By Tendai Tagarira
“Pol Pot and Robert Mugabe come from peasant farming backgrounds. Both excelled moderately well in school. Both were exposed to the Western lifestyles at some points in their upbringing. Are there more similarities or differences between these titan dictators?”
Any system which suppresses free will is indeed bound to fail. Such was the case with Cambodia’s Pol Pot’s communism or “self reliance” movement in the 70s. Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge Regime banned people from willingly falling in love or even playing soccer. All manner of religion was effectively banned and minority groups (who made up 15% of the population) were banned from speaking their languages. People were evacuated in hordes from cities and forced to work like peasants in the countryside. Propaganda from the ruling party was what people were required to listen to. Surely, one could credit Pol Pot with removing the french colonizers, but the Communism they ushered in was to be much worse a form of government than the french rule. Anyone who opposed Pol Pot was systematically tortured and executed. A quarter of the population died, about 2.5 million. Pol Pots regime will perhaps ring out through history as one of the most paranoid regimes. Pol pot died in 1998 and in his last interview he said, “My conscience is clear. My duty was to the people of Cambodia.” How ironic that after such a ruthless campaign of violence, the man at its helm had no remorse at all. This is staggering and quite difficult to understand.
In my country, Zimbabwe, one could argue that situation is quite far from what it was in Cambodia during the 70s and rightly so. However upon taking a closer look one can see a similar patterns in the tactics employed by the Khmer Rouge regime and the present day Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe. Surely, more people lost their lives to political violence in Cambodia, compared to Zimbabwe. Let me make a list here of some of the similarities.
1. Pol Pots regime converted schools and other government buildings into torture camps, where men, women and even children were systematically tortured. In Zimbabwe, especially during the 2008 presidential elections, torture bases were set up at schools and some government buildings nation wide to torture political opponents. Methods such as electrocution were used by both the Khmer Rouge and Mugabe regime.
2. Propaganda. This was a tool employed heavily by the Rhmer Rouge and the same with Mugabe’s Zanu Pf. In Zimbabwe propaganda is achieved by controlling the airwaves and this was more or less the tactic in Cambodia. This brings me to my next point.
3. Suppression of Free Speech. Holding a different political opinion to the Rhmer Rouge would send one to the death fields of Cambodia. In Zimbabwe during the 2008 elections this was often the case. People were forced to attend Zanu Pf’s rallies and those who habored a different opinion were often targeted and tortured. As many as 300 political activists from the opposition died in cold blooded violence.
4. Role of the military. Pol Pot used his military force in Cambodia to achieve his goals. He once said that violence was the best tool to use against the people to purge them of capitalism and bring about his new form of communism. In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe is the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. Even police graduates now make an oath of allegiance to Robert Mugabe. Mugabe has a tight grip on the armed forces and so did Pol Pit.
5. Pol Pot cleared cities and forced everyone to evacuate to the countryside. During 2005 In Zimbabwe Mugabe used a similar tactic during Operation Murambatsvina which saw over a million people loose their homes and many were forced to go back to the country side. Mugabe did this to quell the number of people exposed to opposition politics, which was rife in the cities. It is much easier for him to suppress populations in the countryside, to ensure their votes go to his party, Zanu Pf.
6. Tribalism. One of the greatest genocides of the 20th century happened in Zimbabwe during the late 80s and early 90s. The people of Matebeleland who make up about 10% of the population were attacked and as many as 20,000 were reportedly killed and buried in mass graves. This was because Mugabe was battling the Joshua Nkomo Zanla faction which wanted more political representation in the new government. But Mugabe rained down upon them with untold violence, master minded by the now Defense Minister, Emmerson Mnangagwa who is also vying to succeed Mugabe. In Cambodia, minorities were sometimes equally suppressed and even forbidden from speaking their traditional languages. Perhaps Pol Pot feared a potential uprising hence he clamped down hard on them.
I am sure Mugabe would be reviled by this comparison to Pol Pot. I wonder what regrets Mugabe has, if he has any for wrecking the mighty Zimbabwe to the ground. I wonder if his last words would be, “My conscience is clear, my duty was to the people of Zimbabwe.” I can imagine he bears no remorse whatsoever for his actions. I can imagine he would easily blame the West for the condition the country is in. I am sure he will pull out the “illegal sanctions by Europe” argument to justify his clean conscience. I am equally sure Pol Pot blamed the West, especially the French for the condition Cambodia was in.
Both Pol Pot and Robert Mugabe come from peasant farming backgrounds. Both excelled moderately well in school. Both were exposed to the Western lifestyles at some points in their upbringing. Both were involved in the formation of their political parties and somehow managed to end up wielding influential power, dictating the turn of events for the rest of the country. Cambodia has moved on from the days of Pol Pot, and that is not to say they have no more problems over there. Until recently in the 90s, the Khmer Rouge was fighting as guerrillas in the hills and borders of Vietnam and Cambodia. I am sure if Mugabe were to be removed from power, his die hard Zanu Pf supporters would try to sabotage any manner of progress for the nation.
There are many lessons that can be drawn from Cambodia, for Zimbabwe. One can only hope that in the event of Mugabe’s exit from power, Zimbabwe will enjoy a peaceful transition such as we witnessed in neighboring Malawi with President Joyce Banda. It will be tragic to end up in a civil conflict and that would spell doom for the whole Southern African region. But today we live in a world were dictators are modernizing some of their tactics. Even the military rulers of Egypt have managed to enforce a constitutional coup, months after the famous Tarih Square revolts. I am sure the Zimbabwean military is watching the events unfolding in Egypt with keen interest. One can only hope that Zimbabwe will not become a military dictatorship.
It is difficult to say how things will evolve in Zimbabwe. I believe that now is the time Zimbabweans should start openly and seriously discussing the succession debate. The idea that Mugabe will rule for life is absurd. Even if he did, he has not much life left in him. After all, a man can only live for so long and Mugabe has many long years under his belt. The rest of his party’s leadership are also suffering from old age and in a matter of 20 years most of them are likely to be obsolete. Therefore I urge the young generation to start organizing themselves to take over the leadership. Life expectancy is at an all time low of 39 years and about 75% of the population are under this age. Yet according to law, one must be at least 40 years to run for president. Surely, the interests of the young generation are not being considered under the current circumstances. Pergaphs time has come to re write the history of Zimbabwe.
Author and African Renaissance man.