On 15 June, General Moeen U Ahmed, the allegorical Man on Horseback of Bangladesh who was instrumental in installing a military-backed government through a coup in early 2007, rode off into the sunset in an armoured vehicle in line with army tradition. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed has appointed General Mohammad Abdul Mubeen to take his place. But will the daughter too be challenged by the ‘guardians of the state’, just as her father was? A disturbing question indeed, but one that needs to be asked whenever security forces begin to consider themselves as the ‘last line of defence against anarchy’ or the ‘ultimate protectors of national interests’. Such are the excuses that defence forces often use to dispense with that constant military bugaboo – civilian control.
It can be argued that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman erred grievously by declaring himself president-for-life. But in any functioning polity, such issues are resolved through political initiatives. Ouster, imprisonment or assassination of political leadership by army commanders is a crime that cannot be condoned under any pretext. But such excesses have been more or less routine in several countries of the region – not only in Bangladesh, but also in Burma and Pakistan. In Nepal, the military was used by the king; more recently, under Chief of the Army Staff Rukmangud Katawal, it has been emboldened by the turn of events that led to the departure of the Maoist-led government. This anomaly continues to repeat mainly because of the flawed modernisation in postcolonial countries, wherein the military is often the only functioning institution for states under the multiple stresses of ethnic tension, socioeconomic inequality and regional upheaval.
The defence forces often control the choicest real estate and claim the lion’s share of the national budget, as in Pakistan. Like their counterparts in Burma, the polished military brass in Kathmandu thinks that it is somehow more patriotic than them uncouth politicos. These myths are so ingrained even in the public mind that there is very little resistance when the army finally does march out of its barracks, ostensibly to restore order. Since the cause of the disease lies in military autonomy, the treatment should start by bringing the defence forces inextricably under civilian control. A complete overhaul of the imperial-era machinery that treats a military as a state within a state has to be the starting point of the democratisation of any army. Defence ministries in military-dominated countries need to be modernised in accordance with the needs of the fighting forces they are supposed to coordinate and control.
Elsewhere in Southasia, the influence of the armed forces is less overt. In the capital city of the largest democracy in the world, army generals and navy commanders consciously maintain a low profile. But those in the know aver that the top brass invariably has the last word on matters relating to defence in paranoid New Delhi. The only reason Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government risked losing the support of his coalition’s leftist partners over the nuclear deal in 2008 was because the Indian military desperately wanted to align with US forces in order to secure a niche for itself in the post-9/11 multi-polar world order. Fear of the Chinese dragon is implicit in this assumption. Widespread insecurity and a sense of helplessness in the face of a formidable enemy is often another powerful reason that makes elected leaders play second fiddle in matters pertaining to military. Since this is a game of perception, longer-term strategies have to be devised to establish the value that the best defence against foreign aggression is a determined population – rather than soldiers armed-to-the-teeth with the latest gadgetry.
Ethnic uprisings and separatist movements end up legitimising the claims of many armies that, since they have shed their blood to protect the national unity, they must be allowed to retain primacy, in order to prevent further challenges to the country’s independence and sovereignty. Under President Mahinda Rajapakse, the military in Sri Lanka has demonstrated that it is indeed possible to control the reins of government without staging an outright coup. And there is little that can be done to prevent such occurrences, as long as politicos are competing to be co-opted by the defence forces.
When all is said and done, tightening the purse strings is perhaps the most effective way of reining in a military, and keeping it under (nearly) inescapable civilian control. Justifying the need of a hefty hike in budget, a report placed before the parliamentary standing committee of Bangladesh’s Defence Ministry maintained that more funds were needed to modernise the military. According to a planted leak in a Dhaka newspaper, the report says that Bangladesh spends only 1.1 percent of its gross domestic product on defence, as compared to nearly 2.4 percent in India, 3.2 percent in Pakistan, 6 percent in Sri Lanka, 3.3 percent in Burma, and 1.7 percent in Nepal.
Gen Mubeen, the new chief of the army in Dhaka, must realise that the lower defence expenditure in his country could be one of the reasons behind the recent relatively easy transition to democratic rule. Autonomy is for the people – not for the army of any country.