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Today in Despotism: New Year’s Edition

Kim Jong Il hates Japan, and Turkmenistan praises melons.

“Today in Despotism” began to run in TNR Online in 2005. The idea was to provide an overview of goings-on in tyrannical countries around the world. The news items were drawn solely from the state-run or state-approved publications of the respective outposts. The column ceased to run in 2006, when the Bush administration managed to eradicate despotism worldwide. Or possibly it was that the author no longer had time. Now, in 2011, “Today in Despotism” is back, and TNR readers can finally stay properly informed. The selection of despotic nations will not be the same in each installment, but North Korea will never, ever be omitted.

And, with that, the news: The outposts of tyranny have enjoyed a tranquil few weeks, with only minimal aggravation by incompetents, sycophants, or imperialists. After all, it was Christmas. One exception was Tunisia; however, the Tunisian news agency, Tunis-Afrique Presse, has been out of commission for the past while. The goings-on in that location must therefore remain a mystery.


In Burma, Senior General Than Shwe makes the front page above the fold of the January 2 edition of the New Light of Myanmar, in an economical but vigorous one-sentence article headlined “BOUNDEN DUTY.” It reads in full:

The entire people are duty-bound to safeguard the motherland through the might of national unity for ensuring non-disintegration of the Union, non-disintegration of national solidarity and perpetuation of sovereignty, while keeping a watchful eye on attempts of neocolonialists to harm the sovereignty of the country.

Senior General Than Shwe likewise makes the front page above the fold of the January 3 edition of the paper, this time in an even more economical one-sentence article headlined “CONTINUE SAFEGUARDING THE MOTHERLAND.” It reads in full:

The entire people have to bear in mind the historical background of independence struggles forever and will have to continue to safeguard the motherland for ensuring perpetuity of the nation and sovereignty.

Senior General Than Shwe likewise makes the front page above the fold of the January 4 edition of the New Light—oh, all right, that’s enough. The rest of us have to move on, even if Burma won’t.

Finally, poet Maung Sein Naung offers the following verse on Burmese independence:

Unlike in past
Aliens never come and invade
Only with power and influence
Neocolonialism they practise
Enslavement the same old goal
With own styles and norms
Glorious are we Myanmars
Under own sovereign rule


The life of the despot is one of good days and bad days. Lately, President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus has had to tolerate a number of the latter, with irritating voices from outside the country complaining of fraudulent elections, suppressed demonstrators, detained opponents, etc. He has nevertheless been sanguine, as noted in the article “LUKASHENKO: 79.67% IS QUITE A GOOD RESULT.” The news agency BelTA reports:

The percentage of ballots cast for me is quite good, President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko told a press conference for Belarusian and foreign media on 20 December.
“It is quite a good result, if we take into account the so-called ‘agitation’ that was taking place before the election. But to be honest, 20% of people either voted for alternative candidates or against all candidates. It is a matter of concern.”

Added to Lukashenko’s burdens are not just opposition “terrorists,” to whom he once sent the warning, “We will wring their necks, as one might a duck.” Lukashenko has also had to call a press conference in order to respond to a Wikileaks cable placing his net worth at $9 billion. BelTA reports that Lukashenko “has called accusation of corruption an outright lie.” It adds:

Alexander Lukashenko admitted that he is deeply upset by such claims. “Despite being tough, I am a sensitive person, many know that,” he said


While things haven’t been the same in Turkmenistan since the death of strongman Saparmurat Niyazov in 2006, the country’s new president is at least maintaining high standards. The Turkmen Press has the details:

President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov dismissed Yusup Davudov from the post of Minister of Power Engineering and Industry, Jumadurdy Kakaliev from the post of Minister of Construction and Construction Materials Industry, and Ashirgeldi Zamanov from the post of Minister of Automobile Transport and Motor Roads for incompliance with official responsibilities.

In their place are three new ministers, but they shouldn’t get comfortable either. The news service reports: “After six months all of them will be fired in case of unsatisfactory fulfillment of official duties without offering a new job.”

Meanwhile, Turkmenistan’s publishing world remains dynamic, as noted in the story “NEW BOOK ABOUT TURKMEN MELON WAS ISSUED.” The Turkmen Press describes the content:

The illustrated popular science book introduces the readers with the history and traditions of the national melon and gourd growing
The book describes 430 varieties of Turkmen melons, 61 varieties of water melons and pumpkins, the national heritage and pride of the Turkmen people.

Let’s see how proud you are when you’ve seen the work of Jerry Fetty at


Zimbabwe has been through some rough patches lately, but 2011 is looking very, very bright.

For one thing, the to-do about white farmers having their land confiscated has been resolved. In a story headlined “SUPREME COURT SETTLES ALL LAND ISSUES,” the Zimbabwe Herald relates that Chief Justice Godfrey Chidyausiku has determined that “former owners and/or occupiers whose land had been acquired by the acquiring authority in terms of section 16B of the Constitution cannot challenge the legality of such acquisition in a court of law.”  

Also, President Robert Mugabe has been victorious in upcoming elections to be held later this year. “While the MDC-T [the opposition party] is quivering at the thought of an election, Zanu-PF [Mugabe’s party] has made it clear that it is ready for the watershed vote,” writes the Herald. And no more Mr. Nice Guy with foreign naysayers. “Illegal sanctions imposed on Zimbabwe by Western countries have been condemned in the past, but this time it seems a decisive measure against them is being taken,” notes the Herald. “If the Western countries do not relent on their illegal sanctions, this year might also see companies originating from such countries being taken over for indigenisation.”  

With any luck, they’ll take over U.S. Airways.

North Korea:

People come, people go, and people disappear, but North Korea has retained its stride. The only irritation, really, has been sycophancy of Japan toward the United States, as the news agency KCNA indicated in a January 3 story entitled “JAPAN’S SYCOPHANT POLICY TOWARD US BLASTED.” It warns:

One is bound to die a dry death if one enforces a sycophantic policy towards the U.S., quite contrary to the people's mind-set. This is a bitter lesson drawn from the history of Japanese politics devoid of independence.

A story from the next day, “JAPAN’S SYCOPHANTIC ATTITUDE TOWARD US ASSAILED,” indicates a change in tone. Gone are the friendly warnings about dry death, replaced with something sterner. “The Japanese authorities are ridiculed by the world people as an incompetent political dwarf kowtowing to the U.S.,” writes KCNA. “The authorities of Japan, therefore, become a butt of the world people's ridicule, as it has to maintain itself by sycophancy and yielding to the U.S.”

On the home front, Kim Jong Il has been visiting with sailors and showing a softer side, although this news seems to have arrived after some delay. “One March day of Juche 87 (1998), General Secretary Kim Jong Il visited a naval port,” begins an article titled “STORY OF KIM JONG IL.” “He went round several places of the port to learn about seamen's living conditions.”

This is what Kim found:

Entering a cosy bedroom, he told officials accompanying him to rearrange the beds.
He said if the bedsides were placed by the window, seamen could not avoid cold wind from window. He also said the bed should be rearranged so that they could see the sky above the homeland, not a wall of the bedroom, after opening their eyes in the morning.

Kim also added several throw pillows to soften the edges.

Finally, technological progress marches on in the Democratic People’s Republic, as is reported in the story “DPRK ATTACHES IMPORTANCE TO BREAKING THROUGH CUTTING EDGE.” KCNA writes, “It is an idea of the Workers' Party of Korea that all sectors should, on the basis of experience of having secured supremacy in the CNC technology, surpass in the shortest time the scientific and technical standards the world has reached and take the lead in the age of IT-based economy.” All that’s needed for that to happen are some computers and, ideally, electrical power.

T.A. Frank is a special correspondent for The New Republic.

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