12:00 AM, December 26, 2012 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, December 26, 2012

Ground Realities

A brief history of coups d'etat

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Syed Badrul Ahsan

There are certain classes of people who think that military rule or martial law is imposed in a country when politicians make a mess of things. That is simply not true. Those who put such arguments forward are pretty much at a distance from a study of history not just in Bangladesh but elsewhere around the world.
In an age where politician-bashing has become the trend, where every problem is associated with the way politicians conduct themselves, it is important that the truth about the damage done through a military commandeering of the state be revealed.
There is the instance of Thailand, where throughout the 1960s and 1970s, it was quite the fashionable thing for its generals to take turns in seizing the state and thereby keeping politicians away from decision-making. And those officers had no credible reason to take over the state, save a need to satisfy their own huge egos.
In the process, they left Thailand's political process damaged, to a point where figures like Thaksin Shinawatra and his sibling Yingluck Shinawatra even now live in fear of the military going adventuristic any time.
For long years, following the bloody coup that placed the army in power in Turkey in 1960, Ankara was constantly embarrassed before the world. Its soldiers underwrote the country's constitution, so much so that prime ministers were compelled to operate but by leave of the
military. It was not until Recep Tayyep Erdogan and Abdullah Gul won a popular mandate to govern that Turkey's soldiers lent themselves to taming.
Today the country is a respected member of the global community.
Nigeria's fledgling democracy was destroyed in 1966 when its army murdered Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and his ministers and seized power. The military did incalculable damage to the country, for decades together. The nadir of military rule was reached under the corrupt Sani Abacha, who will forever remain notorious for the execution he ordered of the writer and human rights activist Ken Saro Wiwa in the later 1990s. Under the rule of the soldiers, an oil-rich Nigeria became hostage to multinationals' depredations and eventually turned into one of the poorest nations on earth.
General Suharto's rise in Indonesia in the mid-1960s came through the murder of a million Indonesians suspected of being communists as also through the killing of six generals on the night of September 30, 1965.
President Sukarno was stripped of power and, like Nigeria, Indonesia passed into the dark shadow of western multinationals. And for thirty-two years, Suharto presided over a kleptocracy that squeezed the country of nearly every ounce of energy. The soldiers reduced the country, once a beacon of hope for the Third World, into just one more country doing the bidding of affluent westerners. As a consequence of the military's involvement in politics, democracy in Indonesia continues to stumble.
And there is, of course, the case of Myanmar or Burma. The country was badly wounded when, on the eve of independence in the late 1940s, General Aung San was murdered by mutinous soldiers. But hope burned rather bright with the civilian U Nu administering the country in the post-independence period, until General Ne Win staged his coup d'etat in 1962. Ne Win's long stay in power, till 1988, reduced Burma from a prosperous nation that exported rice to one where people had to queue up to buy toothpaste. The army called it the Burmese way to socialism.
In truth, it was farce in thick shades of black. And after 1988, the Burmese military presided over a brutal regime that left the country isolated from the rest of the world. Today, it is democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi who goes around the world restoring Burma to the rest of the world.
Every bout of military rule anywhere has only left a putrefaction of corruption behind. It has undermined politics and created a class-based society that in the end has favoured certain elitist groups in society. Iskandar Mirza and Ayub Khan conspired to impose martial law in Pakistan in 1958, only months away from the general elections scheduled for February 1959. Over the next decade, Ayub Khan corrupted the civil and military bureaucracy, promoted a system that had second and third rate politicians jumping on to his bandwagon and did everything to stifle dissent among the political classes that mattered.
His successor Yahya Khan, unable to cope with the results of the country's first-ever general elections in 1970, presided over a genocide in its eastern province and, ultimately, a break-up of Pakistan. And the consequences of Ziaul Huq's Islamisation are yet being felt in Pakistan. Pervez Musharraf overthrew the elected government of Nawaz Sharif in 1999 only because he had been dismissed from his job as army chief.
In Bangladesh, military meddling in politics began with the ouster of the elected government of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in August 1975. The army take-over occurred through the assassination of the Father of the Nation and, a few months later, of the four Mujibnagar government leaders. It opened up deep divisions within the military, took Bangladesh back to the narrow alley of communalism, a move formalised by the coup of March 1982, when General Ershad decreed Islam as the religion of the state.
One by one, all the values which had gone into a prosecution of the War of Liberation, all the principles upon which our liberty was based, were thrown out the window by military rule.
The coup by a band of colonels in Greece in 1967, for reasons hard to find, took a democratic society away from its moorings and kept it there for several years. It would not be until the Turkish invasion of Northern Cyprus in 1974 that the colonels would be forced out and power returned to politicians. The exiled Konstantine Karamanlis would be called back to clean up the mess left behind by the army.
Military rule or martial law has left societies in Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Algeria, Ghana, Sudan, Congo, Fiji, Liberia, Guinea, Uganda and other countries badly wounded. In all these countries, it is today a major responsibility of politicians, long derided by soldiers, to restore civility and good governance through means patently democratic.
And that is the unvarnished truth, despite the spurious arguments some people might put forth to the contrary.
The writer is Executive Editor, The Daily Star.
E-mail: ahsan.syedbadrul@gmail.com

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