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Saturday, November 21, 1998 Published at 17:53 GMT

Age of dictators: Absolute power

Augusto Pinochet: Dictators are real 20th century phenomenon

By New York Correspondent Brian Barron

For dictators around the world, including those who survive into secure retirement, the tussle over General Augusto Pinochet has made for anxious reading.

No longer can a foreign strongman quietly check into a London or Paris clinic for treatment without a frisson of fear - and not because of the surgeon's knife.

Roman creation

The ancient Romans knew about dictators. They gave us the word itself, the concept of a Roman magistrate handed absolute power in times of crisis.

[ image: China's strongman Mao Tse Tung]
China's strongman Mao Tse Tung
But it is our 20th century that is truly the age of dictators. Tyrants is a better word for mass murderers like Hitler, Stalin and Chairman Mao.

In their wake, in my time, have come lesser fry but no less grotesque in terms of grisly deeds. Most have been military men.

Since the 1960s, I lost count of the number of coups I had covered in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

Roll of dishonour

In the roll call of dishonour were just about all ranks - from that self promoted Field Marshal, Idi Amin, a British imperial protégé, who had opponents fed to Nile crocodiles or brained with sledgehammers; to Master Sergeant Samuel Doe, whose first act was to have the entire cabinet he had overthrown shot in front of us by a drunken firing squad on the Atlantic beach in Liberia; and General Lon Nol, the inept Cambodian strongman and CIA ally, who was closeted with his astrologers while the Khmer Rouge throttled the capital, Phnom Penh.

'Killer instinct'

The usual background is post-colonial chaos and civil war. To seize power you only need a few tanks, the right fellow plotters and a willingness to kill.

Master Sergeant Doe, one of the nastiest people I have shaken hands with, presided over the destruction of Liberia and, eventually, died indescribably at the hands of his enemies.

Idi Amin, the blustering one-time heavyweight boxer, was a coward who fled Uganda for sanctuary in Saudi Arabia where he lives to this day in one of the holy cities.

General Lon Nol died forgotten in American exile.

Fear and mistrust

Of course, the currency of dictators is fear. Take General Park Chung Hee, one of the creators of industrialised, modern South Korea.

An interview was scheduled in the presidential mansion, the Blue House. As we waited, I noticed an ash tray askew on a coffee table. It was wired up, containing a hidden microphone for the Korean CIA.

In this police state even the dictator was bugged.

A few months later we were on holiday at a ski lodge in the Korean mountains. By chance General Park turned up for a private lunch with a dozen bodyguards in tow.

Close encounter

Our paths came close as my family strolled across the lawn. But as the president disappeared from sight the head bodyguard rebuked two of his colleagues for allowing us to walk inadvertently close to his boss.

As we watched he spat in their faces, kicked each very hard in the shins, and as they doubled over with pain punched them in the head.

A couple of years later, at a shootout during a security meeting, General Park was killed by the head of his Secret Service.

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