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DateLine Sunday, 30 September 2007

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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 chief.

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 power.

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 Pakistan.

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 countries.

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 posts.

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.

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Gamin Gamata - Presidential Community & Welfare Service
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