Why military coups are common in Asia?
There was a time when coup d'etat by the military was a common
occurrence in developing countries. Now Latin America seems to have
outgrown that stage, but Asian and African countries still remain
vulnerable to this malady.
The trend in Asian countries is becoming particularly ominous, as
some countries which are otherwise well placed on the path to
development, seem to be incapable of preventing the subversion of the
principles of liberty and rights and of the institutions of democracy,
such as, free and fair elections, accountability to the people of those
responsible for governance, independence of judiciary, freedom of the
press and an apolitical civil service and military.
The situation in Pakistan is quite different from that in
Bangladesh or in Turkey, because Pervez Musharraf combines
in himself the offices of the President and of the Army
As one of the very few nations among the Asian and African continents
which have retained the democratic system of government, this trend
should be of special concern to us.
Take the case of Turkey. It is not strictly an Asian country, though
some of its regions are more Asian than European; in fact it is very
keen to maintain its identity as a European country, though for long it
had the not too flattering name as "The Sick Man of Europe."
Turkey is not a military dictatorship of the type prevalent in our
immediate neighbourhood like Pakistan or Burma, but its Army has the
record of having dislodged four elected governments since 1960. The
reports emanating from Turkey show that the military may again be on a
confrontation course with the government which has just been elected to
The immediate reason is that the Army does not approve of the
practice of the wife of President Abdullah Gul covering her head with a
scarf. While this may sound rather silly for outsiders, the significance
of the Army's stand is that the Army is conveying a message that it will
not tolerate any deviation from the secular traditions of the founding
father of the modern Republic of Turkey, Kemal Ataturk.
The Army's top brass had boycotted the swearing in ceremony of the
new President and also an official reception hosted by him a few days
later, though the President is also the commander-in-chief of the Army.
These are undisguised assertions by the Army that it can draw the
line for the exercise of the President's powers and that it will not
allow any violation of the secular legacy of Ataturk. The reports from
Bangladesh about the role which the generals are playing from behind the
scene in the functioning of the caretaker civilian government show that
the Army wants the reins of power in its hands.
The head of the caretaker government has refuted the allegation of
back seat driving by the generals, but people have started doubting
whether elections will be free and fair when they are held in 2008 as
announced by the government, or whether there will be any election at
all then. These possibilities cannot be ignored lightly because military
rule is not new to Bangladesh.
The situation in Pakistan is quite different from that in Bangladesh
or in Turkey, because Pervez Musharraf combines in himself the offices
of the President and of the Army chief. He has declared that he will
relinquish his position as Army chief only after his election as
President, and it shows how important the general's uniform is even for
an election from a controlled electoral college like the present one in
One has to wait for a few days more to see what decision the Supreme
Court will give or what action the President will take if the decision
goes against him. There are reports about secret deals between Musharraf
and Benazir Bhutto according to which Benazir will be allowed to return
to Pakistan and to contest elections and all criminal charges against
her will be dropped.
The prospects for establishing genuine democracy in Pakistan as a
result of such secret deals and compromises appear to be rather dim at
this stage. It would be useful to examine why military takeovers have
become a recurring feature in several countries of Asia.
A familiar explanation for this phenomenon is that economic
backwardness had made these countries vulnerable to military coup and
that the people acquiesced in with military rule expecting that it would
usher in economic progress quickly. But the people come to know about
the regime change only after it happens and have been in no position to
welcome it or oppose it.
Further, the experience of the usurpation of power by the military
has shown that it had not led to economic progress in any of these
Another explanation is that corruption by politicians had become so
rampant that the people were willing to exchange democracy for military
rule. But here again the willingness or otherwise of the people does not
count at all. As regards corruption, experience has shown that the
generals had stopped corruption by the politicians, but had made it
their own monopoly.
In most of the countries elections had been postponed by several
years after the takeover by the military, and when they were actually
held, the men in uniform themselves had become candidates for the top
The real reason why military coups take place so frequently and so
easily in Asian countries is the fact that the institutions of democracy
had been so badly misused and exploited by the politicians in these
countries that they had ceased to be bulwarks against arbitrary rule or
effective instruments for protecting the rights of citizens.
These institutions have been in position wherever democracy was
subverted by the military, but they had been in a stage of irretrievable
decline because of their misuse by selfish and unscrupulous politicians.
People were helplessly watching how the entire electoral system had
been manipulated in their countries by power brokers and how persons
charged with grave crimes like murder, embezzlement of public funds,
etc., have been getting elected and even included as members of the
council of ministers.
They have also been witnessing the misuse of the process of law in
courts of justice by influential persons to defeat justice. Most
importantly, people were witnessing the unabashed abuse of power by
those in authority to indulge in shameful acts of corruption and how
easily the corrupt could exploit the system and escape from the
consequences of their action.
It was the combination of these developments in many Third World
countries which had destroyed the credibility of the institutions of
democracy and made it easy for the decimation of democracy by the men
from the barracks eager to grab power.
The collapse of the institutions of democracy does not take place all
of a sudden in any country. They reach the stage of collapse when the
signals of decline are deliberately ignored or when compromises with
what is right and proper are made to save the offenders or for the
government to remain in power.
The lessons that we in India have to draw from what we see of khaki
governments in other countries and from the signals which have started
appearing in our country is that, ignoring the warning signals about the
dilution or distortion of the institutions of democracy can be very
costly and can lead to a situation where remedies may be too late.