SRI LANKA: Modern dictatorships through the mirror: Time for us to be conscious 

An Article by J. C. Weliamuna forwarded by the Asian Human Rights Commission

JC Weliamuna (Eisenhower Fellow, Senior Ashoka Fellow & Constitutional Lawyer)

In legal and political literature, the term ‘dictatorship’ includes authoritarianism and is synonymous with traditional terms such as absolutism, absolute governments, despotism and tyranny. In political and constitutional legal theory, a dictatorship is a political regime under which the power of government is not limited by any law. Perhaps the main feature in all types of dictatorships is that there is a concentration of political power in one power center and generally in one person occupying a single high government, party, religious office or it may be located in a small and cohesive elite group. The world has now seen such concentration of dictatorial power be in the hands of a single leader, a popular majority or in its democratically elected executive or legislature. The common feature of all these systems, whether it is a rule of one person or a group of persons, is that it dominates the government while dictating to the entire society its rules without any checks and balances.

As Justice Douglas said in a celebrating US case:

“As nightfall does not come at once, neither does, oppression. In both instances, there’s twilight where everything remains seemingly unchanged, and it is in such twilight that we must be aware of change in the air, however slight, lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness.”

Having been a close observer of the events unfolding in Sri Lanka in the recent past, I believe this is the time for the Sri Lankans to be aware of the changing in the air before we fall in complete darkness.

In the modern era, dictators do not want to be known as dictators but rather to be known as saviors of their respective nations. Though there are fundamental differences in various forms of dictators, there are fundamental similarities as well. This article is an attempt to understand few of such similarities, irrespective of the type, so that we recognize them and understand where we stand with modern political realities. Let us pose for a moment and reflect on these realities.

Elections, a form of entry and then a form of justification of dictatorship

Unlike a complete military dictator grabbing power through a coup, most of the dictators have come to power or sustained power, through “democratic” elections. Centuries ago, Plato said “Dictatorship naturally arises out of democracy and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme liberty”. Even most of the military dictators later consolidated their power with electoral victories. The dictators know the art and science of elections more than those who practice democratic values. In a dictatorial set up, all elections are won by the party of the dictator. Continuous electoral victories for one party are an indication of a questionable regime because people naturally prefer changes and something unnatural is happening to prevent it. Opposition political leadership is generally wiped out, incarcerated or manipulated to be weak. The tool that is being used by all dictators is to use all state resources for their political agenda and propaganda. Under a dictator, all social and public institutions are generally run by coteries of stooges or relations and manipulation of any steps in an election is just simple.

Needless to mention that the media would first be a victim of the dictatorship and then be an effective supporter of a dictator. The public tend to believe that all elections are won by the dictator and are therefore convinced that there is no point supporting the opposition. All what the public hear from media is the personal achievements of the dictator, his family and his untested vision. In the modern world, powerful images will dominate all media to present the dictator as the most pious, respected and courageous leader who was born to liberate the country against all possible evil. All institutions that support electoral integrity collapses though there is a seemingly independent election authority who genuinely believes that elections are fair. Generally no institution is capable of setting aside an invented result of a flawed election due to multiple reasons; viz. lack of proper legal structures, weak judicial systems and lack of integrity in electoral adjudication process. Elections are held while the dictator holds power and not under a custodian government. Unless a serious external and detailed observation is done, it is difficult to understand the real reasons for the electoral success of a dictator. The dictator will always claim victory at all elections in a flawed but seemingly fair electoral process. Then media manipulation seals the public opinion.

Public Opinion – the Key to Hide Cult Personality

All dictators are master stroke players in manipulating public opinion. The entire state mechanism is restructured for that purpose. Whether Gaddafi’s Libya, Ben Ali’s Tunisia, Military Junta’s Burma, Idi Amin’s Uganda or Hitler’s Germany, the propaganda was at its best. They exploit “nationalism”, “national unity” and similar sentiments most attractively. Public tend to believe the dictator, because all avenues of dissenting views are either closed or controlled.

Interestingly, in all dictatorial regimes, there is a high percentage of best brains and minds supporting dictatorial regimes. Professionals, academics and economists are not the only ones to cheer a dictator; in some countries even business leaders, trade unionists, historians and religious dignitaries would join the cheering troop. There are many reasons for it but, of all, the hypocrisy can only be understood by the enormous rewards and advantages that have been bestowed on those individuals. After all, the governance theories prove beyond doubt that “formal education” and “integrity” are two totally different and unconnected values and principles. All the hard work of those crony intellectuals is used by dictators to cover cult personalities of the dictators and their families.

Dictatorial regimes have an advantage of sustaining public opinion, with the over mighty executive powers. They generally come to power with an overwhelming victory after exploiting culturally sensitive issues. Victory or threat of a defeat in a war is yet another benefit. They generally create a common enemy, even if there is no such one so that the public will be busy in thinking rather than scrutinizing the regime! In almost all dictatorial regimes, propaganda machinery will stress the need for the continuation of the present political leadership to secure the interest of the country against external interference. All those who challenge the dictators will run the risk of being called collaborators with a known or yet unknown external enemy! Internally, the dictator’s thinking is simple. “You better say I am “nice” or you are “out.

Dictators are in general cult personalities and many of them have come to favor increasingly grandiloquent titles and honours for themselves. Idi Amin, the notorious Ugandan dictator who had once been a British army lieutenant before the independence of the country in 1962, later styled himself as “His Excellency, President for LifeField Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSOMC, Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular”.

Corruption & Development
There is nothing called benevolent dictators in real life. All dictators grab power and abuse power for their personal gain. They commit robbery of public wealth with impunity but the public are made to believe otherwise. When the institutional set up is deliberately emasculated, the public believe it is only the dictator who can revitalize sanity and develop the country! This is true in any dictatorial regime. The basic definition of corruption ( meaning abuse of entrusted resources for personal gain) is valid for all state actions in dictatorial regimes.

People suffer from innumerable economic hardships but reports of the Central Bank (or similar regulatory institution) will always show otherwise. Natural resources and most profitable industries and businesses are always exploited by few individuals in the regime. Economy and strategic institutions are controlled by a family oligarchy or cronies. Governor of the Libyan Central Bank Farhat Bengdara, one time a politician and who was giving rosy picture of Gadaffit defected to anti Gadaffi side. Then he was temporarily replaced with by Finance Minister; During the last few months the Central bank was only busy with preventing freezing of its assets by foreign nationals.

Dictators do not spend their money but the state pays for the dictator and their siblings. Unrealistic expenditure for fake development projects and waste of public finance for massive constructions and popular donations at public expenditure are common. In the final analysis, the state revenue is a collection for the regime to have their fun! Generally a dictatorship is a group enterprise in the modern context. The dictator has himself and a strong and trusted circle. Whenever a dictator does not have a military background, a family member controls the military. Similarly, all strategic engagements are controlled by the inner circle. Though there is no space to measure the wealth of the dictator, the family and close circle while in power, the recent examples from the Middle East and North African countries establish beyond doubt that the dictators have accumulated unimaginable wealth, which would otherwise have improved all basic standards for the entire citizens. How did the dictators amass so much of wealth? Here are my thoughts.

Firstly, the regulatory institutions and law enforcement mechanism are controlled by the regime through selected cronies. They make sure that checks and balances are all ornamental. Secondly, there is no accountability of any actions/engagements of the dictator’s close circle. Quite interestingly, in almost all dictatorial regimes, extractive industries, defence expenditure, investments and major infrastructural developments are not subject to scrutiny at any level. Thirdly, there is a well-organized set of beneficiaries of the regime, who will do anything to prevent an accusation against the higher up in the regime. The law enforcement agencies are equipped to track the critics and those who blow the whistle. There is generally an elite law enforcement agency which operates effectively but as an integral part of the political arm of the regime. Fourthly, the dictators have a network of friends to hide ill-gotten wealth inside and outside the country. There is no effective financial scrutiny on the transfer of assets of dictators and their families outside the country. Fifthly, with an established dictatorship, there is no effective opposition or active civil society. Generally, the legitimate powers are used openly, while using political tactics to weaken them. Naturally there is no readymade opposition to challenge the dictator’s accumulation of wealth. Sixthly, there is no freedom of information for the public to know the important information. Powerful dictators, in particular, the elected dictators have much to hide because they fear adverse public opinion. Their public appearance is not the actual character. All dictators oppose right to information for obvious reasons. More than the dictators themselves, their family and cronies fear information and hence the public will not get to know the wealth of the dictators while in power. Finally, the public opinion created by the dictatorial regime paints a saint picture so that the public never believe that the dictator is corrupt. Propaganda is the key and they lie so much but people do believe those lies. Very few will say openly that the dictator is a perjurer and corrupt, obviously due to fear of reprisal. The last thing the dictators want to hear is that public has got to know their true character, corrupt deals and actual wealth.

National and International Accountability
Dictators have never been held accountable for their atrocities, corruption and abuses in their own country unless they are thrown out of power. They generally know that the international scene is different and risky; therefore they either openly clash with international actors or strike deals with powerful international figures. How dictators manage international relations is quite interesting. They have the advantage of the legal principle of sovereignty, which they believe covers all abuses they commit domestically. There are also opportunities for some dictators (whose countries have natural resources) to engage themselves with extractive industries (such as oil, gas, diamond), which give them opportunities for corrupt deals at international level. These types of business relationships have created different comfort zones for dictators outside the country. The authoritarian rulers generally use all their personal and business connections to sweep under the carpet mayhem created by them in their own jurisdictions. Those rulers and regimes flock together internationally to look after their own interests at all forums. To give just two examples: They share intelligence and they put up a united opposition against the non-governmental movement and human rights defenders. Their statements and reactions on international affairs are mostly similar.

With the development of the international criminal law and with the emerging trends on international anti-corruption legal regimes, there is a possibility of despotic dictators being held accountable for their atrocities outside their jurisdictions. By nature they fear human rights and see human rights as a western concept or some other nonsense. They do, however, know that it is the human rights regime that holds them accountable one day internationally. What matters for them is the security for the regime and not the security of the people of the respective countries. There is no dictator who did not call human rights a conspiracy to weaken the nation, which he “preciously guard”. All these dictators without exception say “our country is sovereign and do not interfere; we can manage our own affairs”.

Most of the dictators have fallen due to people’s sacrifices; not by electoral defeats. There are a few dictators who were chased away by international actors and some due to political changes in the political parties they represent. All despots line up a successor but few have ever succeeded. The regime and cronies will then realize the old saying “when the tree falls, the shadow falls too.”Till then, as José Reyes said “ A Dictatorship is a long, never ending, narrow, straight road with no exits on it and you will stay on this road until all your freedom is taken from you.”


This article from Mr. Weliamuna had also been published at GroundviewsFinancial Times Sri Lanka and Lanka eNews.

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Document Type : Forwarded Article
Document ID : AHRC-FAT-051-2011
Countries : Sri Lanka,