Iron Fists that Broke the Land
By TERRY McCARTHY
Asia has had more than its share of dictators. Pol Pot learned instant revolution from Mao Zedong, who was responsible for more human deaths than anyone else in history, while Southeast Asian dictators learned from each other about how to keep domestic dissent low and foreign bank accounts high. Many were generals (how a uniform changes people!) and all had the usual self-serving justification for holding onto power in the best interest of the nation. In every case they were wrong: the five big men profiled here all left their countries struggling, and their people impoverished, undereducated and hungering for justice.
Yuan Shikai: 1859-1916
One of Asia's first 20th century strongmen, he was asked to support Sun Yat-sen's shaky Republican government but ended up forcing Sun into exile and taking power himself. As China deteriorated into lawlessness, Yuan had a compliant assembly make him Emperor. He celebrated by ordering a 40,000-piece porcelain service from the imperial potters. A rebellion finally toppled him.
Kim Il Sung: 1912-1994
The Great Leader developed a personality cult beyond Mao's wildest dreams, but his rigid Stalinist regime was shaken by the withdrawal of Soviet aid and a long famine. His son and successor, Kim Jong Il, the Dear Leader, inherited a bloated military, a brain-dead economy and a reputation for terror and diplomatic belligerence that promised more years of isolation.
Ferdinand Marcos 1917-1989
He was a civilian and he won office by election. But Marcos grew dictatorial, declared martial law in 1972 and squashed all opponents. His former beauty-queen wife, Imelda, famously filled her closet with shoes. But after the assassination of his chief rival, Benigno Aquino Jr., Filipinos rose up in a People Power revolution, drove Marcos into Hawaiian exile and replaced him with Aquino's widow, Corazon.
Ne Win: 1911-
Trained as a soldier by the Japanese, he took power in a 1962 coup and instituted the disastrous Burmese Way to Socialism. For 26 years, Ne Win ran the state according to the principles of numerology--all banknotes are divisible by nine--and fended off mortality with baths of dolphin's blood and helicopter trips circling pagodas. When students rallied for democracy in 1988, he had them shot and put opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, under house arrest. She won the Nobel Peace Prize, he won global ignominy.
He put down a supposed communist coup in 1965 and soon was running Indonesia as a personal fiefdom. Suharto raised his people's standard of living, but his generals got rich, his family and cronies got richer, and anyone who complained got clobbered. A plunging rupiah and street demonstrations finally pushed him out in May 1998, after 32 years of corrupt and uncompromising rule.