After de-colonization, many countries in South and South East Asia have been subjected to military rule. But military rule has been both direct and indirect. The affected countries have also gone through “de-militarization” and “re-militarization” depending upon a variety of domestic and external development impinging on the ruling elites’ notion of “national security.”
The reasons for a country’s military seizing political power or its continuance as a ruler have been diverse. The most common reasons are external and external threats to national security and a manifest failure of civilian regimes to ensure stability, democracy and functional efficiency in governance. The development of a vested interest in having a hand on the levers of power is another important reason.
Pakistan, Bangladesh, Thailand, Myanmar, Indonesia and the Philippines have seen military governments; attempted military coups; and the military’s playing a role in civilian politics by supporting or denying support to political groups.
In Pakistan and Bangladesh the failure of early civilian governments to provide stability, democracy and economic growth brought the military to the political sphere. Though the Pakistani military is back in the barracks for sometime now, it does exercise control over civilian governments. It has also developed a vested interest in political power having to safeguard it economic interest as a major corporate investor.
In Thailand, Myanmar, Indonesia and Philippines, the military is currently not in the center stage, but no government can survive without its blessings. In Myanmar, the military (called Tatmadaw) has representation in parliament which can tilt legislation one way or the other.
In Sri Lanka, the military has gained political support among the majority Sinhala community as a result of internal and external threats to the existing order. At first, the threat was from an indigenous Tamil separatist militancy. After militancy was crushed in 2009, the threat was from the Western powers and the UN who were intervening in favor of the minority Tamils by heaping allegations of war crimes against the military. After the April 21, 2019 terror strikes in Colombo, international Islamic terror groups are seen a threat.
The military is set to become part of the power base of Sri Lankan politicians as Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa indicated in his message on the occasion of War Heroes’ Day on May 19. He said that the soldier has now become a part of the warp and woof of Sri Lankan society, and therefore, he is a legitimate part of the national political constituency. In other words the military cannot be considered to be “apolitical” and kept away from politics.
“The Ranaviru (War Heroes) constituency is now an integral part of the Sangha (Buddhist priesthood), Weda (the Ayurvedic doctor), Guru (the teacher), Govi (the farmer), Kamkaru (worker) social line up of former times. So, whenever we happen to be in power, there will always be former members of the armed forces and police holding various positions in the government,” the Prime Minister said.
“We must always be mindful of the historic role that the armed forces and police have played in this country in safeguarding the peoples’ sovereignty based on universal franchise by defeating all attempts to destroy the democratic system of government,” he added.
It is important to note that the Prime Minister said that “whenever we (meaning members of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna) happen to be in power, there will always be former members of the armed forces and police holding various positions in the government.” The SLPP has thus arrogated the military to itself, thereby politicizing it.
In fact, the Gotabaya-Mahinda Rajapaksa government already has former armed forces personnel in key positions. The Defense Secretary is Maj.Gen Kamal Gunaratne; the Chairman of the Ports Authority is Gen. Daya Ratnayake; and the Health Secretary is Maj.Gen. Sanjeewa Munasinghe. The head of the powerful Task Force to control COVID-19 is the serving army chief Lt.Gen. Shavendra Silva. The President’ international affairs advisor is former navy chief Adm.Jayanath Colombage.
Both Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa have pledged that they will prevent persecution of Lankan forces personnel by domestic and international organizations. While Mahinda Rajapaksa lashed out at the opposition for sidelining and persecuting the armed forces when it was in power, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa declared that he would withdraw from international organizations which denigrated the Sri Lankan armed forces.
“In a situation where even leaders of powerful countries have emphatically stated that they would not allow any action against their war heroes, in a small country like ours where our war heroes have sacrificed so much, I will not allow anyone to exert undue pressure on them or harass them. If any international body or organization continuously target our country and our war heroes, using baseless allegations, I will also not hesitate to withdraw Sri Lanka from such bodies or organizations,” the President said in his War Heroes Day message on May 19.
The Rajaratnam School of International Studies Monograph No. 25 on “ Demilitarizing the State: The South and Southeast Asian Experience” gives an idea of militarization and demilitarization in several countries in the region.
In Pakistan, political instability in the early years of independence brought Gen.Ayub Khan to power. In later years, the military became a key player in politics apart from directly ruling for a good number of years. Ayesha Siddiqa’s paper shows how the Pakistani army has better organizational capacity than its civilian counterparts. The military often used the leitmotif of national security threats to sustain its involvement in politics. It has also forged close ties with civilian elites to build a strong military-civilian nexus. Prime Ministers Z.A. Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif used the military to come to power but when they fell out with the latter, they were ousted. The Pakistan’s military links with Saudi Arabia, China and the United States were also key support bases. The other decisive factor is Pakistan’s authoritarian socio-religious culture sustained by its feudal elite, Siddiqua says.
In Bangladesh, the ideological and political mistakes of the country’s founder, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, led to his assassination in 1975 and the subsequent military takeover by Gen.Ziaur Rahman. According to Bhumitra Chakma, Generals Ziaur Rahman and and H.M.Ershad legitimized their rule by adopting Islam as the basis of military rule. The civilian governments of Begum Khalida Zia and Sheik Hasina adopted the strategy of ensuring the military’s loyalty by spending money on it. Civilians have also intervened in military appointment, thus politicizing the military.
Paul Chambers, in his chapter on Thailand, observes that the military’s power is a longstanding pillar of monarchical control. Weak civilian elites and weak democracy have allowed the military to reassert itself frequently. External support from the US and the tussle with Cambodia helped the military to be at the center stage.
Leonard Sebastian says that in Indonesia, demilitarization followed the exit of President Suharto. But the military has remained strong principally because civilians had sought its support for political survival—as was the case with Presidents Wahid and Megawati.
Renato Cruz de Castro, writing on the Philippines, says that the role of the military increased because of the Islamic insurgency led by ISIS’s Abu Sayyaf in Mindanao. The military had a role in the overthrow of dictatorial President Marcos. But remilitarisation followed internal political instability. The military withdrew its support to President Estrada who was in the process of being impeached. Gloria Arroyo, Estrada’s successor, had forged an alliance with the military.