In a functioning democracy, political dissent is a regular and completely legal part of freedom of speech as well as free and fair elections. This page focuses on the dissidents who risk their lives battling the most undemocratic dictatorships in the world. Also, visit our main section on world democracy
Contemporary political artist active in sculpture, installation, architecture, music, photography, film, and political critic frequently seen clashing with the dictatorship. Born in Beijing, he is openly critical of the dictatorship’s dangerous stance on democracy and he has worked on many popular investigations into government corruption despite his constant repression.
Investigations of corruption on his blog, vocal criticism of the dictatorship, and unconventional grassroots organizing activities have made Navalny a national figure in Russia. He organized large-scale demonstrations promoting democracy against dictator Vladimir Putin and Putin’s political allies. He has also run for office on an anti-corruption platform including Moscow Mayor.
Suu Kyi is an opposition politician in Burma. After winning the 1990 elections she was placed under house arrest for the next 21 years until emerging to become figurehead for democracy reform in transforming Burma. Suu Kyi announced on the World Economic Forum that she wants to run for the presidency of Burma if she can manage the existing regime’s barriers.
Civil rights activist worked on human rights in rural areas of China. Blind from an early age and self-taught in the law, he is frequently described as a ‘barefoot lawyer’. He advocates for women’s rights, land rights, and welfare of the poor. He is popularly known for exposing government abuses in official family-planning practices, often involving violence and forced abortions.
Ukrainian exhibitionist feminist protesters with branches in Tunisia and the Middle East. Internationally known for organizing controversially topless protests against sex tourism, religious institutions, sexism and other topics related to women. Battles “patriarchy in sexual exploitation of women, dictatorship and religion”.
Malala was 11 years old when she began blogging anonymously about life under Taliban rule in northwestern Pakistan and launched her campaign to support education for the poor. At 15, she survived a brutal assassination attempt and has recently returned from surgery to resume her work for women’s education as a solution in Pakistan and beyond.
Russian feminist punk rock protest group based in Moscow advocating feminism, LGBT rights, and opposition to Vladimir Putin. Several of the all female rock band have been imprisoned in the notorious Russian gulag system as punishment for peaceful protest including some of those who were beaten by Russian police outside the Winter Olympics in Sochi.
Sein is a former military commander who has been President of Myanmar since March 2011. His new government has completed a series of political reforms including deregulation of the country’s censored media and releasing many political prisoners that has transformed the country once among world’s worst human rights offenders.
The dictator of Saudi Arabia. The country remains one of the most repressive societies in the world especially for women and minorities. Political parties are forbidden and organized political opposition exists only outside the country. It is one of few countries that doesn’t even pretend to be democratic. The ‘king’ has a personal fortune that makes him one of the wealthiest people in the world although his true wealth is likely much greater. The extended Saudi royal family live in extreme luxury while financing extremism abroad.
Dictator of about half of Syria and responsible for heinous crimes both before and especially after the Arab Spring protests that called for his downfall and new path towards democracy in Syria. After trying to kill every protester he could, the Syrian Civil War began causing horrific destruction in the country as his Shiite government tried to regain control over the Sunni majority of Syria. The death toll is in the hundreds of thousands, millions have become refugees, and the country is falling apart. He succeeded his father who led Syria for 30 years until his death.
Dictators of Cuba, Fidel and Raul Castro rule with an iron fist. Cuba is the only country in the Americas that consistently makes Freedom House’s list of the Worst of the Worst: the World’s Most Repressive Societies for widespread abuses. The Castro government remains highly repressive of political dissent. Although the degree of repression has ebbed and flowed over the past decade, the neutralization of organized political dissent remains a regime priority. No political parties are permitted to nominate candidates or campaign.
Dictator of Turkmenistan ‘reelected’ to a second five-year term, winning 97 percent of the vote against a field of candidates who were all associated with the ruling party. None of the country’s elections since independence in 1991 have been free or fair. Berdymukhammedov has maintained all the means and patterns of repression established by his predecessor Niyazov, whose rule lasted over twenty years since independence. Elections in 2009, 2010, and August 2012 mimicked previous stage-managed polls.
Dictator of North Korea and son of Kim Jong-il. Candidates for office run unopposed and ALL media is run directly by the state. There are no known associations or organizations other than those created by the state and there is no freedom of movement even their own citizens inside the country. Has a semihereditary system of social discrimination that classifies people into subgroups based on security ratings like ‘core’, ‘wavering’, and ‘hostile’ to the regime. Labor camp system is described as the worst and most extensive human rights crime since the Nazi Party in Germany.
The dictator of Sudan, al-Bashir has been issued an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court on counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity in relation to his genocide of ethnic minorities in the Darfur region. After growing calls for his ouster al-Bashir responded brutally to social protests in June, conducting mass arrests and placing further restrictions on the embattled local media. Multiple armed uprisings continue in Darfur, Southern Kordofan, and Blue Nile states, worsening dire humanitarian situations including a chronic lack of food and water.
Dictator of Zimbabwe for last 33 years. After the fraudulent 2012 elections, he ranks third in sub-Saharan Africa for longest executive tenure, behind Angola’s José Eduardo dos Santos and Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. Zimbabwe has never experienced a democratic transfer of power, and Mugabe’s 33 years in office have been marked by violations of basic freedoms, undemocratic governance, and economic crisis. New annual trend involves millions of people seeking food assistance in the dry season when year’s harvest run out.
Post-Soviet oil dictator of Russia and head of mafia. Imposed increasing restrictions on public assemblies, nongovernmental organizations, and the internet to squelch protest movement. Vaguely defined amendments to the law on treason criminalized a variety of activities, including ordinary interactions with foreigners. The 2011 Democracy Index stated that “a long process of regression culminated in a move from a hybrid to an authoritarian regime” and cables leaked by Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks reveal that Putin’s Russia has become a “virtual mafia state.”
Dissidents: Freedom Has to Be Won
Dissidents challenge established doctrine, policies, and institutions of dictatorships. The word originates in English in relation to religious “dissident” Protestants during the wars of religion in 16th century Europe. Usage of the term “dissidents” grew in importance in response to the rise in 20th century totalitarian dictatorships like the Soviet Union and North Korea. One of the most famous Soviet dissidents was imprisoned author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
Dictatorships use many discriminatory policies to repress their population and dissidents face the worst of their fury. Political repression such as human rights violations, surveillance abuse, police brutality, imprisonment, involuntary settlement, stripping of citizen’s rights, and violent action or terror such as murder, summary executions, torture, forced disappearance and other extrajudicial punishment. Also visit our articles on international corruption.
When dissidents unite for a common cause they often become a dissident movement. All modern dictatorships are opposed by established dissident movements that exist both inside and outside their borders. Many dissident movements find shelter and support for their activities inside the democratic world. Also, take a look at our articles on what some consider American dissidents including Eric Snowden, Julian Assange, and Bradley Manning.
The non-profit Freedom House does a good deal of work assisting these types of dissidents but other charities involved in this fight include Amnesty International and the Worldwide Movement for Democracy. Movements.org is perhaps the major activist group focused solely on helping dissidents. A list of the worst of the worst dictatorships is produced every year by the democracy and civil rights group Freedom House. Take a look at “Worst of the Worst 2012: The World’s Most Repressive Societies“. Here is a quick summary:
More than 1.6 billion people—23 percent of the world’s population—have no say in how they are governed and face severe consequences if they try to exercise their most basic rights, such as expressing their views, assembling peacefully, and organizing independently of the state. Citizens who dare to assert their rights in these repressive countries typically suffer harassment and imprisonment, and often are subjected to physical or psychological abuse. In these countries, state control over public life is pervasive, and individuals have little if any recourse to justice for crimes the state commits against them.
In this year’s Worst of the Worst report, nine countries were identified by Freedom House as being the world’s worst human rights abusers in calendar year 2011:Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Two disputed territories, Tibet and Western Sahara, were also in this category. All of these countries and territories received Freedom in the World’s lowest ratings: 7 for political rights and 7 for civil liberties (based on a 1 to 7 scale, with 1 representing the most free and 7 the least free). Within these entities, political opposition is banned, criticism of the government is met with retribution, and independent organizations are suppressed. Seven other countries fall just short of the bottom of Freedom House’s ratings: Belarus, Burma, Chad, China, Cuba, Laos, and Libya.
With China being the largest dictatorship in the world with massive political power, this page has a good amount of material on China’s vast community of activists pushing for democracy.
ai weiwei: Chinese contemporary artist, active in sculpture, installation, architecture, curating, photography, film, and social, political and cultural criticist. Ai collaborated with Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron as the artistic consultant on the Beijing National Stadium for the 2008 Olympics. As a political activist, he has been highly and openly critical of the Chinese Government’s stance on democracy and human rights. He has investigated government corruption and cover-ups, in particular the Sichuan schools corruption scandal following the collapse of so-called “tofu-dreg schools” in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. In 2011, following his arrest at Beijing Capital International Airport on April 3, he was held for 81 days without any official charges being filed; officials alluded to their allegations of “economic crimes” (tax evasion).
chen guangcheng: Chinese civil rights activist who worked on human rights issues in rural areas of the People’s Republic of China. Blind from an early age and self-taught in the law, Chen is frequently described as a “barefoot lawyer” who advocates for women’s rights, land rights, and the welfare of the poor. He is best known for exposing abuses in official family-planning practices, often involving claims of violence and forced abortions. In April 2012, Chen dramatically escaped from house arrest in his village in northeast China by jumping over a wall at night and making his way via an underground network of relatives, friends, and supporters to the US embassy in Beijing, hundreds of miles away. On 19 May 2012, Chen, his wife, and his two children were granted U.S. visas and departed Beijing for New York City.
liu xiaobo: Despite repeated warnings from the Chinese government, the Nobel Committee named jailed Chinese dissident writer Liu Xiaobo the winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, citing “his long and nonviolent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.” Liu Xiaobo took part in the student protests on Tienanmen Square in 1989. For that he was sentenced to two years in prison. Liu has been in prison since December 2008, when he was sentenced to 11 years for criticizing China’s communist government in a widely circulated petition dubbed Charter 08. Liu’s wife accepted the committee’s praise on his behalf, and, from house arrest in Beijing, invited Chinese dissidents and writers to attend the ceremony in her husband’s place.
wang bingzhang: On June 27, 2002, Dr. Wang traveled to Vietnam to meet Chinese labour activists. Together with his two traveling companions, they disappeared. He and his companions were kidnapped from Vietnam and forced into China by boat. Pro-democracy activist Dr. Wang BingZhang continues to languish in a Chinese prison serving a life sentence in solitary confinement. See the entire series “In the Prison of China – The Journey of Dr. Wang Bingzhang” by Yaxue Cao at Democracy Chronicles: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.