Military Rule In Global Context – Analysis


Transition from military to democratic form of government is always difficult. Peoples’ urge notwithstanding, absence of institutions necessary for sustainable democracy poses great impediment in the process of transition. Arab Spring will be an appropriate example for the success or failure of such transition. Clearly those who had gathered the fruits of crony capitalism and also wielded unfettered power of life and death over the civil population would oppose any derogation of authority enjoyed by them for decades because transition to democracy would diminish both their purse and power.

Authoritarian system may have procedural democracy but power flowing from a central authority or a coterie who effectively remain unaccountable to the electorate for the period the person/coterie has been elected. Often in countries which are not classified as established democracies the “election” itself may be largely influenced by money and muscle but give the impression of a movement from dictatorship to democracy. Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, though not a militarist but a dictator nonetheless, has changed the constitution of the country to remain in power possibly for the duration of his life and the opposition accepted the undemocratic system imposed on the people, perhaps because they felt compromise with a dictator is better than rotting in jail and also because man is mortal.

Not many countries in Africa is Botswana nor can boast of having a Nelson Mandela. Consequently the continent has Mali, Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo and till recently Charles Taylor’s Liberia. In Latin America Juan Carlos Calleros-Alercon in his book The Unfinished Transition To Democracy in Latin America analyzes twelve countries “in order to assess the independence, impartiality, political strength and efficiency of the judicial branch.

The picture that emerges – with the one exception of Costa Rica – is the persistence of weak judicial systems, unable in practice to check other branches of government, including the executive and the military, while not quite effective in fully protecting human rights or in implementing due process of law guarantees. Aggravating issues, such as corruption, heavy case backlogs, overcrowding of prisons, circumvention of laws and personal vulnerability of judges, make the judiciary the least evolved of the three branches of government in the Latin American transitions to democracy”.

In Asia sometimes called the “Antartica” of democratic values because of military intervention in South and South East Asia things have changed as it has in post-Cold War Europe. It is, however, difficult to say with certainty that democratic values have permeated in all former Soviet client states (Ukraine is an example) even if the Russian Federation under Vladimir Putin with his recent election as President is regarded to have been truly democratic. A number of political scientist and economists are of the view that transition to democracy requires a certain degree of economic development and the firm establishment of separation of the three organs of the government and primarily the establishment of the rule of law. And for all people to be equally accountable to the rule of law the inequality of income among various groups of people in a country has to be reduced as much as possible so that justice dose not become a commodity on sale. But then it is a difficult task as rapid growth tends to concentrate wealth in few hands at the expense of the many.

Columbia Professor of Finance Raghuram Rajan pointed out (Foreign Affairs-May/June 2012) that over the past few decades income gap between the rich and the poor widened. He added that the top one percent of household obtained 8.9% of the total income generated in the US in 1976 but in 2007 it had increased to nearly 25 percent. Yet one would hesitate to say that the US does not have rule of law. On the contrary from James Madison, Thomas Jefferson to Barak Obama the American journey has been a constant narrative of establishment of the rule of law. If any examples are needed then the departure of Richard Nixon from the Presidency and the failed impeachment of Bill Clinton should silence any critic. In decolonized world, however, the story, by and large, has been different. When the White Man’s Burden was removed many of the newly liberated countries stubbornly refused to be democratized and the colonial masters were replaced by indigenous dictators who in phases were themselves removed at considerable human and economic costs. Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is a burning example.

From 1962 when General Ne Win threw out the elected government of U Nu and installed decades long military rule, challenged by Nobel laureate Aung San Su Kyi who remained under house arrest for 15 years for her labor, only recently the military has transformed itself into a sort of elected government and a parliament packed with members of armed forces. The US and other Western powers appear to be mollified to an extent that the Obama administration has nominated Derek Mitchell a veteran US policy maker in Asia, as ambassador to Burma and the US has relaxed some of its sanctions imposed on the repressive military. Senator John Kery, Chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Comitiee, favors a step-by-step process in the removal of sanctions that is contingent upon continued progress of reforms. The Senate took note of the Buddhist-Muslim riots in Rakhine state reflective of divisiveness cultivated over many years and of the continued detention of hundreds of political prisoners.

Democracy advocate and Nobel Laureate Aung San Su Kyi condemned to house arrest for 15 years was allowed to visit Thailand to attend the World Economic Forum, Britain and Norway for the first time in decades (her husband died in the interim period as she was refused exit from Burma). At Oxford University where she studied in her youth she was given an honorary Doctorate degree and she was given the rare honor to address a joint session of the House of Lords and the House of Commons. In her address she cautioned that after 49 years of military rule Burma could only follow in Britain’s footsteps with the support of the international community.

Military rule that must be based on tribal or a group of military officers or through evolution of one party rule arrests economic growth because of lack of social cohesion necessary to encourage entrepreneurship . Why one may ask Park Chung Hee’s military dictatorship did not regress South Korean economic progression from underdeveloped to a developed economy?

Partially the answer lies in the discipline and hard work inherent among the Koreans and the wise though dictatorial leadership provided by Park Chung Hee. Another factor, albeit external, has been the break out of Korean War and the subsequent involvement of the US, China and then Soviet Union. The American political, military and economic support given to South Korea backed by the Koreans’ work ethics has been driving the engine of growth of the country. Luckily for South Korea the people are homogenous and have no ethnic or religious divide that so often marred the economic prospect of so many developing countries.

A case in point is Burma that since its independence has been bedeviled by ethnic conflict the latest has been the riots between the Buddhists and the Muslim Rohingyas in the Rakhine state of Burma who had to flee to the neighboring Bangladesh to save their lives. This was not the first occurrence of the violation of human rights of ethnic population in Burma which has been chronicled as brutal verging on crimes against humanity. Bangladesh has been negotiating with the Burmese authorities for years for the repatriation of the Rohingyas. But Burmese response to the Rohingya repatriation request by Bangladesh is not known. On June 27th Burma’s Immigration and Population Minister told the press that regarding the Bengalis (he referred to the Rohingyas as Bengalis) who left across the border, Burma has policies to accept them back. Basically they should be able to prove that they really left from Burma and they are willing to come back. For children they should be able to prove that both their parents went to Bangladesh from Burma. But the problem is confounded by the 1982 citizenship law that recognizes Burmese citizenship only for those who inhabited region prior to 1824, the year when the British conquered Burma, and Bengalis are those who came to Burma after the British conquest. A section of Burmese people are calling for isolation and eventual expulsion of the Rohingyas from Burma.

They estimate that 8 lakh Rohingyas are living in Burma. On top of these the proposed visit to Bangladesh in mid-July by Burmese President has been put on hold ostensibly because of domestic disturbances. How this will play out finally remains to be seen. Oxford Professor Timothy Garten Ash has described Burma as “a country ruled by half century of misrule with a still entrenched military, an ethnic patchwork that makes Yugoslavia look simple.” Pakistan is another example. The very division of India by the British into two countries based on religious differences that looked eminently reasonable at that point of time has now proved to be fallacious. The emergence of Bangladesh has nullified the two nation theory with the fundamental assumption that Hindus and Muslims cannot live together in one single state. The military has been ruling Pakistan in one form or another from 1958 onwards with short span of “controlled” democracy periods. During this few decades some people may have become very wealthy but the great majority has lost out and live in grinding poverty. The unfettered power enjoyed by the military has diverted precious little money, mostly received through American largesse, to defense expenditure at the cost of genuine economic development that would have served the great majority of the Pakistanis.

Islamic radicalism that was explosively demonstrated on 9/11 by the al-Qaeda located in one of the poorest and never-heard-of country by the West called Afghanistan has enveloped a part of Pakistan that truly was never a part of the country and, for example, Baluchistan that houses great mineral wealth , is trying to break away from Pakistan. Pakistan echoes the Siberian mistake of believing that what was good for Siberia was good for the rest of Yugoslavia and subsequent fragmentation of the country into now several independent states. Pakistani Punjab believes that what is good for Punjab is good for the rest of the country despite the Bangladesh liberation war fought against Pakistani colonization and consequent emergence of Bangladesh. This lack of national coherence and the firm belief of the military establishment of “undying” enmity of India towards Pakistan has been shaping the foreign and security policies of Pakistan for decades. Health, education, infrastructural developments and other elements necessary for economic development were and continues to be overlooked. Since 9/11 Pakistan despite its truancy and double game in the “war on terror” has been courted by the US. South Asian expert Bruce Riedel recently wrote “ Polls show Pakistanis see America, not India or al Qaeda, as their mortal enemy.

The Pakistanis are looking for who helped the CIA find bin Laden, not who helped hide him for 10 years. Congress increasingly sees Pakistan as a bad investment gone sour. The White House rightly won’t give up the drones when Pakistan coddles terrorists like Saeed. The broken relationship has been brewing for decades. American Presidents from both parties embraced Pakistan’s military dictators to carry out great secret projects from U2s to fighting al Qaeda. The generals took American arms and aid to build up a nuclear arsenal to fight India; now that arsenal is the fastest-growing in the world”. He adds “We know we can’t count on Pakistan to do that job. NATO and the U.N. back the Kabul government as the legitimate and elected authority in Afghanistan. Pakistan harbors and helps the Taliban. Interrogations of 4,000 captured insurgents in Afghanistan show that the ISI guides its strategy, finds it funds, and keeps in tight contact with its leaders, including Mullah Omar. Without Pakistani safe havens and ISI assistance, the Taliban would be a much less formidable enemy”. The frustration of the US administration has been publicly expressed by former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in recent time. But the Americans are in a bind and cannot honorably leave Afghanistan without Pakistani help. The question arises is whether Pakistani government policy would have been different if the quasi-military rule had not been there.

Military rule which by definition is authoritarian in nature can produce identity politics. Though it has been said that “Groups who participate in identity politics may or may not be a marginalised class of people. However, group advocates will often have a self-belief, a self schema or explanatory narrative, that they are in fact a marginalized group. Typically, these group identities are defined in terms of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class. One aim of identity politics has been to empower the oppressed to articulate their oppression in terms of their own experience­a process of consciousness-raising that distinguishes identity politics from the liberal conception of politics as driven by individual self-interest” (Wikipedia). In a broader sense identity politics that is conflictual retains the possibility of arresting economic growth. But from the point of view of justice and fairness non-violent movement by groups professing to belong to identity politics embark upon their movement to claim political, economic and social justice.

Military rule ignores James Madison’s advice that the government that wants to rule others must first restrain itself from inflicting harm to the others. In other words tyranny of the majority have to be abjured. Nobel laureate Paul Krugman in an observation in the New York Times described the US as a deeply divided nation and is likely to remain so for decades. On one side of American politics are supporters of modern welfare state who advocate taxing the winners of the economic development to share their prosperity with the less fortunate, on the other side are believers that people have a right to keep what they have earned, and that taxing them to support others, however needy they may be, should be considered theft. In this struggle for justice and fairness President Obama’s call to the Americans “to expand our moral imagination, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instinct for empathy” appears to have lost its voice. While it appears eminently logical that people should be allowed to keep the fruits of their labor, it is generally forgotten that all did not have equal opportunity or level playing field to start their career. The US, barring England, is perhaps the only advanced nation with least social mobility.

Atlantic journal (The rise of New Global Elite-January 2011) cites former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, iconic libertarian, staunch defender of free market as having doubts about fairness in growth which increases inequality , in effect giving life to the refrain of now ostracized one time Presidential contender John Edwards’ “two Americas” – one living in plenty and the other in squalor. According to two UCLA Berkley economists between 2002 and 2007 sixty five percent of all income growth in the US went to the top one percent of the population. Even when the Americans and the rest of the world were reeling with the downside of recession the top twenty five hedge-fund managers were paid, on an average, more than one billion dollars in 2009.

The US in this case is being cited not as a military dictatorship but to emphasize the point that dictatorship can lead to inequality that if left unattended can lead to destruction of a sate. Military rule as in Pakistan that frequently interrupts democratic process can lead a country to become a failed state. Failed nations have been described as utterly incapable of sustaining itself as a member of the international community and also facing serious internal problems that threaten their continued coherence or significant internal challenges to their political order. Events of nine-eleven have given acute importance to the problems of failed and failing states as they can both be hospitable and can harbor non- state actors, warlords and terrorists and of the need to understand the dynamics of the nation-states failure as being central to the war on terrorism. Effectively failed and failing states are unable to deliver political goods such as security, education, health services, economic opportunities, law and order and a judicial system to administer it, and infra-structural facilities to its citizens.
It is often fallaciously assumed that failed states are generally asphyxiated dictatorships like Taliban Afghanistan, Mobutu’s Zaire or Barre’s Somalia. Though these were undoubtedly failed states, some are adorned with democratic institutions though flawed. . The logical question asked is why do states fail? Robert Dorff of North Carolina University traces the failed state phenomenon to the collapse of the colonial order following the Second World War.

Suddenly many states without having the required institutions and without the experience of self-government as they were colonies found they were free from external dominance. The cold war competition compounded the malaise as competing super powers showered the failing states with economic and military assistance. They thus ignored the fundamental premise of democratic peace which stipulates that democracies do not generally go to war against other democracies because internal democratic norms promote external democratic behavior and institutional checks and balances of democracies place constraints on the aggressive behavior of the leaders. The end of the cold war that dried up economic assistance pushed many of the failing states into the black hole of politico-economic disaster. Failed states by definition denote ungovernability the consequent rampant criminality gives rise to sweeping despair and hopelessness. But when national ungovernability becomes global it starts to adversely affect the neighboring countries and as nine-eleven demonstrated even powerful distant lands. Oslo Conference on Root Causes of Terrorism found, among others, failed or weak states leaving a power vacuum for exploitation by terrorist organizations to maintain safe heavens, training facilities, and launching terrorist attacks.

Journalist Jonathan Power (The violent danger of failed states) cites two major problems facing President Barak Obama­one being the Middle East and the other that of failed states. Quoting Obama Power writes that from Africa to Central Asia to the Pacific Rim “nearly 60 countries stand on the brink of conflict or collapse. These failed states are the perfect incubators for extremism and terror”. He suggests that Pakistan is on its way to becoming a failed state. Power raises the question of the security of nuclear weapons in Pakistan despite Pakistan’s assurance to the US and the international community that its nuclear arsenal is safe and secure. Islamist infiltration has been a cause of worry for successive US administrations and the Western powers. Then there is terrorism’s linkage to poverty­a contested thesis as the background of the known terrorists have revealed that many of them came from affluent families and in effect had gained from studies or experiences gathered while living in the West. Yet the frustration of the misguided and unemployed youth should not be ignored.

If the reasons behind the Arab Spring is explored which was basically a revolt against the military in Egypt and authoritarian rule in Libya , Tunisia, Bahrain and other Gulf countries, it would be found that peoples’ revolt was not caused not so much for economic reason but for the failure of the authorities to give satisfactory shape to Arab nationalism and to get back the lost dignity that the Arabs prize so much. The recently held elections in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya are expected to result in fulfilling the expectations of the masses who, for example, had gathered in Tahrir square in Cairo. Though the results in the form of democratic rule and the rule of law as commonly understood may not be forthcoming immediately the very fact that the revolts took place in these countries is an indication that people were fed up with the military dominated dictates that determined their fate for so many decades.

Struggle is still going on in Syria where people are being massacred by the Assad regime every day and the international community so prompt in former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq in mounting humanitarian intervention to prevent and protect civilians from brutal government machineries bent upon denying the just demands of the people is now found wanting. Some though were undertaken with the approval of the UNSC while some were not. Invasion of Iraq in particular has been widely criticized and its legality questioned. Generally such interventionist actions were accepted by the international community resulting finally in regime change in the intervened countries. Saddam regime undoubtedly authoritarian can also be termed as militarist because of the regime’s dependence on Iraqi Republican Guard.

The question that arises is whether the ability of quick delivery of economic goods by a military/authoritarian regime compared to a democratically government but its inability to provide political goods should be preferred by the international community. The phenomenal growth of China is being projected by some as a development model vis-à-vis the free market model practiced by the West and most of the developing countries. But many like Robert Keohane (Foreign Affairs-July/August 2012) points out that autocracies are fundamentally less stable than democracies. Lacking the rule of law and accepted procedure of leadership transition, he says, the former are subject to repeated internal political crisis, even though they might play out beneath a unified and stable façade. Keohene poses the question: will the major powers in the international system, most importantly China, maintain their social and political coherence and avoid civil war? But then the debate is not about an alternative to capitalism but on the willingness of the largely democratic international community to accept military/ authoritarian system. It has already been found out that military dictatorship may be able to bring about a façade of unity in a multiethnic country as the Burmese military has been trying for the last few decades but cannot lead the country to long term economic development and certainly the loss of fundamental human rights by the people to the military regime cannot be compensated by the short term economic benefits even if the authoritarian regime can deliver.

In short the aim of the international community in post-Cold War era should remain to ceaselessly strive for open, transparent and democratic governance in those countries which are yet outside the orbit of a peaceful and collaborative world.

Kazi Anwarul Masud is a former Ambassador and Secretary of Bangladesh.

Ambassador Kazi Anwarul Masud

Kazi Anwarul Masud is a former Secretary and ambassador of Bangladesh

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