Throughout human history, there have been dictators, autocrats, and tyrants. Just like them, there have been numerous abuses of human rights and decency. Unfortunately, only a handful of these abuses is remembered. Most people, at least in the Western World, remember the Holocaust and the Pogroms of Tsarist Russia, but events like the “State of Emergency” in Taiwan have been either forgotten or ignored. There are a number of reasons for this, mostly that they have not shaped the world to quite the degree of either World War. The importance of those events which transpired in the two World Wars lay in both their size and magnitude. The gravity of any atrocity is measured in a number of ways, the most common being in death tolls that go into the millions. Just like with the Holocaust and the Portuguese Chibalo system of colonial bonded labor, the death tolls go into the millions.
Not all horrifying events require scores of millions to die, in fact, the gravity of a situation may be determined from the aftermath. The one commonality to the aftermaths of each of these atrocities is that they have left a massive mark on all the populations involved. One example which marks a major turning point within the affected group is the Thammasat University Massacre in Thailand, where nearly 170 were injured and 46 killed. The Massacre, known as the 6 October Event in Thailand, was the final abuse of power which caused the military regime to resign. It is difficult to nail down a list of the vilest acts done by any dictatorship, but here are 15 of what I would say qualify as some of the most despicable acts carried out by any dictatorial regime.
15. Japan’s “Comfort Women”
It should go without saying that there is something terribly wrong about human sex trafficking, what is worse is when a government makes it official policy. That is exactly what the government of Militarist Japan did during the Second World War. Estimates range from 20,000 to well over 400,000 for the number of women who were forced into sexual slavery by the imperial Japanese army. These women were largely abducted from their homes in where the Empire of Japan invaded; some were lured with promises of industrial employment. The main sources for these women came from the ethnic groups of East and Southeast Asia; however, there were a number of Dutch and Australian women due to the proximity of those colonial powers. The sexual slavery which these women were subject to is regarded as one of the most horrific crimes from the war; however, it is often overshadowed by the crimes of Nazi Germany. According to some revisionist historians in Japan, these women volunteered. The full scope of this institutionalized policy of rape-for-pay has led to a lot of problems in the modern day as the practice has been considered for removal from Japanese textbooks.
Apartheid, the Afrikaans word for “separateness”, the de jure segregation imposed on the black and “colored” communities of South Africa from 1948 to 1991. Some would not consider this period of South African history as being a dictatorship, however, that is really dependent on whom you ask. The institution of Apartheid was responsible for forced removal of many indigenous Africans from their homes, relegating them to legally independent Bantustans which the South African government acknowledged as independent states; South Africa was the only country to recognize the Bantustans. The permeation of Apartheid in all aspects of life ensured that the black and “colored” population of the country would exist in a permanent state of perpetual poverty and in almost slave-like conditions. The South African government used the Bantustans to declare that millions of indigenous persons were men and women without a country. The systematic racial discrimination created a number of problems which still permeate through South African society, however, the good news is that the scars of the era are healing.
13. Unit 731
One of my close friends said this about Unit 731, “Imagine an entire military unit made out of Joseph Mengele clones and on a good day doing stuff that Mengele did.” To me, it sounds like it is something that comes straight from a piece of pulp fiction, but the unfortunate reality is that it happened. The horrific nature of these sick and depraved individuals makes it rather difficult to call them human, particularly as one of the least shocking experiments they did was testing the effects of a grenade on living human flesh. This little corner of Hell on Earth has left a number of scars on the Chinese and the Korean people, and to the greater world as the (mad) scientists who worked on this project were used to establish the biological weapons programs of other nations in exchange for clemency. After the war and the Chinese Civil War, the government of the People’s Republic of China turned the former Unit 731 facilities into a museum dedicated to the memory of the victims of crimes against humanity during the War of Resistance Against Japan.
12. Saddam’s Chemical Weapons Attacks
A number of us remember Operation Iraqi Freedom which toppled the Baathist regime in Iraq and the civil war which broke out in its aftermath, but not too much is remembered about the regime itself. Saddam’s Baathist regime did quite a number of crimes, among them the use of chemical weapons against those that the state declared as enemies to the state and the revolution. The main victims of these attacks were the Iranian forces during the Iran-Iraq War. This marked the first time since the Second World War that massive chemical weapons attacks took place. The Iranian military was ravaged by these and eventually, a stalemate came about. In response to this, the Baathist government would turn their stockpiles on the Kurdish regions of the country in an attempt to genocide them into complacency; the Saddam regime was quite liberal with their use. The total dead from Saddam’s chemical attacks is unknown as no study was undertaken. The usage of such weapons would eventually turn into a justification for the US invasion which toppled the Baathist government.
11. The Killing Fields
Many people are familiar with the Killing Fields through the Dead Kennedys’ song “Holiday in Cambodia,” but, the tongue in cheek song does not adequately describe what a number of people have dubbed the Cambodian Genocide. The Khmer Rouge (Red Khmer) operated the killing fields from 1977 until 1979 in what is regarded as the bloodiest period of Cambodian history. The first inklings towards violence began in 1975 when Democratic Kampuchea, the government established by the Khmer Rouge, depopulated the cities in order to rebuild the agrarian economy which was destroyed during the war. As time went on, namely in 1977, the Pol Pot-led government began to exterminate anti-Pol Pot and pro-Vietnamese segments of the party. This violence would eventually spill over into the general population. The Killing Fields saw exorbitant usage; the victim count is generally believed to be between 2 and 3.5 million. There were many reasons which people could be sent to these rural death factories, one of those reasons being that you wore glasses. The brutality of the genocide, particularly against the ethnic Kinh, the dominant ethnic group in Vietnam, prompted the 1979 invasion of Cambodia by Vietnam, ending Pol Pot’s reign of terror.
10. Aktion T4
The Nazis are one example of what the epitome of evil looks like. They oversaw one of the most pervasive campaigns of genocide in human history with the Holocaust, but that is what everyone remembers. Something that most people seem to have forgotten in regards to the regime was their program, Aktion T4. This particular program of mass murder was not aimed at racial or ethnic groups, but rather at those who suffered from hereditary diseases and mental defects. The National Socialist German Workers’ Party saw this campaign as a way to purify the Aryan race; they referred to it in their documents as “racial hygiene.” What is more unusual in regards to this program is that the Nazis based it off of the contemporary eugenics campaigns In the United States of America; one of the biggest influences on the euthanasia campaign was the Eugenics Board of North Carolina. The T4 Program saw at least 200,000 children, women, and men killed during its brief existence from 1939 to 1941.
9. Rwandan Genocide
The Rwandan Genocide is remembered for a plethora of reasons. The genocide, led by then-President Théodore Sindikubwabo, has had a major impact on the history of Africa. First and foremost, it is easily remembered for the international community’s unwillingness to take an active stance in condemning and halting the murder of at least 8,000 Tutsis in Rwanda. This genocide is even more shocking in that this mass murder was not performed solely by state actors but by civilians armed with machetes. Théodore Sindikubwabo called for the murder of the Tutsis quite blatantly, announcing in a now infamous radio address that all Hutu men were to “put in work” killing Tutsis. Over the course of 100 days, 75% to 80% of the Tutsi population was murdered under the instruction of the Interahamwe. At the end of the genocide, and the Rwandan Civil War, the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front toppled the Interahamwe-backing government of Sindikubwabo. The genocide would eventually serve as a casus belli for the First Congo War thanks to the Mobutu Regime’s support for raids into Rwanda by the Interahamwe and Front For the Democratic Liberation of Rwanda.
8. Ethnic Cleansing In Myanmar
Myanmar’s internal conflict has traversed many decades and several governments. A hallmark of this period is that there has been a series of government-sponsored ethnic cleansing campaigns, the most recent of which are against the Rohingya Muslim minority in Rakhine State. Although many people may argue that the present government of the Republic of the Union is a civilian government, their actions against the numerous ethnic minorities tell a different story; especially when you look at the military’s right to coup the government which is enshrined in their constitution. According to the Burmese laws, the Rohingya are not citizens, even though they have lived within the country for hundreds of years! The government has targeted the Rohingya, Shan, and Kokang peoples to drive them out of the country. This has created a refugee crisis in South and Southeast Asia which does not seem to have any end in sight. The problem was intensified after 2014 when multiple ceasefire agreements were broken by the Burmese government.
7. Charles Taylor’s Child Soldiers
Former warlord and 22nd President of Liberia Charles Taylor was something entirely abhorrent in his hay-day, particularly for his use of child soldiers. In the 1980s Charles Taylor founded the National Patriotic Front of Liberia in the Ivory Coast and began a guerrilla war to topple the regime of Samuel Doe, who was murdered in 1990. In his employ, Charles Taylor abducted a number of children from various villages he raided, turning them into soldiers; this quickly became a standard practice for Liberian rebels and government forces. As the First Liberian Civil War drew to a close in 1997, Charles Taylor became president, but his love for turning children into war machines didn’t end there. Possibly the strangest thing which his regime accomplished was establishing the Small Boys Unit for the Sierra Leonean Revolutionary United Front. The Small Boys Unit was a unit of children who were used to help capture many important diamond mines and terrorize the populace. Charles Taylor’s Presidency would end with his own resignation in 2003 after his ousting and exile to Nigeria at the end of the Second Liberian Civil War; he continued his use of child soldiers during that conflict.
6. Armenian Genocide
One of the most remembered attempts at racial cleansing in history is the Armenian Genocide, which took place in the Ottoman Empire from 1915 to 1923 at the discretion of the Minister of War Ismail Enver Pasha. The Armenian Genocide saw roughly 1.5 million ethnic Armenians killed. Enver Pasha ordered Directive 8682 on February 25, 1915, which had all ethnic Armenians in the armed forces demobilized and stripped of their ranks. The official reasoning for this directive was the accusation that the Armenian Patriarchate gave the Russian Empire state secrets. In rapid succession after Directive 8682 was issued, the Ottoman Empire quickly confiscated the property of and deported millions of Armenians. Those who were not deported were sent to concentration camps where they were starved and murdered. Throughout the genocide, state-sanctioned mass rape and death marches were common. The Ottomans implemented a number of ways to murder the Armenian population, one of the main ways of disposing of them were through gas, drowning, and mass burnings. Court-martials were issued only after the deed had been done. The governments of Turkey and Azerbaijan continue to deny that this ever took place.
5. Congo Free State
The Democratic Republic of the Congo has had its fair share of dictators, Leopold II, Mobutu Sese Seko, and Laurent-Désiré Kabila. Each of them did something which places them into a category all of their own. What is perhaps the most shocking incident in dictator history is the Congo Free State, which was a personal dictatorship run by the Belgian King Leopold. His Majesty in all his power sought to transform the Congo region into one of the most profitable economic ventures in the world; however, he did this at great cost. The Congo Free State was not only extremely profitable, but it was a factory of death because of the institution of slavery and more. Villages were often the scenes of great massacres thanks to the policy of mutilating individuals for not collecting the completely unrealistic quotas levied on raw materials, such as rubber. Due to there being such high quotas and the need for hands to be severed when they failed; wars broke out just to collect hands. According to some observers, hands were occasionally used as currency. Somewhere between 10,000,000 and 15,000,000 Congolese died as a result of what has been dubbed the Forgotten Genocide.
4. Mobutu’s Regime
Okay, I get it, this one might be cheating a little bit, but it’s hard to pinpoint a single most horrifying act from Zairean dictator Mobutu Sese Seko because every action he took influenced something else. During the Mobutu Years, 1965 to 1997, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) was under a military dictatorship with all property confiscated and placed in the name of the President. The methods by which he achieved this were from his popularity with the leadership of the army and through the violent suppression of opposition. This period in Congolese history saw the transformation of the country from being one of the most productive and economically important countries in Africa into one of the poorest. The Mobutu regime embezzled billions of dollars which were funnelled away into foreign bank accounts and never recovered. Unlike many of the dictators in this list, the effects of this regime’s policies can still be seen today in the Democratic Republic of the Congo because of various ethnic conflicts and the poor economic condition. The Congo is recovering from the kleptocracy, but they still have a long way to go.
3. “Great Leap Forward” Leads To Mass Starvation In China
The Great Leap Forward is an extremely sore subject in some Chinese circles. The stated purpose of the Great Leap Forward was to drastically increase Chinese steel and iron production and modernize the economy. This was all well and good in theory but the execution of the idea was something which had the most disastrous of consequences; it did not help that the timing could not have been worse. The negative effects of the Great Leap Forward saw famine and mass starvation. Peasant farmers were the main source of this labor as they were the majority of the population in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The peasants had to divide their time between their farms and their backyard furnaces; many of these furnaces with their pig iron still stand in the countryside. Besides taking away from their agrarian work which caused horrific problems, the weather patterns during that period produced one of the worst droughts in Chinese history. The longstanding drought during this period ensured that millions of people would suffer and die. One of the most shocking consequences of this policy is that Chairman Mao Zedong was forced by the party to self-criticize and was stripped of aspects of his power.
2. National Revolutionary Army’s Forced Conscription
The Chinese Civil War is considered one of the most brutal civil wars in history, especially since its only interruption was the Second Sino-Japanese War when the Guomindang (Chinese Nationalist Party) and the Chinese Communist Party formed the Second United Front against Japan. The issue of forced conscription by the National Revolutionary Army was a hallmark of the Guomindang’s National Revolutionary Army. They would enter villages and order the men of the village to form lines which they would proceed to bind together with ropes and cords and force them to march; it was not at all unusual for the National Revolutionary Army to force children into their ranks. During the conscription period, a large number of troops died because of drowning, exhaustion, and asphyxiation because of how they were tied together. The brutal methods of recruiting soldiers are generally believed to be major contributing factors to the Nationalists’ defeat and flight to Taiwan.
1. Support For The Heroin Trade
In most cases, governments across the world do what they can to try and hinder the drug trade, particularly for opiates like heroin. Myanmar, a country in Southeast Asia and major production zone within the Golden Triangle, is not your average government. The Republic of the Union of Myanmar does not officially condone the production and trafficking of narcotics, but they have intentionally neglected to hinder the United Wa State Army from participating in this trade. The government of Myanmar has done this to displace many ethnic groups which live within the minority-majority states in their eastern half. On top of simply allowing the United Wa State Army to function against their regional ethnic enemies, the Tatmadaw, the military of Myanmar, has given some assistance. At times, the Tatmadaw has served as the vehicle through which drug smuggling, arms running, and human trafficking take place. This began during the military regime of the State Peace and Development Council but has continued into the democratic era.