‘Happy Birthday’ to the dear leader

History is replete with examples of rulers who have done some strange things & made a spectacle of their birthdays. Some developing world leaders have declared national holidays on their birthday

A lavish cake on Robert Mugabe’s 92nd birthday party
A lavish cake on Robert Mugabe’s 92nd birthday party
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Abhijit Shanker

Wannabe dictators or the real ones often tend to confuse power as something permanent. Some have instigated followers to celebrate their birthdays, a few going to the extent of pronouncing their birthdays as national holidays. Power and fame are however fickle friends at best.

History is replete with examples of rulers who have done some strange things and is a great predictor of the future if you choose to look closely. Here are a few examples of rulers who made a spectacle of their birthdays, one even going to the extent of changing his birthday to match his son’s.

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Robert Mugabe, President of Zimbabwe (1987-2017)

During my last visit to Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, in February 2016, I was amazed to see the President’s picture smiling down from hoardings put up in all corners of the capital. From the time I descended at the airport till I reached the hotel, Mugabe’s picture was omnipresent. It also happened to be the month he was celebrating his 92nd birthday. On his previous birthdays, he had cakes matching his age, namely a 90 kg cake for the 90th birthday; 90 cows slaughtered and meats of antelopes, lions and elephants served to the attendees of the celebrations. The very next year, in 2017, he was deposed and went on to die a lonely death in Singapore.

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A monument to Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov
A monument to Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov
Valery Sharifulin

Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, President of Turkmenistan (2017-Current)

Leading one of the most oppressive regimes of the world, Berdimuhamedov rules with an iron fist. Despite being called out for human rights violations, he continues to celebrate his birthday with performances by celebrities like Boney M and Jennifer Lopez. The famous singer later feigned ignorance of the human rights violations in the country and claimed she had no idea of the same when she had accepted the offer to sing “happy birthday, Mr. President”. Berdimuhamedov has had golden statues of himself installed in the capital to mark his birthdays, which are celebrated by media and loyalists alike to honour their ‘national hero’.

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Kim Jong Un, Supreme Leader of North Korea (2011- Current)

Following on the footsteps of his father and grandfather, the current Supreme leader distributes a kilogram of candies to all children in the country below the age of 10, on his birthday every year. His predecessors added cigarettes as wellfor the elders in the family. His father’s birthday is celebrated in the country as ‘Day of the Shining Star’ while his grandfather’s big day has been pronounced the ‘Day of the Sun.’ The fetish with marking the birthdays of the successive supreme leaders is now a tradition which cannot be escaped or forgotten.

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King Bhumibol Adulyadej, King of Thailand (1946-2016)

I was visiting Bangkok in October 2016, the month the King passed away. There were larger than life posters and billboards all over the city to mark the mourning period and everyone wore black. Everywhere I went, even at the hotel, the entrance had huge posters of the late King, and the attendants were dressed in black.

However, while the King was still alive, Thais celebrated his birthday by wearing yellow, the national colour, with his insignia on their clothes. He would wave his hand to his followers from the throne, who would then break into a song and dance show to express their allegiance to their ninth monarch.

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Nursultan Nazarbayev, President of Kazakhstan (1990 – Current)

In 2017, after ruling the country for 17 years, Nazarbayev decided to announce his birthday as a national holiday. Celebrated every year for several weeks, his birthday is marked by fireworks, marathon discussions on state-owned or state-sponsored media, and schools are encouraged to watch movies based on the President’s younger days. The festivities in the past have included Whitney Houston and the famous Montreal-based circus group, Cirque du Soleil.

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Notable Mention:

Adolf Hitler: His 50th birthday was celebrated by a military parade by 50,000 strong German troops, 162 airplanes flying overhead and a lavish spectacle focusing on his life.

(The author is a former Chief of Communications with UNICEF in New York, where he worked for more than a decade. Views are personal)

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