ABC's Senior Foreign Correspondent Jim Sciutto reports:
I’ve spent a lot of time in police states in the last couple of years – a few trips each to Zimbabwe, Myanmar, Iran, and some more. It strikes me that each place is dramatically different in terms of culture, language, geography, religion, economy, you name it, but the governments deal with dissent very similarly. They seem to be carrying around well-worn copies of the exact same playbook.
The rules are pretty straightforward.
1- Blame it on foreigners: Exporting the crisis is a good way to drum up nationalistic feelings and cover up real divisions at home. America is always a prime target. ‘The West’ in general will do too. The foreign media often shares the blame.
2- Lie: Joseph Goebbels said it best, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” Iran took this to a new level by accusing the BBC of being behind the death of the Iranian protester, Neda Agha-Soltan – hiring thugs, said some officials, to carry out the killing.
3- Kill a few to scare the rest: One thing Iran and Myanmar had in common is that the government avoided a Tiananmen-style massacre. Rather than gunning down hundreds in a day, security forces killed a handful of protesters over a number of days, hoping that fear would drive the rest into their homes.
4- Arrest, arrest, arrest: Myanmar and Iran arrested hundreds of opposition supporters, or people it believed were opposition supporters. Each has a feared prison – in Tehran, it’s Evin; in Yangon it’s the aptly named Insein (pronounced ‘insane’) prison. Just a few days or weeks there is enough, leaders hope, to erode demonstrators’ commitment.
5- Wait: Governments have patience. They make a real effort to clamp down on protests early – and wait for the interest of foreign media and governments to fade. Once Myanmar was out of the spotlight, calls for economic sanctions against the military junta were much quieter – and much easier for Myanmar’s trading partners to ignore.
The rules aren’t fool-proof. In the information age, ‘Big Lies’ are easier to debunk. I doubt many Iranians bought the BBC as murderers story. Prison can often galvanize opposition leaders. See Aung Sang Suu Kyi, Morgan Tsvangirai (and Nelson Mandela for that matter). And while Iran may attempt to wait out the current protests, the divisions go to the highest levels of the leadership. Those divisions can’t be damped down with police on motorcycles. And the opposition can wait to. It was years after the first Solidarity strikes before Poland’s military dictatorship fell. Some of the world’s most powerful, feared governments have been toppled by ‘people power’.