My weekly Guardian column:
Western-friendly dictators can die in peace, knowing they’ll be lauded as soon as they stop breathing. So it was for Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew, who recently passed away at the age of 91. Tributes poured in from across the globe. Barack Obama called him “visionary” while Australian prime minister Tony Abbott mourned a “friend”.
Neither man mentioned that Lee presided over an authoritarian state where dissent was barely tolerated, where even his commemoration was marked by the authorities shutting down events at Speaker’s Corner, the only place in the country where protest is permitted.
Singapore may have become a global business hub in a matter of decades, a remarkable economic feat, but growing numbers of its young citizens no longer believe or accept that silence in the face of repression is acceptable. Clean sidewalks may not be enough anymore to satisfy a public yearning for more.
After Lee’s death, Singapore arrested a local teenager for daring to post a video slamming the deceased leader’s record. Greater freedom of speech and rights is on the agenda for its globally connected youth.
This is the problem with dictators admired in elite western circles for being able to dismiss the will of the people even more successfully than elected politicians; the population eventually wants change.
In the eyes of the west, Singaporean autocracy was less important than the building of a stable Asian nation that enriched western and Asian businesses. Lee Kwan Yew didn’t need to push this message too hard to convince anybody. After all, the west is more than happy to deal with China, another success story with a deplorable human rights record and worsening attacks on civil society.
The tradeoff – stability and prosperity for authoritarianism – is global. When Saudi King Abdullah died in January this year, Australian government buildings lowered their flags to mark the death. Obama flew to the funeral to pay respects to the royal family.
Alongside a massive entourage, including the CIA director and a host of Democrat and Republican figures, Obama’s goal was to confirm the primacy of the special relationship between Saudi Arabia and America and reassure the unelected sheikhs that he wasn’t intending to leave them isolated against an ascendant Iran, which has increasing control over four regional capitals – Sana’a, Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut – as a result of Washington’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 that unleashed a chain-reaction of shifting alliances.
Saudi Arabia beheads its own people, its legal system is opaque, it refuses women basic rights, like permission to drive, and tolerates no criticism of its rule. Its abundant oil is used ruthlessly to keep heads of state in line; Obama, Abbott and other western heads of state are unwilling to challenge a country that is known to export terror.
The response to another autocrat’s death, Indonesia’s Suharto, in 2008, was also enthusiastic. Former Australian prime minister Paul Keating damned critics who dared condemn the dictator as “a cruel and intolerant repressor” when in fact he had “saved Indonesia from destruction”. Left unsaid were the million Indonesians killed after Suharto’s bloody ascension to the presidency in the 1960s and the occupation of East Timor.
The New York Times obituary noted his rule as “one of the most brutal and corrupt of the 20th century”. This didn’t bother Keating, who saluted Soeharto for bringing “stability” on Australia’s doorstep.
How dictators are revered in their death wholly depends on their usefulness to western interests. When US-backed Iraqi-forces executed Saddam Hussein in 2006, few mourned his bloody rule. Yet for decades, Hussein was a close American ally, during a time when he was at his most murderous against internal dissent.
Washington even provided the location of Iranian troops to Saddam’s Iraq in 1988, to assist in a chemical weapons attack. It was only when Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990 that America designated him an official enemy.
But is the west’s insistence on stability helping reduce violence? Aligning with the darkest forces on the planet for the sake of oil, access or apparent geo-strategic positioning is guaranteed to achieve the opposite. Western leaders inevitably end up preparing grandiose and intrusive plans to control the monsters they’ve unleashed. Dirty alliances, escalation and invasions with unpredictable outcomes; this seems like all our leaders know. Afterwards come the glowing eulogies.
Many leaders are happy to play the Washington game and are feted accordingly. Criticism of abuses in Uzbekistan, Ethiopia, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Vietnam and Israel are muted because military, strategic or economic benefits to both sides are integral to these relationships. Deaths of their rulers would bring salutatory statements from Britain and America. Conversely, Russia is deemed a national security threat because it refuses to be bought by economic threats from the US.
When you dance with the devil, you’ll be bitten on the behind. Democratic security and moral integrity is weakened when western friends commit abuses and they’re ignored or rationalised. You can tell an awful lot about so-called western values when leaders fawn at the feet of autocrats when they die.