempre

Watching three plus hours of Venezuelan autocrat Hugo Chávez's television call in show Aló, Presidente would bore men stronger and younger than ailing Cuban caudillo Fidel Castro to death. So you can imagine my surprise when the octogenarian recluse called in to Hugo's program to warble words of amor to the oil soaked political plutocrat who is almost single handedly financing the dying remnants of Castro's dictatorship.

Castro's call was prompted by an hour or so of Chávez singing hymns lionizing the deader-than-a-doornail Ernesto "Che" Guevara and the almost dead Fidel Castro. The Cuban dictator cooed words of loving encouragement to his pudgy protege, croaking "I am very touched when you sing about Che", prompting Chávez to excitedly squeal, "there is electricity in the air tonight!" Unfortunately, the standards of decorum were to slide even lower. Calling Fidel "the father of all revolutionaries", Hugo replaced God with Fidel Castro while riffing on the Lord's Prayer, a move that may ruffle some feathers in overwhelmingly Catholic Venezuela.

"Our father, who is in the water, earth and air ... you will never die. You remain forever on this continent and with these nations, and this revolution .... is more alive today than ever, and Fidel, you know it, we will take charge of continuing to fan the flame."

Even if Castro weren't already wearing a colostomy bag, it's uncertain that his mere mortal plumbing could remain unmoved by the avalanche of Chávez's affections. I think I may need to be excused for a moment myself.

Friday, October 12, 2007

We're #3!

Yes Uncle Joe, things are looking up for Dictators of the World! We've gone from a measly eighth ranking in a Google search for "world dictators" all the way up to third. So who's ahead of DotW? Goddamned Parade Magazine! Yes, the only blog devoted solely to dictators is still outranked by the website of a free Sunday newspaper insert "magazine" whose journalistic focus leans heavily towards asking celebrities how they feel about children and puppies. That reeeeally could hurt a guy's pride.

I'm currently working on a (non-Google bombing) way to outrank Parade's yearly dictator roundup on the search engine rankings, so with any luck, we'll be alone at the top, looking down on the rest of the peasants below us. Just like Uncle Joe.

Kim Jong-Il: Internet Expert

North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il raised eyebrows around the world recently when he proclaimed himself to be an "expert" on the internet. Kim's comments came during a summit meeting with arch-enemies South Korea, who proposed the creation of an industrial park with a shared internet link between the two countries.

"I am an Internet expert" said Kim, "many problems would arise if the Internet is connected to other parts of the North."

So ... does this mean that Li'l Kim is totally l33t? Is he playing World of Warcraft, or using Bittorrent, or editing articles on BGP on Wikipedia?

Let's just say it's doubtful.

One of the perks of ruling a country whose state ideology worships you as a living demigod is having internet privileges. One of the downsides of living in a country whose ruler you are forced to worship as a living demigod is not having internet privileges. Kim Jong-Il certainly sees no need to let his captive population communicate in the outside world. Hence his comment that "problems would arise" if North Korea had internet access is true in the sense that North Koreans would have a chance to learn that their country is not the richest in the world, and that their dead Great Leader is not actually revered around the world as a divine supergenius. North Korea's freedom of the press is, officially, the worst in the world. There is literally no aspect of mass communication that is not controlled by the state. In a country where televisions and radios are locked in to one station and channel, the odds that the government would allow access to any outside source of information are around zero.

Still, if you happen to see someone in a chatroom with the handle "Pulgasari" bragging about his internet expertise, try to humor him. He doesn't really get out much.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

A shocker from Robert Mugabe

Robert Mugabe came perilously close to a moment of critical self-realization when he acknowledged that an economic meltdown, massive emigration and widespread malnutrition have turned Zimbabwe into an international "laughing stock". A quarter of Zimbabweans have fled the country, and of the remaining eight million people, nearly half will be requiring food aid in the coming year.

Shockingly, Mugabe even made what may have been his first ever public conciliatory remarks about his bitter political enemies, the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. Anyone who's read what Mugabe's had to say about the MDC and its leader Morgan Tsvangirai in the past must have been shellshocked when Mugabe said

We have become the laughing stock because of hunger. We all need to eat, whether you are Zanu-PF or MDC. Let's unite.
- Robert Mugabe

Mugabe calling for unity with the MDC? Based on his previous attitude towards the MDC, you get the sense that Mugabe would rather unite with a prostate tumor. It would be foolish to say that Robert Mugabe is unaware of Zimbabwe's miseries, but a statement calling for unity between ZANU-PF and the MDC suggests that, perhaps, he's also finally seeing the light at the end of the political tunnel. He has acknowledged that Zimbabwe's social and economic problems are, for once, of greater concern than whether or not ZANU-PF and Robert Mugabe are in power forever. Could this statement further suggest his readiness to depart from the political scene?

Mugabe's acknowledgment of Zimbabwe's problems stopped short of an admission of guilt, however. While quick to take credit for everything that had gone right in Zimbabwe, Mugabe and ZANU-PF have forever been unable to take the blame when their harebrained schemes have backfired.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Ich liebe Dich

Niccolo Machiavelli coined one for the ages when he opined it is best to be both feared and loved, however, if one cannot be both it is better to be feared than loved. Obviously, the man knew that one of the many perks of being a dictator is having a better than average shot at both.

Now obviously, some dictators have failed at having it both ways. Italian dictator Benito Mussolini managed to endear himself with the people, but never quite found a way to actually scare Italians. Soviet tyrant Josef Stalin got the fear part down to a science, but even with a relentless cult of personality that managed to engender respect - even reverence, Uncle Joe failed miserably on the "loved" portion of the equation.

Which leads us to a man who most people would view as history's least lovable dictator, German Führer Adolf Hitler. Adolf certainly had the "fear" part down pat, but how did he score on being loved? Well, according to an upcoming book called Letters to Hitler: A People Writes to Its Führer, Hitler did far better than one would expect from a short, bloodthirsty megalomaniac whose primary form of communication was screaming. The book compiles letters to Hitler recovered by Soviet troops in East Germany written by ordinary Germans to their dictator, and while some sycophancy is obviously included, there appears to have been a genuine outpouring of affection towards Hitler. Sure, he may have been bristly and aloof, but there had to be something that inspired a woman to write to him and declare "I would like to make you my little puppy my dear, my eternal, my lovely Adolf".

Historians would like us to believe that Hitler was some sort of magician who "wove a spell" around the Germans, but this is just a tedious cliche used a shortcut to explain how people internalize their feelings for authority. Hitler himself was about as lovable as a viper with the ebola virus, but something about his mien stirred genuine feelings of affection from ordinary Germans. Could it have been daddy issues on a national scale?

Nowadays, dictators appear to have largely dispensed with the loved part of Machiavelli's equation, opting largely to rule through one or the other. Hugo Chávez buys love with oil money, and Than Shwe uses riot police, but is it so much to ask that one of today's crop manages to provide some balance? Call me old fashioned, but I'd like to think we've got a right to expect more from the world's most notorious tyrants.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

We will, in fact, have Pervez Musharraf to kick around

So the world's most beleaguered dictator finally gets one in the win column. Amid opposition boycotts, parliamentary walkouts, and a series of looming Supreme Court challenges to the entire process, Pakistan's military strongman, General Pervez Musharraf, has won another five year term as president on Saturday.

That the seemingly terminally compromised Musharraf could cruise to re-election highlights just how bad Pakistani politics are. With the lack of fresh political energy in Pakistan, it's little wonder that voters opted for more of the same. Whether or not they would have done so without the self-defeating boycotts and walkouts by what passes for Musharraf's political opposition is another matter entirely. There doesn't appear to be as much enthusiasm for the return of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan as there does among pundits on the BBC and in the Washington Post, but Musharraf managed to strike a power sharing deal with her anyway. Perhaps the good general summed it up best with this pithy comment on the state of politics in Pakistan: "democracy means majority, whether there is opposition or no opposition".

Will the high court invalidate Musharraf's reelection? Will he declare martial law if they do? Will Pakistan finally give up the pretense of being a functioning nation state and just return a Mogul emperor to the throne? Stay tuned.

Friday, October 05, 2007

"It's become fashionable to pretend to be democratic"

The normally taciturn and reclusive Isaias Afewerki appears to have transformed himself into something of an extrovert lately. I've already posted an article about Al-Jazeera's video interview with the Stalinist Eritrean dictator, and now I've found a delightful interview Afewerki granted to the Los Angeles Times. So how does Afewerki defend his rotten record? As might be expected, Afewerki blames all of his country's ills on neighboring Ethiopia and its superpower ally, the United States. Of course, Afewerki can't quite explain how Eritrea's rotten relations with Addis Ababa and Washington accounts somehow forces his government to torture political prisoners or indefinitely conscript his citizens as indentured servants, but I don't suppose anyone was really expecting him to connect the dots there, anyway.

I was especially interested to read Afewerki's defense of Eritrea's press freedoms (which are currently the third worst in the world):

There is no independent press anywhere. Who guides the so-called independent media? Who finances these organizations? Unfortunately, the independent media are being manipulated by those who can afford to buy them.

If his career as a dictator doesn't pan out, he still might have a bright future as a guest columnist for Media Matters. Even better, Afewerki provides a straightforward defense of tyranny itself. When asked if Eritrea's so called "democracy" might ever get around to letting people vote once in a while, Afewerki was blunt:

You can see today how this concept of democracy is abused. It's very sad. Democracy in its real essence should provide people with equal opportunity.
You see, it is precisely because Eritrea cannot guarantee equal opportunity to everyone that it has denied it anyone. Except, of course, to Isaias Afewerki himself. Speaking of which, has he ever thought of stepping down so that Eritrea could, perhaps, rejoin the rest of the world?

It's become a habit for me not to discuss this issue. I believe in a political process that will take this country from one level to a higher level. I see myself in this process. I think I'm moving in the right direction.
We'll take that as a no, Isaias. You can read the interview in its jaw dropping entirety here.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

You won't have Bob Mugabe to kick around anymore

Stop me if you've heard this before, but Robert Mugabe's career in politics looks like it may be coming to an abrupt end. If Zimbabwe were a normal country, they would have voted out a leader who has managed to single handedly ruin the economy and send a quarter of the population into exile, but that's just not how dictatorships work, now is it?

Mugabe's main method of retaining power has been the most effective tool of the African big man - cronyism. Over the years, Mugabe has, by and large anyway, eschewed the iron fist in favor of the velvet glove that offered potential political enemies a way into the ruling party to grab a share in the earnings from corruption. It's a classic strategy, and one that's proved to be extremely effective. The only problem is, what happens when the ruling political class runs out of money to steal, and people to extort bribes from? Robert Mugabe has been discovering the answer, and it isn't pretty.

Since independence, Mugabe has held a firm grip on the ruling ZANU-PF party, making quite sure never to let any single person rise through the ranks to the point where anyone would consider him or her to be "next in line". Yet because of Zimbabwe's economic implosion, a challenger within ZANU-PF has thrown down the gauntlet. A political faction within ZANU-PF led by retired General Solomon Mujuru has found itself engaging in a power struggle with the octogenarian Mugabe. So what's their beef?

Mugabe has insisted on running for reelection in 2008, and while he's hinted that he may step down if elected, he's also said that he intends to rule Zimbabwe until "at least" 2010. The Mujuru faction, on the other hand, is apparently insisting that Mugabe retire as soon as possible, which would lead the way for either Solomon or his wife Joyce to take control of ZANU-PF, which would lead the Mujurus just one more rigged election away from taking control of the country. Mugabe, of course, doesn't want to hear it, and he's attempting to fight back. Mugabe has ordered the state run press to insult the Mujuru faction, and has forbidden any "flattering" coverage of the Mujurus. Simultaneously, he's ordered the same outlets to provide extremely flattering coverage of Emmerson Mnangagwa, a politician who has fallen in and out favor with Mugabe, but who leads yet another ZANU-PF faction hostile to the Mujurus. Unfortunately for Mugabe, however, the press has very little influence on decision making inside the Zimbabwean politburo, and Mnangagwa's proximity to Mugabe is seen as little more than a crippling political liability.

Ominously for Mugabe, Solomon Mujuru appears to have gained supporters from the armed services, which is the only political faction Mugabe cannot afford to alienate. After squashing an alleged coup back in June, rumors abound that the Mujuru faction has reached out to the army, promising a greater role in government in exchange for their political support in the struggle with Mugabe. Nobody has been able to ascertain if the army backs the Mujurus, or if they will, as is also rumored, launch a coup if Mugabe is pushed out. As the only state institution capable of providing the muscle to prop up the government, the Army's political support has become the brass ring Harare's kleptocrats are flailing away at.

Now 83 years old, Mugabe is increasingly showing signs of frailty, and that he now lacks the physical and political vigor that sustained him during his most intense political challenges. The sharks are circling the lifeboat, and frankly, it's impossible to see how Mugabe is going to win that elusive final term to secure his "legacy" in politics. This isn't to say that the ZANU-PF predators looking to oust Mugabe will be any better for Zimbabwe's exhausted population of paupers, but I'm having a hard time imagining any scenario where Mugabe can outwit, or outmaneuver, them for much longer.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Than Shwe in the news? Sort of.

The entire world is paying attention, or at least pretending to pay attention, to the crackdown on dissident monks in Burma. Missing in most of the coverage is any mention of just who runs the system that caused all this drama in the first place - SPDC chief Than Shwe. The coverage of the unrest in Burma has mostly avoided mentioning Than Shwe by name, preferring to run with "the military junta", "the generals" and so on and so forth. Then again, considering how Burma's top brasshat likes to avoid the limelight, this is somewhat understandable.

For now, Than Shwe remains in charge of the ruling SPDC party despite rumors of ill health and a desperate power struggle with the SPDC's number two man, Maung Aye. It's rumored that the delays in organizing the crackdown on the protesting monks were due to infighting among the generals, which could be construed as yet another sign of Than Shwe's diminishing influence. Nevertheless, Than Shwe's position at the top appears to still be intact, so much so that the United Nations will be directing its ineffectual pleas for "peace" and "restraint" to Than Shwe himself.

Perhaps the United Nations would try a different tack if they actually bothered to learn more about Than Shwe. How do you deal with a man who is, above all else, more of a brutal and monomaniacal kleptocrat than is an actual political leader? I can give you a hint: handing him a petition isn't going to get them very far, nor are "solidarity protests" in Belfast. The fact that the United Nations appears determined to deal with Than Shwe the same way they'd deal with the prime minister of Belgium shows that the international diplomacy bureaucracy still hasn't managed to to read the the essentially atavistic urges that motivate dictators, much less how to deal with them.

The talk of boycotts might scare a country like Belgium, but considering that most of Burma's trade involves heroin, mining and oil, it's a safe bet that Than Shwe isn't going to worry about boycotts. Besides, they only affect the poor. Who cares? There's been some talk about shaming China into restraining Burma with talk of an Olympic boycott, but wait - how will the Chinese know if the boycott is over Burma or Darfur? In the end, it's meaningless, because China has absolutely no intention to tell Than Shwe what to do, and Than Shwe has absolutely no intention to listen even if they did. Finally, a diplomatic relationship built on mutual understanding!

It's almost as if Than Shwe has figured out that there's no point in being a dictator if you're just going to let the rest of the world tell you what to do. Amazing, isn't it?