Running a nation is hard work, perhaps the hardest and most stressful. Every decision rests with the men and women in charge. You have to provide for the citizens under your care, from Healthcare and education to law enforcement and public works. Balancing budgets and meeting economic deadlines, it’s time and energy consuming. Yet once in a blue moon, certain pariah governments say “the hell with the people” and pursue their own course of censorship, false imprisonment, forced labor, and the outright murder of their own citizens. These regimes aren’t X-Men like mutants, where you can easily recognize them as different from the rest. They aren’t exclusive to a certain corner of the globe, or to a certain race, nationality or faith. On the surface, some even appear shockingly normal. What brews below the surface though, away from the eyes of tourists is anything but.
The South East Asian nation of Myanmar, also called Burma was granted independence from Great Britain in 1948. Up until 1962 it was an emerging and relatively stable democracy. That year, a group of military officers got it in their heads that a democratic state was not the best way to advance their own personal interests, so they initiated a successful coup against the civilian leadership and installed themselves as unchallenged rulers of the nation. The military junta ruled with increasing intolerance of civil rights and civil liberties. Censorship, extraordinary rendition, torture and the execution of dissidents became common. You know, normal dictatorship “stuff.” Over the years, the leaders of the junta came and went, sometimes not voluntarily, as mini power struggles erupted from time to time. They weathered these storms without fuss. In the midst of these events, the military regime didn’t forget its obligation of initiating a series of brutal, no holds barred military campaigns against the various minority groups within Myanmar seeking greater autonomy and protected minority status. With the 1988 student revolution, the junta took an even more repressive stance, cancelling the 1990 elections which the National League for democracy won under the leadership of Nobel laurate Aung Saan Su Kyi, who was later imprisoned. Recently though, the regime has begun a series of encouraging reforms, freeing Aung Saan Su Kyi along with many of her fellow prisoners of conscience and even allowing her to run for a seat in parliament. There are still many issues to be addressed, but at least the junta has begun to see the inevitability of the triumph of democracy.
Zimbabwe. The name of a nation that every child likes to pronounce. And why not? It has an exotic sound to it. It also has a 90 year old dictator at the helm, who looks as if he will never go away. The name of this fellow is of course Robert Mugabe. Ironically Mugabe started on the right side of history. He led the black majority population in an uprising against the racist lesser known apartheid state of Rhodesia, as Zimbabwe was once called. After some fourteen years of a grinding insurgency and a significantly higher casualty rate than that of the much better armed, trained and equipped white government soldiers, Mugabe’s front won, and black majority rule was established in 1980. With Mugabe at the helm, the new nation of Zimbabwe kept its promise of retaining an inclusive government. Gradually though, the standard of living for the citizens of Zimbabwe started to decline as Mugabe took an increasingly authoritarian stance on opposition and an even more erratic economic policy of unsustainable land re-distribution. The results were disastrous. While Rhodesia was once known as the “breadbasket of Africa” on account of its export surplus of food, today Zimbabweans are faced with the reality of empty supermarket shelves, near or on subsistence levels of farming, and out of control hyperinflation. Zimbabwe is tragically a story of reverse dictatorship. Starting out as a democracy and slowly degenerating into a cliche one man rule fiefdom. Truly a bitter pill to swallow for the many Zimbabweans whose hopes and dreams were crushed.
3. Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia, along with its oil and gas rich neighbors has been a strategic piece of real estate that many a powerful nation, be it the British, Soviets or Americans have tried to woo and cajole into an alliance. The latter was the most successful in establishing such a bond. The modern day nation of Saudi Arabia came into existence in 1932, under the absolute monarchy of Ibn-Al Saud, hence the name. Since then it has been an absolute monarchy where the ruling Royal family has crushed any kind of dissident opposition to their rule. The nation is host to two of the holiest sites in Islam, Mecca and Medina, and the Royal family adopts the title as guardian or custodian of such sites. The nation itself adheres to the fundamentalist doctrine of Wahabbism, a more austere and fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, making it susceptible to supporting puritanical groups like Al-Qaeda. With the backing of hard line conservative clerics (which it needs to prop up its rule) the ruling Royal family goes about oppressing its citizens with near medieval zeal, particularly women. In Saudi Arabia women are not allowed to vote, drive, run for public office (as if that wasn’t obvious with the no voting allowed law), and their testimony is worth half that of a man’s in court. These are but a few of the restrictions placed upon women in Saudi Arabia, among many enforced by the Mutaween or religious police. Others include forced sex segregation in public, the mandatory wearing of a veil, forced marriages, and the escort by a male relative wherever they go. Thus making the Saudi regime one of the most repressive governments in our global community.
The nation of Mauritania is an impoverished desert nation in the northwestern part of the Sahara. It achieved independence from France in 1960, like many other colonial outposts. It eventually fell into the same cycle of coups and one man rule that had bedeviled other emerging nations. It is not the abject poverty of the country; where more than 20% of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day, or the generic coups and counter coups that might give Mauritania a dishonorable mention on this list. What makes this particular regime stand out is that it is in fact the only country in the world where slavery is still practiced! That’s right, in 2014, when some nations are granting more and more minority rights, Mauritania still retains the practice of slavery. As much as 10% to 20% of the population is enslaved, usually women and children, used as servants or simply sold for organ harvesting. The various regimes in power have paid only nominal lip service to ending this despicable practice, while turning a blind eye to all that goes on. The reasoning behind this lethargic approach to ending slavery is that many a government dissident finds him or herself waking up as someone’s property; a most cruel and unusual punishment.
1. North Korea
If Mauritania still hasn’t outlawed slavery, at least in practice, then how can they be number two on the list of most shockingly oppressive governments? Who in God’s name could be number one? Why the glorious Democratic People’s Republic of Korea of course. Where the hapless citizenry party like its 1984! North Korea holds the distinct title of the only non-monarchist nation to have three generations of government rule within the same family. This nation like some of its previous peers was a product of the Cold War. Unfortunately for many people residing within its walls, uuuhhhh I mean borders, this war is a never ending one. North Korea has all the hallmarks of a brutal single party state; media censorship, Soviet style gulags, executions of perceived enemies, periodic purges of party elites etc. What makes it stand out from the rest on this list, and why it occupies the number one spot, is that they have the unique distinction of being a country sized prison. No one is allowed to leave, under penalty of death or 20 years hard labor. In the other dishonorable mentions, people can leave those oppressive regimes, thus reducing their oppressive meter scale, in relation to North Korea that is.
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