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Military leaders stepping up to the levers of power

Around the world, the military is assuming control of policy-making at the expense of freely elected governments. But what's driving this power grab and what might this signal for the Arab Spring?

Around the world, the military is assuming control of policy-making at the expense of freely elected governments. But what's driving this power grab and what might this signal for the Arab Spring? Above, General Ashfaq Kayani, Pakistan's politically influential army chief, holds talks with President Asif Ali Zardari. AFP
Around the world, the military is assuming control of policy-making at the expense of freely elected governments. But what's driving this power grab and what might this signal for the Arab Spring? Above, General Ashfaq Kayani, Pakistan's politically influential army chief, holds talks with President Asif Ali Zardari. AFP

Thailand's army commander, Prayuth Chan-ocha, is not the most engaging public speaker. An austere man who has risen through the ranks, largely thanks to his intense loyalty to the country's constitutional monarchy and his strategic alliances with other senior officers, he is far from a natural orator. But last June, he appeared on Thai national television. Dressed in his full military regalia, Prayuth warned voters to elect "good people" into office. Since he had earlier made it clear which politicians he considered "good", the meaning of his address left little to chance.

Though many of the army commander's preferred candidates failed to win seats in the July parliamentary election, the Thai military did not go home disappointed. The election victors, the Puea Thai party, appeared so terrified of the army that, shortly after their victory, they promised not to exert any control over military appointments and privately vowed to continue handing the armed forces sizeable budget increases.

Things were different in the 1990s. Then, Thai reformers thought the military were leaving politics for good, as civilian politicians exerted control, and democracy blunted the power of armies.

After a military takeover, tens of thousands of Thais protested in the streets of Bangkok during Black May in 1992. The army-dominated government was forced to stand down after a bloody campaign that resulted in 52 confirmed deaths, many disappearances, hundreds of injuries, and more than 3,500 arrests. But to the surprise of these activists, the opposite has happened. Across the developing world, from Thailand to Pakistan, militaries have become more politically powerful in recent years. Indeed, in many Middle Eastern nations, armies will be determining the future of any reform efforts; in other countries, they have even again launched coups. In others still, the military has essentially installed their own presidents or prime ministers.


During the 1960s and 1970s, the era after decolonisation of Africa and many parts of Asia, militaries ruled a wide swathe of developing nations. With the Cold War raging, the two dominant powers, the United States and the Soviet Union, were willing to forgive military rule (in countries such as Chile, Pakistan and Egypt), as long as army leaders proved themselves reliable allies of either Washington or Moscow. And, with democracy still confined mostly to a small group of countries in the West, even many intellectuals in newly decolonised countries thought their young nations needed autocratic leadership to survive. According to studies conducted in the late 1960s and early 1970s by Samuel Huntington, the political scientist, as many as one-third of those countries that had taken steps towards democracy had since reverted to authoritarian rule, and usually via a military takeover.

Even when militaries crushed other young democracies, Cold War realities remained. In 1975, as Portugal released its last colonial possessions, the leaders of one of those possessions, East Timor, developed plans to build an independent democracy. But that year, Indonesia invaded East Timor with the tacit consent of the United States. In a meeting with Indonesian dictator Suharto, President Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger, his secretary of state, made clear they would not stand in his way. "Whatever you do [in Timor]," Kissinger told Suharto, recently declassified documents recorded, "we will try to handle it in the best way possible."

Over the past two decades, the international system has appeared to shift against military rule. The spread of democracy through Africa, Asia and Latin America weakened the argument that developing countries required a strong military to survive. New technologies - satellite television, the internet and social media - have made it harder for armed forces to impose and maintain tight controls.

With the Cold War over, major international powers, such as the United States also had less reason to support military juntas. For instance, when violence broke out again in East Timor, in 1999, as it attempted to free itself from Indonesia, local militias wreaked havoc once more, forcing nearly half the country's citizens to flee. But this time, the US intervened, creating a multinational force to restore peace and eventually allow East Timor its independence.

Thailand also seemed to have rid itself of military rule. Following those street protests two decades ago, many Thais believed the armed forces would not be able to take over the government again. Even some senior generals privately argued the military should leave politics for good, having enjoyed almost six decades of power via direct or indirect rule. The country held multiple free and fair elections, and in 1997, passed a new, reformist constitution to strengthen democratic institutions. "No one thought a coup could happen again," said Songpol Kaoputumptip, an editor at the Bangkok Post newspaper. "It seemed like the break had finally been made."


Now, look again. In 2006, the Thai armed forces staged a coup, forcing out the elected government of Thaksin Shinawatra, and installing the army's own regime. Since then, coup rumours have constantly swirled, and though the country has returned to civilian rule, any leader, including the current prime minister, knows that he or she can only rule as long as the military allows.

"Yingluck [the prime minister] knows she has to have a deal with the military, or she will be gone," says one experienced diplomat who has served in Thailand repeatedly. Last spring, after large-scale street protests in Bangkok, the military unleashed its full fury, shooting live ammunition at demonstrators and killing at least 80 people. No military officers have been punished for that bloodshed.

Thailand is by no means unique. In one recent comprehensive study of developing Asia, researchers from the Institute for Security and International Studies concluded: "Any short-term prospects for civilian control [of the military] in the young democracies of South and South-east Asia are gloomy indeed."

In Pakistan, for example, after interludes of civilian control in the 1990s, the army has again "assumed control as well as oversight of public policy ... the military has carved out a role and position in the public and private sectors, including industry, business, agriculture, education and scientific development, health care, communications and transportation," report Siegfried Wolf and Seth Kane, the military analysts. Indeed, when the Pakistani leadership held talks in Washington on the future of the bilateral relationship with the US, there was no doubt about who was the key player on the Pakistani side: not president Asif Ali Zardari but Ashfaq Kayani, army chief of staff. Similarly, after US special forces swooped to kill Osama bin Laden, it was Kayani who enunciated the Pakistani government's response to US actions.

Outside Asia, in Africa and Latin America, the men in green have also reaffirmed their power.

Across Mexico, the military dominates law enforcement and other civilian institutions. "The military is becoming the supreme authority - in some cases the only authority - in parts of some states," Denise Dresser, a Mexican political analyst, told the US Senate Judiciary Committee. In Nigeria, according to a study by John Campbell of the Council on Foreign Relations, a group of senior generals helped manoeuvre Goodluck Jonathan into power. In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe relies on the army to prop up his rule. In Niger, Burkina Faso and Uganda too, militaries have assumed more control.

In Latin America, Africa and Asia, coups, which had been a frequent means of changing governments during the Cold War, had become nearly extinct by the dawn of the new century. But over the past decade, the military has made power grabs in at least 12 states, from Guinea to Honduras, from Thailand to Madagascar.

Studies back up this anecdotal evidence. Freedom House, the international monitoring group, notes that the global decline in democracy over the past five years has been the result, in part, of weakening civilian control on military operations throughout the developing world.

Across the Middle East, armed forces have also dominated the Arab Spring. Protesters may have challenged leaders from Yemen to Egypt, but the loyalty of the military has determined whether these rulers stay in power or not. During any transition, the militaries have, by default, become the dominant - and sometimes only - national institutions.

As in Egypt, armies have used this power to ensure they will remain at the centre of politics for years to come. Egypt's generals, write the political analysts Jeff Martini and Julie Taylor, "are determined to ... protect their privileged position ... the generals now hope to create a system of carefully shaped [institutions] that will preserve their power and reduce the chances that any single political group can challenge them."

Indeed, they note, during Egypt's transition, the generals have insisted the military be exempted from parliamentary scrutiny, enjoy power over an elected president and maintain the legal right to intervene in politics under a broad array of circumstances. Though many of the groups that helped overthrow Hosni Mubarak's government fear the power of the military, some Egyptian liberals welcome the army's continued power as a check against Islamists.

Militaries in other nations seem to be following the same path, taking advantage of a perceived power vacuum to assert themselves as a credible, unifying national institution. In Tunisia, the military has maintained sizeable power. In Syria, the regime of Bashar Al Assad, threatened on all sides by protesters, has relied heavily on the armed forces to maintain its grip. If Assad were to fall, the military would almost certainly play a dominant role in any future Syrian government.


In an era of digital revolutions, how have armed forces managed to maintain their power? For one, they have taken advantage of weakening support for democracy in many nations. In countries where democratic institutions are fragile, there is nothing to restrain the army from jumping back into politics. Or, if dictatorial leaders do survive protests, as in Uganda or Zimbabwe, they have to rely on the armed forces for their survival, and remain deeply indebted to them.

After the 2006 coup against Thaksin Shinawatra, many urban Thais openly celebrated the return of military rule. Young men and women threw flowers onto soldiers who had taken over sections of central Bangkok. "Academic contacts [of US diplomats] could only be described as ebullient [about the coup]," reported the US Embassy in Bangkok.

In the post-Cold War era, too, armed forces have adapted, learning to wield enormous power without always directly seizing control - though, as we have seen, coups do still occur. Instead, many militaries have learned to function behind the scenes, operating as kingmakers, while still maintaining the thin fiction of neutrality. Often, militaries have learnt that by uniting behind a certain politician, or by threatening to withhold their backing for a government, they can control civilian leaders. In the Philippines, for example, where former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo once relied upon the armed forces to enforce a crackdown, one comprehensive study found that "the [Philippine] military [is] an important veto actor in the competition among the country's political elites".

Consumed by their own economic problems, many western nations that would once have intervened remain quiet today, especially over the Middle East. The White House, for example, concerned about the anti-American mood in Egypt, has said little about the Egyptian military's enormous power in the post-Mubarak era.

And, in many parts of the developing world, a new kind of Cold War may be emerging, one that favours increasing military spending - and thus more power for armed forces. Over the past two years, China, once willing to assume a low profile in foreign affairs, has become increasingly aggressive, wielding its rising power from Central Asia to the South China Sea, where Chinese ships have recently clashed repeatedly with those of Vietnam and the Philippines in disputed waters. China's defence spending has risen to over US$90 billion per year, second highest in the world, and this summer Beijing rolled out its first aircraft carrier.

Fearful of China, nations from India to the Philippines are buying up new weapons systems and, in the process, putting more power in the hands of their armed forces.

In late August, the Philippines took delivery of new warships, and Benigno Aquino III, its president, warned that these new vessels are "a symbol of our readiness to take care, guard and if needed, defend the interest and welfare of our nation". Overall military spending in South-east Asia has risen particularly quickly. "We cannot hope to fight China, but if we are going to have a military build-up, then its going to mean the army will go back to the kind of power it had [under dictator Ferdinand Marcos]," says one analyst.

The return of military power can have disastrous effects on young democracies. While in the short term, militaries sometimes provide some semblance of national unity, in the longer run they help create a climate of impunity, one in which the powerful continue to do as they please and the armed forces become virtually immune to criticism or investigation.

In Thailand, the military has reportedly intercepted boats carrying refugees from neighbouring Myanmar, and then pushed many of these desperate men and women back to sea, where they perished. No punishments were meted out to those commanders who oversaw this ruthless action.

In Mexico, human rights groups accuse the Mexican military of disappearances, torturing suspects with electric shocks, and widespread extrajudicial killings.

Worse, military rule stunts the growth of other institutions. The militarisation of the drug fight in Mexico has not delivered many victories - the northern city Ciudad Juarez is now the murder capital of the world, and a blue-ribbon panel led by former Latin American leaders last year reported that the drug war is a "failed war". Instead, militarisation has marginalised the Mexican police and courts.


To be sure, the armed forces have not prevailed everywhere. Turkey, which once suffered frequent coups, seems to have curbed the power of the armed forces, the de facto rulers of the country since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's post-First World War reforms. In July, many senior Turkish generals quit en masse, a sign of their weakness in comparison to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the popular elected prime minister.

Fifteen years ago, Indonesia, which had been ruled by Suharto since the mid-1960s, seemed like the archetypal army state. The military controlled the most powerful political party, Golkar, which dominated a compliant legislature, and the armed forces maintained wide-ranging business interests across the archipelago.

But today, Indonesia's armed forces are a shadow of their former selves. In recent years, civilian leaders have used their popularity to remove the army's control of politics, and to force it to divest many of its business interests. With military power receding, many areas of the sprawling archipelago have gained greater control over their natural resources and their social welfare systems, and introduced new forms of local elections.

Less afraid of the security forces, Jakarta's Indonesian and English-language newspapers now give a daily round-up of planned (peaceful) protests that will be held on the capital's streets, these appear right next to the weather pages, a sign of how routine such public participation has become. And though the Indonesian military used to claim that it alone could guarantee stability, this is no longer the case. Today, stability engendered by public participation and devolution has allowed for strong economic growth.

Meanwhile, the Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a former general himself who is clearly comfortable with military men, has presided over truly free and contested elections.

In the long run, the Arab uprisings may result in situations more like Thailand than Indonesia or Turkey. The militaries in nations such as Egypt are even more entrenched than in Indonesia, and remain the only national institution.

What's more, the Egyptian military has stepped into the power vacuum during past revolutions, such as in Nasser's time, and has a history of taking advantage of upheaval to further entrench its position of power.

No Egyptian military men seem ready to fulfill the role of someone like Yudhoyono, who comes from the armed forces, and enjoys respect among the men in green, but has proven willing to slash the power of the military.

"There seems little doubt - as protesters tire and as the general public tires of them too - in what direction the balance will tilt [in the Arab world]," according to the analysts Robert Malley and Hussein Agha. The militaries in these nations have the organisation, political experience and power to dominate any post-dictator era, and they will be at the forefront of the Arab experiment, they write.

Meanwhile, crowds that once fervently backed anti-Mubarak, anti-Qadaffi and anti-Ben Ali protesters have become more equivocal, just as Islamists, who have built their parties for decades, have shown themselves to be the most capable organisations in the new political climate where law and order has broken down and ethnic or tribal divisions flourish.

To many in the Arab middle classes in these countries, a military-backed counter-revolution, the very antidote to the revolutions of the Arab Spring, may not look like such a bad idea.

Joshua Kurlantzick is Fellow for South-east Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.