Tuesday, March 1, 2011

How to prevent the next bloodshed? A look at countries like Libya

As we watch the carnage in Libya, many people are astonished at the brutality and barbarism of Gaddafi. Why would a man hold on to power in this way, with no regard to human life or the well-being of the people? What is the major difference between Libya and Egypt, or other Arab states that respond to protesters?

Some people talk about political institutions, opposition parties, and civil society. All of these differentiate extremely repressive regimes from less repressive ones. But digging further, we want to know: How many more countries are like Libya? If we know the answers to this question, we can watch out for potential bloodshed when another big demonstration happens.  

Based on Freedom House’s annual survey on 194 countries in the world, there are 8 other countries like Libya. Freedom House ranks each country with a freedom index ranging from 1 to 7, where 1 indicates the most free and 7 indicates the most repressive. This index measures the degree of political freedom and civil liberty in a country. Not surprisingly, Libya has an index of 7 for the last 22 year (starting from 1989), making it one of the most repressive countries in the world. The other 8 countries with index 7 include 4 African countries: Sudan, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, and Somalia, and 4 Asian countries: North Korea, Burma, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. If there is any uprising or protest in these countries, we needed to watch out for potential bloodshed. The ruler in such countries is used to absolute control and does not hesitate to resort to force.

Freedom Index Country
7 Libya, Sudan, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Somalia; North Korea, Burma, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan
6.5 Syria, Saudi Arabia, Chad, Cote d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Belarus, Cuba, Laos and China

In North Korea, people do not have access to the Internet. The only TV channels are government channels, and radios are fixed to government frequencies. Any slight dissidence is cracked down ruthlessly. People who travel abroad and come back with “subversive ideas” simply disappear. The repressiveness of Burma’s military regime is well documented, and the world watched the heart-wrenching story of Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who was put under house arrest for many years. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan both gained independence after the collapse of Soviet Union in 1991. These two neighboring countries inherited their economic system from the socialist planned economy.  The old communist system and its tight control remains. In 2005, people in Uzbekistan came out to protest in city center, but they were shot by security forces indiscriminately (much like what happened in Libya today). More than 800 people were killed. Despite the world’s outcry, the regime continued until today.

Next in line are those countries with freedom index 6.5. In such countries, civil society starts to form. There is a small opening in civil liberty such as migration or free private conversation. But, people have no political right in such countries. The regimes still maintain absolute control of the press, judiciary and legislation. There are 8 countries in this category, including 2 in the middle east: Syria and Saudi Arabia, 2 in Africa: Chad and Cote d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast), and 4 with communist history: Belarus, Cuba, Laos and China.

Countries in this second worst group look very “stable” as the government maintains a heavy hand on its people. Secret police, arrest and torture keep people in line. Any dissident voice will be stifled and those dare to speak are punished. In China, more than 1000 political prisoners are languishing in jail, and many denied medical treatment. Among them is the Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo, who was jailed for 11 years for speaking out on constitution reform. His wife Liu Xia is now under indefinite house arrest. In Cuba, dissidents including journalists are jailed for speaking out. In a two-day crackdown in 2003, Cuba arrested 75 dissidents including 29 journalists. Majority of them are sentenced to 20 years or more in prison.

If an uprising ever happens in this second group of countries, a brutal crackdown is also very likely. Syria brutally put down the Hama uprising in 1982, and China used tanks to quell peaceful protesters in 1989. Will these government change when another uprising comes?

As we cheer for people’s desire for democracy, we must watch out those most repressive countries that can be very brutal to their people. The international community must prepare to come together to defend humanity from future bloodshed.

In the meantime, let's call on those governments to open up and start political reform. Change is unavoidable. Instead of using brutal force to fight against the universal desire for freedom, why not embracing it?

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