Down a Slippery Slope

Indian Express , October 3, 2007

General Musharraf may have won a legal battle when Pakistan’s Supreme Court made it possible for him to run for president without giving up his position as army chief. But ‘legal’ is not the same as ‘legitimate’.

A government headed by a serving general in uniform is, by definition, a military regime. For a government to qualify as civilian and democratic, its head must be elected as a civilian and under the spirit of the constitution.

Since taking power in a military coup in 1999 and especially since 9/11, Musharraf has invoked three principal arguments to justify his continuation in power.

The first of these is his status as a US ally in the war against terrorism. The second relates to Pakistan’s rapid economic growth under military rule, and the third is based on the idea that Musharraf is a benign dictator, not a malevolent one.

Recent developments in Pakistan have contradicted each of these.

Musharraf’s efficacy as a bulwark against terrorism has been exposed as parts of Pakistan have slipped deeper under the influence of Islamist extremists. The recent economic growth under military rule is the result of macroeconomic restructuring, capital inflows and privatisation of state enterprises and banks. It is not based on major expansion in manufacturing or agriculture, the areas that affect the lives of a majority of Pakistanis.

Pakistan has had a succession of flawed civilian and military rulers and several people (especially among the country’s professional middle class) argue that it is more important to have an honest and effective helmsman than a democratically elected one.

Musharraf’s western supporters have also said that he is not as repressive as other military dictators, which coupled with other reasons justifies his continuation in office. But Musharraf has always been selectively repressive, and repression is rising as his power is threatened.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, James Hookway recently attributed the current violence in Myanmar (Burma) to some core beliefs of the Burmese army. “The country’s military rulers will go to any lengths to crush civil opposition,” he wrote, adding that the two core beliefs of Myanmar’s generals were “that only the army can keep the ethnically diverse country together and that if the generals don’t act decisively, they may be ousted by their own army rivals.” A similar set of beliefs can be found among the higher echelons of Pakistan’s army. Musharraf and his military backers also fear Pakistan’s disintegration or consignment to international irrelevance without the steadying hand of the army. Pakistan is culturally, economically and historically very different from Burma, which explains why cooption of some civilians and selective repression has been enough to maintain military rule.

The army has ruled Burma uninterrupted since 1960 whereas Pakistan’s military has had to cede power to civilians (as was the case after the military defeat of 1971) or to share power in an attempt to retain its institutional credibility (1988-1999). Furthermore, Burma’s military opted for a socialist model resulting in economic stagnation and the absence of modern influences such as a free media, communications technology and integration with the globalised economy. But a military mindset that does not recognise the value of civilian control eventually descends to the depths where Burma finds itself today.