Always repeating ourselves

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EI SUN OH

AS we approach the end of yet another eventful year, it is usually the time of year to reflect upon some of the lessons that could be gleaned from the incidents big and small that took place in the preceding 12 months. When I tried to do so, however, I could not help but be overcome by a tremendous sense of futility and resignation. For it would appear that at least as time marched forward in the nearly two generations (if we take one to be approximately a quarter century) since I was born, history – at least those parts of it which pertain to how humans behave, interact, organize themselves or otherwise be governed – keeps on perpetuating itself in a negative direction. It is as if we as the human race have not collectively or singularly learned from painful past mistakes but are instead doomed to repeat them, due primarily to our own follies.

Cases in point would be how nations and their leaders behave. I was blessed to be able to rudimentarily read or at least browse through “serious” stuff in newspapers and magazines from a very young age. The newspapers were often current, and the magazines were a mixture of current and slightly dated (from my family collection) affairs, but I devoured them with equal fervor. It was the 1970s and the time when many tin-pot dictators popped up in various African countries which had recently gained independence from their former colonial masters, typically British or French. In Uganda, Idi Amin seized power after a coup and almost immediately instituted a reign of terror. The hardworking South Asians who were brought in by the British to work on the Ugandan economy were terrorized and essentially chased away by the superficially nationalistic Amin regime. I remember in particular a news photo of several ostensibly South Asian community leaders— some of them must have been second- or third-generation residents—kneeling before Amin’s sizable figure, raising their hands and swearing allegiance. Many of them later resettled in Britain and other Commonwealth countries.

But Amin and his henchmen did not stop with people they considered “alien” to Uganda. Opposition politicians or mere critics of the regime were summarily detained and often tortured, after which many of them were simply executed. But the truly gruesome details came after that. Due to the superstitious belief that “consumption” of one’s enemies would enhance one’s virility, it was then widely circulated that Amin would sometimes partake of his enemies’ remains, innards and all! It was an exceptionally brutal regime and Ugandans were glad to see Amin toppled and driven into exile.

But the lessons were apparently not learned. Fast forward a mere decade or two, the world started to witness another dictatorship consolidate its hold on power in another country near Uganda. Former Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe, who is perhaps a class by himself, came to power with so much hope invested in him by the global community as his rise ended white minority rule. Mugabe was much more polished and certainly much higher educated (holding several British bachelor’s degrees through reportedly studious work) than the brash Amin who barely finished elementary schooling. And Mugabe, superstitious that he might also be, has no reported penchant for cannibalistic consumption. But these commendable points certainly did not deter him from unleashing a similar wave of terror against the white minority in Zimbabwe, instigating armed thugs to take over their farms by force. The local political opposition was also targeted, with the police and thugs working hand in to detain, torture and kill many dissidents. The civilized worldwide community imposed harsh sanctions on Zimbabwe, but of course the Mugabes went on with their luxurious lifestyle. It dragged on for another two decades or so before Mugabe was finally ousted last month.


And from a young age I was “mesmerized” by yet another flamboyant African leader, and this one from way north. Muamar Gaddafi was a young colonel in the Libyan army when he pulled off a coup and toppled the country’s royal rulers. Like many of his generation, Gaddafi was smitten by the lure of Pan-Arabism and toyed with the then fashionable socialism. But he was not satisfied with merely suppressing, always brutally, his domestic opposition; he reached out to the world and tried to leave the imprint of his ideology on it, most often by supporting terrorist groups from around the world, providing them with weapons, training and money.

The world was shocked when gunshots were fired from the Libyan embassy in London against demonstrators, killing a policewoman. A disco in Berlin popular with American forces stationed in Germany was assaulted, which led to the US targeted bombing of Libya. Then came Lockerbie, where an American airliner was installed with bombs by Libyan agents and exploded over Scotland, killing all on board and many on the ground. Gaddafi went on a charm offensive toward the last years of his regime, but it proved too late for he was ousted, then unceremoniously killed during the Arab Spring uprisings.

But we are still dealing with another brutalist regime half way across the world which has been hell bent on ruthlessly “proving” to the world its perverted existential “importance.” The North Korean regime has moved from bad to worse in recent years, testing missiles and nuclear devices alike in blatant violations of United Nations Security Council resolutions. And the daylight assassination of Kim Jong-nam in Kuala Lumpur also brought the erstwhile faraway terror much closer to home to us Southeast Asians.

It is sad to close on such a negative note, but it is a brutal and ruthless world out there, and it is worthwhile to constantly remind ourselves to be vigilant.

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