The Dictator's Handbook

Mike Minehan
11 June 2021

The hijacking of a civilian passenger jet by Belarus on 23 May 2021, has added a new page to The Dictator's  Handbook. This was the use of a fighter jet to enforce the hijacking, following a false bomb threat, then forcing the airliner to land in Minsk, all to facilitate the arrest and imprisonment of the prominent opposition journalist Roman Protasevich and his fiancé. The use of a fighter jet by the Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko was a novel, yet draconian way to silence a journalist.

Reaching out across national borders to silence critics is the most notable addition to The Dictator's Handbook. Freedom House has identified 608 cases of transnational repression since 2014. (1)

Perhaps the world's attention to the plight of the Belarus journalist will keep him alive. It will be more difficult to kill and 'disappear' this journalist, now that the world knows his situation.

This is not the case with the 273 other journalists imprisoned in 2020, or the 66 that are missing globally. (2)

An interesting case study is the Philippines. Murder has always been a favorite tool for dictators, but in the Philippines, the threat of murder, and murder itself, is now endemic.

The Philippines has now become 'the murder capital of Asia' according to Philippines Opposition Senator Antonio Trillanes. 'Duterte's culture of violence is upon us. No one is safe now'. (3)

So far, the lower end estimate of extrajudicial killings by police hit squads is over 5000. Prime Minister Duterte claims that the exact number is 'a national security issue', although officials insist, despite evidence to the contrary, that 'the government does not tolerate extrajudicial kills and other human rights violations, and that most of the slain suspects resisted arrest'. (4)

Other estimates put the death toll much higher than the vague official figures. The Opposition Senator Trillanes claimed in early 2018 that the vigilante killings numbered 20,000. (5)

What began as a landslide victory for Duterte on his drug reform platform now seems to be spiraling out of control. But this appears to suit Duterte.

One of the reasons for the rapidly escalating death toll is that Duterte is not just targeting drug lords, criminals and journalists. Under the umbrella of controlling illegal drugs, he's now targeting everyone else critical of him.

An interesting case study is Leila de Lima, a Philippines senator, lawyer, law professor and human rights activist who was chair of a senate Justice and Human Rights committee investigating extrajudicial killings. De Leila has been imprisoned since 2017 on allegations she used drug money for her senatorial campaign in 2016. De Lima is now referred to as a 'prisoner of conscience' by Amnesty International

De Lima has so far escaped being murdered, but this is now not the case for a number of priests in the Philippine Catholic Church. Priests? Yes, at least 3 priests have so far been murdered, following the Church's outspoken opposition to the Philippine drug war. Duterte retaliated in a speech at the presidential palace by saying, "These bishops that you guys have, kill them. They are useless fools. All they do is criticize." (6)

Other priests and bishops have received warnings, including the following priest who has been charged with sedition:

Over 90 per cent of the more than 100 million people in the Philippines identify as Catholic, and Duterte's bloody escalation to include Catholic clergy in his killing list is a strike at the heart and the faith of his people.

Also, the Union of Catholic Asian News now claims that more than two thirds of Philippinos are afraid that they or family members will fall victim to extrajudicial killings.

How long Duterte thinks he can continue the killings is unknown.

To the contrary, Duterte has boasted openly about his own participation in drug-related killings when he was mayor of Davao, before he became Prime Minister. "I killed about three," he told a group of businessmen at the Presidential Palace. "I'd go around in Davao with a motorcycle, with a big bike around, and I would just patrol the streets, looking for trouble. I was really looking for a confrontation so I could kill." (7)

It's easy to conclude that the world has become more dangerous. A recent article in The Washington Post comes to the conclusion that 'in the battle between democracy and autocracy, it looks like the latter is gaining ground'.

Maybe not just 'looks like'. Myanmar, Mexico, Afghanistan, Syria, China, Turkey, India and Pakistan (Kashmir), Russia and North Korea, are all proof that this has already happened. Saudi Arabia, following its transnational killing of the critic Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Turkey on 2 October, 2018, has also earned a place on this list. And even that great former bastion of democracy, America, has been teetering on the brink of autocracy.

Using a fighter jet to force down a civil airliner to arrest and imprison a journalist, and a Prime Minister who openly boasts about how many he has murdered, are new debasements of power.

To what extent will other dictators be emboldened by Duterte and Lukashenko? Getting away with murder and repression has rarely looked so easy.



  1. Freedom House Report, ‘Out of Sight, Not Out of Reach: the Global Scale and Reach of Transnational Repression’, February, 2021.
  2. Committee to Protect
  3. ABS-CBN News, ‘A culture of violence: Trillanes says Duterte turned PH into ‘murder capital of Asia’, 3 July, 2021.
  4. Romero, Alexis, ‘Duterte: Not all drug war records can be opened’,
    The Philippine Star 2 June, 2021.
  5. Elemia, Camille, ‘Trillanes calls on Senate to defend De Lima, press freedom, right to life’, Rappler 21 Feb., 2018.
  6. Regencia, Ted, ‘Philippines’ Duterte: “Kill those useless bishops”. Al Jazeera, 5 Dec., 2018. 
  7. BBC News, 16 Dec., 2016, ‘Philippines: Duterte confirms he personally killed three men’.