Ambitious generals, illegitimate power and upended politics
Syed Badrul Ahsan
President Obama’s decision some years ago to sack General Stanley McChrystal reflected the triumph of democratic government over those who would undermine it or make a travesty of it. And that is the beauty of democracy. In the early 1950s, Harry Truman did a similar thing when he dismissed Douglas MacArthur and ordered him to return to Washington. In the Far East, a disbelieving MacArthur told his soldiers, ‘I shall return.’ He then went home to a hero’s welcome. But he never made it back to his men.
In a democracy, in proper governance, it is the primacy of civilian elected government that matters. But then there are too the pseudo-democracies where all too often it is the generals who cheerfully chase elected leaders out of power and sometimes out of town. In October 1999, Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif issued orders of dismissal against General Pervez Musharraf, whose plain villainy in Kargil had nearly caused a new war between Islamabad and Delhi. In the event, it was Musharraf who came down from the skies (he was on a flight home from Colombo) and sent Sharif packing.
In this month of October, it is well to remember how Pakistan’s President Iskandar Mirza and army chief General Ayub Khan clamped martial law on the country in 1958, thus inaugurating a trend that would have grave ramifications in both Pakistan and Bangladesh. It was a move which disrupted politics, led to the rise and growth of bureaucratic governance and hugely undermined prospects of democratic rule. Mirza was removed a mere twenty days later by an overly ambitious Ayub, who would go on exercising dictatorial fiat for over a decade until he was forced from power by a mass upsurge.
It is typical Third World politics, you might be tempted to suggest. Perhaps you would be right. In Bangladesh, President Abdus Sattar was on the verge of dismissing General Ershad from his job as army chief in 1982. The ultimate deed could not be done because some smart bureaucrat (read that as ‘mole’) at Bangabhaban alerted the general to the imminent presidential move. It was then Ershad who turfed out the elected Sattar in a coup that was to leave Bangladesh even more wounded than before.
President Abdur Rahman Biswas, when it came his turn to deal with a belligerent general in 1996, was not willing to take any chances. He ordered the dismissal of General Mohammad Nasim. And that was in 1996, only days before the general elections that brought the Awami League to power after a long gap of twenty-one years.
When you speak of the fraught, sometimes bizarre, relations politicians and generals have enjoyed with one another, you tend to go back to Pakistan. There are countries that have armies. The queer fact about Pakistan is that its army has always had a country, its own, to occupy at regular intervals. General Ayub Khan first had the seeds of illegitimate ambition blossom in his dark soul in 1954.
Four years later he was Pakistan’s first military ruler and most of the country’s politicians were in prison. In 1976, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, looking for a pliant officer to appoint as army chief, promoted Ziaul Haque over six other generals. An initially sycophantic Zia soon found it opportune to oust Bhutto in a coup in July 1977. By April 1979, he had Bhutto sent to the gallows.
Contrast all that with India. It remains a tribute to Indian democracy that no soldier has ever attempted a military takeover in the country. When after the Bangladesh war, Field Marshal S.H.F.J. Manekshaw suggested rather flippantly in a newspaper interview that he could have seized power any time he wanted, virtually the whole of India came down on him in justified fury. Manekshaw was left humbled. But that is not what you see in Myanmar, yesterday’s Burma.
General Ne Win overthrew the civilian government of U Nu in 1962. And since that moment, Myanmar’s army has treated the country’s politicians with scant respect and absolute disdain, despite giving space to Aung San Suu Kyi, who should anyway have become the nation’s elected leader after the elections of 1990. She is now once again a prisoner of a new regime determined to keep democracy on the run.
There are, yes, times when bad politicians only make their cases worse when they treat their generals badly. Sri Lanka’s Mahinda Rajapaksa and Sarath Fonseka together engineered a decisive victory against the Tamil Tigers in 2009 before they fell out with each other. Fonseka lost the presidential election to Rajapaksa, who then lost little time in packing the general off to prison on dubious charges.
It was almost the same with General Aslam Beg when Benazir Bhutto won the 1988 post-Zia elections in Pakistan. He would, in tandem with President Ghulam Ishaq Khan, not let Bhutto take charge. By the time he relented, ZA Bhutto’s daughter had been dumped with so many terms and conditions by the army that hers turned out to be an emasculated administration from day one. She was dismissed in 1990.
Any study of power politics can be an enlightening intellectual exercise. You think of Marshal Zhukov and his achievements in the Second World War. But by the end of the 1950s, Nikita Khrushchev would sack him and so silence him for good, metaphorically speaking. For his part, Adolf Hitler could not stomach Erwin Rommel’s battlefield misfortunes. He provoked the field marshal into taking his own life.
And that is also what people say happened to Egypt’s Field Marshal Abdel Hakim Amer in 1967. The rout of Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian forces by Israel in the Six-Day War in was to lead to calamity for him. He committed suicide.
Turkey’s generals were, until the arrival of Recep Tayyep Erdogan, by and large been a headache for the country’s civilian governments. In Chile, the military led by Augusto Pinochet Ugarte murdered President Salvador Allende in September 1973 and then presided over a long reign of terror. General Suharto, through conspiracy with foreign powers in 1965, undermined President Sukarno’s government in Indonesia and then supervised the killing of a million Indonesians known to be supporters of the Partai Komunis Indonesia (PKI).
But generals have sometimes saved democracy from rapacious elected leaders. Had Fidel Ramos not thrown his weight behind the upsurge against Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, the story of the Philippines would have turned into an incongruity. Conversely, had Konstantine Karamanlis not gone back home to Greece in 1974, the band of colonels who had seized the state in 1967 might have gone on and on and on. In 1991, the generals of the Soviet army would not support the Gennady Yanaev-led gang in its bid to overthrow Mikhail Gorbachev, who returned to power within days.
Ambitious military officers have overthrown civilian governments in Brazil and Argentina and elsewhere in South America. They have seized power in Nigeria and a clutch of other countries in Africa. The history of power grabs by generals in Thailand is a matter of record. South Korea suffered under the dictatorship of Park Chung-hee for years.
Journeying back to our studies of ambitious generals in Pakistan and Bangladesh, it is interesting to recall their attempts to legitimize their hold on power through giving themselves civilian cloaks in politics.
Ayub Khan, following the withdrawal of martial law in 1962, imposed his own queer constitution — queer because it envisaged the election of the country’s President and the members of the national and provincial assemblies by 80,000 elected individuals known as Basic Democrats — sliced away a faction of the Muslim League and tried giving the impression that Pakistan finally had democracy.
For good measure, he appointed his Foreign Minister Z.A. Bhutto as the secretary general of the party. Three years later, Bhutto would desert him and form his Pakistan People’s Party. In the presidential election of January 1965, Ayub had the presidential election stolen from Fatima Jinnah.
Ayub Khan’s methods were replicated in Bangladesh by General Ziaur Rahman who, having seized power in November 1975, went on to give shape to the Bangladesh Nationalist Party in September 1978. As had been the case with Ayub’s Convention Muslim League, to which droves of politicians from other parties went in their narrow interest, politicians from the Left and Right in Bangladesh joined the BNP, thereby giving Zia the ‘legitimacy’ he needed.
General Hussein Muhammad Ershad then followed the Ayub and Zia examples by forming the Jatiyo Party after he ousted the elected Sattar government in March 1982. In all three instances — Ayub, Zia and Ershad — normal politics was stood on its head and democracy was pushed into a state of the comatose.
In Pakistan, the Yahya Khan regime, having taken over from Ayub Khan in March 1969, did not go for the creation of its own political party. It presided over the country’s very first general elections in December 1970 but then swiftly went into the odious task of repudiating the results of the election in March 1971 by outlawing the majority party, the Awami League, arresting Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and inaugurating a genocide which left as many as three million Bengalis dead in occupied Bangladesh.
Yahya Khan was to preside over Pakistan’s military defeat in Bangladesh in December 1971. Six years later General Ziaul Haq commandeered Pakistan again. He engineered political negativism in Pakistan in his eleven-year rule by decreeing non-party elections, which system was to be cast aside once he died in a plane crash in August 1988.
General Pervez Musharraf ruled Pakistan in his role as army chief, but after he quit office in 2008 he formed his faction of the Muslim League. It made little headway. Musharraf is these days in exile in Dubai, a fugitive from justice.
Power, we have learnt at different points in history, tempts people as nothing else does. When it is seized through illegitimate means, nations pay a price. They are left badly wounded.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is an independent journalist. His works include biographies of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Tajuddin Ahmad.