Wednesday, June 26, 2024


Dhaka Tribune


The brutality of power

And how it remains the one true test of character

Update : 28 Jul 2022, 02:32 AM

It somehow matters little that we went to the moon more than a half century ago. It is immaterial that all those unmanned expeditions have been headed to Mars. It does not seem to be making much of a difference to us that the beginnings of time are now being explored by science.

Human nature, especially where it is the preserve of those who wield power, remains unchanged. Power exercised in all its brutality yet remains the underpinning of the human condition. The execution of four prominent pro-democracy activists by the military regime in Myanmar has once again brought home to us this lesson in the narrative of tragedy.

These four men shared a dream, of painting for their people a rainbow of hope resting on government by the consent of the governed. That in this day and age it is the people who matter is the message these brave men in Myanmar sought to disseminate among their people and to the rest of the world.

They have now been silenced. And silenced through incarceration, once again, is Aung San Suu Kyi.

Power in our times has often been exercised for foul deeds to be done. The trial of the fallen Saddam Hussein -- a sham by any stretch of the meaning -- remains a shameful story of how local powerful men, catapulted to authority by their foreign benefactors, are forever ready and willing to push their nations to disaster. Fear of infamy does not assail such men, for wielding the gun or the rope in ensuring a miscarriage of justice is their nefarious objective.

The prejudiced trial and execution of Pakistan’s Zulfikar Ali Bhutto will forever remain a stain on the country’s history and especially on its military establishment. The sordid manner in which the Ziaul Haq regime manipulated the judiciary into passing judgment on the deposed prime minister is a cardinal lesson in our times of the brutality which often comes associated with power. The generals in Myanmar are but complicit in that sinister use of power gained through the possession of weapons.

Across large tracts of the Third World, brutality in the exercise of power has been the norm, as the questionable trial and execution of Col Abu Taher in Bangladesh in 1976 so evidently demonstrates. Regimes which push such men to their doom clearly do not have the moral courage to have their victims tried in public, which is why they resort to subterfuge in abusing their authority. 

The execution of thirteen military officers by the Sattar administration, under the looming shadow of army chief HM Ershad in September 1981, only reinforced the idea that in Bangladesh’s era of darkness between 1975 and 1996, the law and decency in the corridors of power went fugitive.

We have not forgotten the nocturnal executions of prominent Soviet political figures in the Stalinist purges of the 1930s. Joseph Stalin, a man whose understanding of global literature was remarkable (he could quote Goethe and Shakespeare at dinner with his colleagues even as he knew they would soon die on his orders), saw hardly any reason to convey to the people of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) the idea that Communism symbolized enlightened leadership. 

And so, men like Bukharin were shot in the middle of the night after trials and judgments which had been pre-determined by Lenin’s successor. The husband of the poet Anna Akhmatova died in Stalin’s prison. And Leon Trotsky was murdered in distant Mexico.

In the mid-1990s, the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa by the obnoxious regime of General Sani Abacha in Nigeria sent shockwaves around the world. Saro-Wiwa, a leading exponent of human rights and defender of the rights of the Ogoni people in his country, paid a price for his vocal opposition to the exploitation of Nigeria’s natural resources. 

It was Nigeria’s moment of shame, as low a point in its history as was the murder of its first prime minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa in a military coup in 1966. The brutal Abacha would later die while busily engaged in an act of sex with a prostitute in Lagos.

Stalin is rightly condemned in history for the brutality that was part of his leadership of the Soviet Union. Something of the same can be said of his successor Nikita Khrushchev when in 1956 the revolt in Hungary was crushed in all manner of cruelty and the nationalist prime minister Imre Nagy was overthrown. 

Nagy was a condemned man. A show trial would lead him to the gallows. Not many recall his heroism these days; few make their way to his grave in Budapest. 

Power, it would be right to argue, is generally an instrument in the hands of unscrupulous men and women to dispatch their opponents, real or imagined, to early graves. Revolutions have historically yielded much that is of positive consequence for nations, but in the process of shaking up society and doing away with the status quo they have often left a long trail of blood in their wake. 

The French Revolution killed Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette and soon led Danton and Robespierre to the guillotine; the Russian Revolution was marred by the wholesale massacre of the Czar and his family; Oliver Cromwell presided over, in ugly fashion, the execution of Charles I in England.

The acquisition of power by means other than democratic has always been an invitation to demonstrations of gross insensitivity by those who have found cause to seize the state. Such commandeering of power has undermined human dignity and the sanctity of the state. The execution of Adnan Menderes in the aftermath of the army coup in Turkey in 1960 is but one more instance of this ugly truth. 

And then there have been executions beyond the pale of the law, sham as such exercises of authority have been. The ayatollahs in Iran felt no compunction in murdering the respected Amir Abbas Hoveida once they had seized the state in early 1979. 

Mengistu Haile Mariam and his band of coup makers in Ethiopia had Emperor Haile Selassie suffocate to death in Addis Ababa, in a manner similar to that employed by Hafizullah Amin in disposing of the poet-politician Nur Mohammad Taraki in Kabul in the late 1970s. 

And who better than we in Bangladesh will comprehend the sheer evil which complements illegitimate power as it seeks to wipe out history? The assassinations of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, his family and the four leaders of the 1971 Mujibnagar government between August and November 1975 remain a blood-drenched elegy in our history. 

In the 1930s, writer George Orwell penned a story he called A Hanging. It was a tale based on an execution Orwell witnessed in Burma (as Myanmar was known at the time) in the 1920s, a time when he served in the police force in the British-ruled country.

In the 2020s, brutal authority still has good men frog-marched to the gallows in the sad country we remember as Burma and now know as Myanmar. The generals in Naypidaw remain impervious to reason and decency, as so many others have been before them around the world. Barbarism reigns. 

Meanwhile, the James Webb Space Telescope educates us on the beginnings of the universe, of time and space.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.

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