This week, the Philippines is set to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the first People Power Revolution, an event that was etched in history for toppling a 21-year totalitarian regime, and for redefining what it took for a united people to restore its democracy.
While the EDSA Revolution is a hallmark event in Philippine history, it isn’t the first nonviolent revolution ever. That’s because tyrants aren’t rare and are often cut from the same cloth.
As fake news and historical revisionism abound, it might be tough for today’s youth to grasp the context of an event that happened 35 years ago. Luckily the template of a tyrant is as consistent as red flags in a relationship — it’s just a matter of being aware.
So how do tyrants and dictators become one?
They make ligaw the masses.
It all starts with a promise. When all hopes of progress for an underdeveloped country seem lost, budding dictators always present the prospect of a prosperous life under their reign.
We can cite him for every point in this piece, but before being the genocidal maniac that he is now known, Adolf Hitler‘s talent as a speechmaker led to his massive appeal among the disillusioned masses. He vowed the collapse of capitalism, and exaggerated his vision to recover from economic ruin to evoke German ideals of nationalism. We all know how that one ended.
They stage progress for popularity.
The thing is, they actually make good with their promises of progress – those that explicitly show it, at least.
Prioritizing infrastructure development is a trademark trait of would-be tyrants, as these structures remain as perceptible proofs of progress, and stand even after their regime had ended.
Despite more than four decades of his despotic rule which saw tens of thousands of deaths, Muammar Gaddafi is still revered by some Libyans for his government’s construction of the Great Man-Made River, the world’s largest irrigation project that supplied fresh water daily to major cities in Libya.
They intimidate the media.
If you want to be a dictator, then you’d want people to listen to you. Maybe not just to you, but mostly to you. That means stifling the source of truth and muzzling media outlets for reporting the truth.
Dictators suppress the free press by turning the people against news outlets, controlling what comes out to the public, and repeatedly calling media outfits “traitors” to the truth. Or, as Donald Trump prefers to call them, “enemies of the American people.”
They twist the narrative.
Then, to quell the people’s doubt on what is true, dictators provide their version of it.
By constantly questioning the motives of investigators and whistleblowers, as well as publishing their “own side” of the truth through alternative means, they tip the ever-volatile views of the masses to their favor. They don’t need to be right; they just have to create an environment where the people doubt the truth. Try googling “lying by omission.”
To wit, both China’s “Great Firewall” and Weibo, its national social media service, allow authorities to monitor, filter, and adjust what pieces of news come out to the public.
They demonize their critics.
“If you’re not with us, you’re against us,” says the government led by a tyrant.
To invalidate, suffocate, and ostracize critics is perhaps the oldest tactic by tyrants. Critics are given many names – rebels, heretics, subversives, or just plain criminals for committing sedition – for pointing out the errors of their rule.
For Indonesia’s Sukarno and Suharto, the magic word was “communists.” Between 1965 to 1967, as many as a million of their citizens were either killed or kidnapped by paramilitary groups for even hinting at left-wing tendencies.
They leave the law to the military.
Speaking of armed forces, nothing shows that you’re in control quite like a highly-weaponized army at a tyrant’s disposal.
While a dictator may or may not be a former military officer himself, it plays to their plan to be in close ties to militarize law enforcement. Instead of working with civil servants who are accountable to the people, tyrants appoint military strongmen who are accountable to them.
Often, they justify filling key administrative positions with men from the military by pitting their power against an opposing oligarchic influence (Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez could probably relate) or by detaching themselves from political parties to seem benevolent (Jair Bolsonaro’s administration full of army generals says hi from Brazil!).
They keep money matters under wraps.
When you’re a bad guy acting like a good guy, you’d prefer to be hush-hush about your personal affairs too.
The biggest thing that an authoritarian government would try to keep under wraps is its financial undertakings. Despite their regime being rife with corruption allegations, the public must have a blurred a picture as possible of how money is coursed through and spent within a despotic government.
One such guy is Nigeria’s Sani Abacha who, despite serving as a dictator for only five years, managed to plunder between $3 to $5 billion of public funds ran across British tax-havens. He stayed low-key through it all that the details of his corruption only emerged after his death in 1998.
They ignore the rule of law, or change it.
Every dictator believes they are above the law. If moments prove they aren’t, they change the law to make sure they are, and to make sure they stay there.
Such is the case across many African countries struggling under a dictatorship. In 2016. Congo President Denis Sassou Nguesso won re-election after terminating the two-term constitutional limit. In 2011, Yoweri Museveni won a third term as president despite widespread allegations of a rigged election, extending his term to more than twenty years.
It’s true: we tend to forget fast. The years to pass will make it more difficult to remind future generations of the reality that spurred the 1986 EDSA Revolution.
But history didn’t oust just one fascist dictator; across the world, people have risen against plenty more. Knowing what makes a tyrant is the key we need in ousting the next one in our future.
(Banner photo: Maria Tan via Rappler; image for representation only)