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A recent conference addressed the question of whether democracy can ever be compatible with the economic and political influence wielded by military elites
For its first seminar of 2018, The Democracy Forum hosted a panel of experts at London’s St James’ Court Hotel to discuss the impact on democracy of powerful military institutions.
In his opening address, TDF President Lord Bruce said it was a sine qua non that the role of the military is a frequent and sometimes nefarious participant in the suspension of democratic institutions across the world. According to The Democracy Index, none of the four countries selected for discussion in the seminar – Pakistan, Myanmar, Turkey and Egypt – scores more than five out of ten in the Index’s 2017 international survey, which covers indicators including pluralism, civil liberties and political culture.
All are defined, said Lord Bruce, as either authoritarian or hybrid regimes, with three of the four (the exception being Myanmar) recording a lower score in 2017 than the average for the previous decade. He highlighted TDF’s important role in exposing the negation of human rights and political freedoms, but urged the audience to bear in mind the complexity of the issues up for debate.
Before handing over to the first speaker, seminar chair Humphrey Hawksleyspoke of Western-sponsored transitions to democracy that have failed, and raised the question: ifthe military or other agencies of authoritarian ruleare holding societies together, what comes in to replace them once they are unglued?
The fall of the Turkish army was the main focus for military commentator Dr Hamid Hussain, who described the army’s view of itself as a doctor tending to the sick child – secularism – that resulted from the marriage of democracy and Islam. He offered an overview of the Turkish army’s role as guardians of the Kemalist tradition,and spoke ofPresident Recep Erdogan’s rise to power and the dynamic between him and the military.
For Dr David Brenner from the University of Surrey, Myanmar’s move towards democracy is a top-down, military-led transition. He gave a short history of Tatmadaw’s (the army’s) emergence from the struggle for independence from Britain, considering its perception of itself as a ‘guardian of the nation’ that prevents the Union of Burma from disintegrating, and spoke of how it maintained its economic sources of power through control of assets, resources and strategic infrastructure. Dr Brenner also discussed howTatmadaw has expanded its social sources of power, manufacturing violence and conflict to re-legitimise itself and waging campaigns against ethnic minority groups such as the Rohingyas.
Also addressing the subject of Myanmar was Dr Rosena Allin-Khan, Labour MP for Tooting who has personally witnessed the humanitarian crisis suffered by the Rohingya people in the refugee camps in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar. Describing what is happening to the Rohingyas in Maynmar as ‘nothing short of a genocide’, she condemned the West forits failure to call to account those who perpetrate such atrocities.
Shifting to South Asia, Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy, Zohra and ZZ Ahmed Foundation Distinguished Professor at Forman Christian College, discussed the privileged position of the Pakistan military in the country’s political structure. This was illustrated bythe secretiveNuclear Command Authority Act, passed by Parliament in 2010, which was never discussed withmembers of the outgoing Senate. This was hardly surprising, said Dr Hoodbhoy, as the Pakistan army has always said that matters of national security can be entrusted only to those who are ‘worthy’ of such trust.
He also addressed the worry, in financial circles, about how to deal with the ‘greylisting’of Pakistan by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) based in Paris, which will happenfrom June 1st this year for a period of three months. If Pakistan’s response is deemedunsatisfactory, it might move to a blacklist. The FATF is empowered to look at terror financing and Pakistan has been under the microscope in this regard, at the insistence of India and the US, though this has been resisted to some extent by Pakistan’s allies, China and Turkey. Although the Foreign Office says there is no chance of Pakistan being blacklisted, financial institutions in the country are worried that the cost of business will rise. This is an issue than cannot be resolved by the government but by the attitude of the army, said Dr Hoodbhoy, though the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) has stated that this is not an army matter but one for the Ministries of Foreign and Economic Affairs.
Speaking of the effects of new regulations which have resulted in assets being seized from charities run by Lashkar-e-Taiba-associated institutions, Dr Hoodbhoywondered if this reflected a change of heart or tactics, though he was sceptical. While General Musharraf had banned L-e-T in January 2002, saying terrorist groups had no place on Pakistani soil, last November he was declaring them ‘excellent institutions of Pakistan’. However, Dr Hoodbhoy did believe the message from Paris had reached Rawalpindi – the heart of real power in Pakistan – as the army responded in a positive way due to itshuge financial interests in Pakistan’s national economy. These interests have been affected by the greylisting, and would be even more so by any blacklisting. Also, the army is not totally dedicated to nurturing militant organisations on its soil as it has lost many military personnel as a result. Thus the army is now moving towards curbing the power of militants.However, there is also a reason for inaction, said Dr Hoodbhoy, as in the last three years such losses have reduced substantially due to successful anti-terrorist operations that involved more civilian casualties.
Dr Hoodbhoy spoke, too, of the US’s continuing reliance on Pakistan in order to achieve stability in Afghanistan and South Asia as a whole. But with China now Pakistan’s major ally, its need for the US is lessened, and the army is trying to navigate between these positives and negatives.Dr Hoodbhoy felt the status quo would prevail, and closed by saying that he felt the army’s lack of trust in civilian rule meant it would continue to dominatefor some time.
Former Reuters journalist and author Myra MacDonald drew on the research conducted for two of her books– Heights of Madness, about the Siachen war between India and Pakistan, and Defeat is an Orphan:How Pakistan Lost the Great South Asian War– to compare the power of the military in both countries. MacDonald looked at India and Pakistan’s evolving relationship, and said that the nuclear tests of 1998 should, in theory, have created parity between them, since Pakistan no longer had any reason to feel insecure about an Indian invasion. However, in reality India had used the time since 1998 to emerge as a rising world power, while Pakistan had declined into a ‘tottering’ state, weakened by its absence of democracy.
MacDonald argued that India’s diverse democracy, combined with diplomacy, had helped to underpin its success, while the dominance of the military in Pakistan not only undermined democracy but threatened to turn it into a failing state. Asking why we value democracy so highly, she said that it allowed for the legitimacy of the state, peaceful settlement of disputes and domestic stability that then led to international strength. Based on these four criteria, India has thrived and Pakistan has been weakened, as the Pakistan army – like that of Myanmar – presents itself as the guardian of the nation, yet in reality creates instability rather than stability, as it runs foreign and security policy, manipulates the democratic process and dominates the economy, taking more than a quarter of the budget directly and running huge conglomerates. Such a centralised, military-dominated economy prohibits poor or middle class people from accessing more resources and builds a recipe for conflict, said MacDonald, which can in turn lead people to turn to Islamist or other right-wing religious groups to try and expand their power. Ending on both positive and negative notes, MacDonald said that Pakistan has a vibrant civil society,political parties and Pashtuns who hold peaceful protests to insist on their rights, and if the military were to be removed from power, Pakistan would still be capable of stability. But democracy is going out of fashion worldwide and, given China’s growing influence on Pakistan, she felt the outlook was ultimately quite grim.
‘General Marketeers, fledgling democracies: the comparative case of Egypt and Pakistan’ was the title of military scientist Dr Ayesha Siddiqa’s presentation, in which she looked at the two countries through the lens of military economy and politics. Dr Siddiqa said that the concept of ‘Milbus’ (military business)is not benign wherever it takes place, as no matter how it is justified, it has an inherent illegality because it is meantfor the personal benefit of the military fraternity yet is neither recorded nor part of the defence budget. So when militaries engage in business, said Dr Siddiqa, it is about a military organisation proactively partaking in resource generation, and thus blurring the line between what is for the public and private good.
With regard to Egypt,she argued that ‘Milbus’ is understudied. Such activities are driven by the interest of the armed forces to provide for the welfare of its personnel and contribute to national development. Both these arguments, perhaps correct in the short or medium term, are flawed in the larger scheme of things, as illustrated by both Egypt and Pakistan.
Dr Siddiqa spoke of military engagement in Egypt, the initial use of Nasser’s power to introduce socialism, the growing pattern of military intervention into all areas of the economy under subsequent leaders, and the growth of corruption.She highlighted both key differences and similarities between the Egyptian and Pakistani military systems. The Pakistan army is much more strongly hierarchical, with fewer chances of coups from within, though in both nations the military feels it has a greater sense of the national good.
Following a brief history of the Pakistan army’s riseto dominance in the early 1950s, Dr Siddiqa charted how it became increasingly autonomous of the civilian government, demonstrated by the army’s refusal to allow the government to decide on matters of military procurement or organisational matters.As in Egypt, the Pakistani military is present in all three segments of the economy, said Dr Siddiqa: agriculture, service and manufacturing, as well as recent expansions into mining.She discussed the Pakistan army’s ‘hard’ footprint throughout the country, following the Chinese model, including its deep involvement in the media and its pushing of other financial competitors out of the game. She expressed doubts about the ability of civilian society to fight back, given the position of the Pakistan military as not only a state actor but also a societal actor within a very weak political system. It is therefore dangerous, she concluded, to consider Pakistan’s military-business nexus as benign.
Closing proceedings was TDF chair Barry Gardiner MP, Shadow Secretary of State for International Trade. He thanked the panel, and TDF for organising the event, which was, he said, a timely reminder of why democracy is valuable. He urged everyone present to use the analysis of the seminar to consider the dangers to democracy, and to think about how lack of transparency and accountability can affect us all, not only those in authoritarian regimes. There is, he warned, no linear progression towards greater global democracy; indeed, we can see instances of regression in countries such as the US, Russia and China.

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