Pakistan’s Army Remilitarizes Politics

An inexperienced government leaves a vacuum for the generals to enter

Pakistan’s Army Remilitarizes Politics

By: Salman Rafi Sheikh

In Pakistan, events seem to be powerfully rekindling the Army’s hopes for a more direct role in politics, which has been blocked to them since 2010 when the 18th amendment, designed to limit the sweeping powers of former military presidents, was passed and the possibility of direct military coups was impressive if not fully effectively blocked.

In fact, it would not be wrong to say that the coronavirus crisis, which has so far affected 20,9412 people and taken the lives of at least 536, has accelerated the increasing militarisation of politics –a  process that has silently but quite visibly been going on ever since July 2018 when the Pakistan Justice Party (PTI) headed by Imran Khan won national elections, supposedly with the military establishment’s support.

Backed by the military, which has perpetrated four coups since independence in 1947, the government has increasingly started appointing retired military officials on key civilian and bureaucratic posts.  They are filling a   vacuum left by a struggling government headed by Khan that has proven too inexperienced to govern. The public health system is in disarray and unable to handle the crisis and the rest of the government appears unable to cope with a long list of emergencies.

It is in accordance with these problems that the Army is also leading the fight against the coronavirus. The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), headed by a current high Army official, is the leading authority managing the crisis.

In this context, the appointment of the retired Lieutenant General Asim Saleem Bajwa, who previously headed the military’s media wing, Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), as the prime minister’s ‘special information assistant,’ has sparked a new debate about possible ‘soft’ and ‘shadow’ martial law.

The post is usually seen as the key to shaping the national narrative on key issues including defense and foreign relations. In the present context, it seems that the post will mainly be used to not only shape the narrative on the 18th amendment –particularly with a view to amending clauses that have jeopardized the military’s interest –but also to maintain and justify the military’s high defense spending, which is coming under increasing criticism from progressive political groups and parties alike due to the obvious shortage of hospitals and other health facilities in the country and across all provinces to control the virus.

The 18th amendment is of special importance for the generals because it was designed to effectively, if not permanently, block the way for direct military coups. The intention was obviously to strengthen democracy and democratic institutions in Pakistan and prevent both military takeovers and Pakistan’s descent into authoritarianism and chaos.

Indeed, the history of previous military misrule shows how Pakistan has suffered politically, economically, and sociologically. Ayub Khan, Pakistan’s first military ruler, who ruled Pakistan from 1958 to 1969, sowed the seeds of Pakistan’s territorial disintegration in 1971. East Pakistan rebelled to become Bangladesh even though Ayub’s era was and still is largely seen as the “golden decade” of development and industrialization. During Zia-ul-Haq’s period, which is otherwise known as Pakistan’s most authoritarian, Pakistan took a plunge into the ‘Afghan jihad’ and thus sowed the seeds of Islamist extremism that, until 2018, continued to haunt Pakistan. Musharraf’s era saw the seeds of Islamist extremism growing into a full tree with the killing of thousands of innocent people and, if official figures are to be believed, costing more than US$50 billion.

The 18th amendment, which was passed only two years after Musharraf’s exit from military rule, decreed that military takeovers would not only be treated as high treason, as always the case since the implementation of the 1973 constitution, but that no court of the country would have the authority to declare military government as legitimate. The latter clause was particularly inserted into Article 6 of the constitution in view of the historical fact that the Supreme Court of Pakistan did provide in the early 2000s a legitimate cover to not only rule but also to amend the constitution as and when deemed fit.

Whereas the military’s proclivity for direct rule remains strong, as many politicians asserted strongly in interviews, the rewritten Article 6 and the fact that a coup would not have institutional support have effectively forced the military to find ways and means of indirect, soft and shadow rule – a process that has gained pace ever since the coming into power of the PTI.

Indeed, as many politicians from the opposition have told Asia Sentinel, the military establishment supported the PTI during the 2018 elections because of a belief it could use this weak government to only to pave the way for their gradual inclusion in the government –and protect their financial interests –but also ultimately to reverse the 18th amendment.

Whereas Article 6 is surely a problem for the military establishment, the 18th amendment has also dampened the military’s ability to use the national exchequer as and how it has deemed fit. Before the 18th amendment and the 7th National Finance Commission award, which also was implemented in 2010, the federal government controlled about 80 percent of the national kitty. The 7th NFC award brought a fundamental change, giving about 58 percent of the financial resources to the provinces, thus reducing the federal government’s share by almost half.

The financial question remains supremely important for the military, sources say, and is again one reason why they continue to use the incumbent government to have their men on key posts.

In the Pakistani context, key bureaucratic posts are both the key to manipulating both the available resources and a way to protect cardinal interests. As it stands, despite the fact that Pakistan’s economy has drastically shrunk over the last two years, the military continues to get its due share.

In fact, soon after the outbreak of Covid-19, when the demand for cutting defense spending was rising, the government announced a supplementary grant of Rs 11.48 billion (US$72.3 million) for the China-Pakistan Security Force–South, Rs468.2 million to the Special Communication Organization and Rs 90.45 million for the Nuclear Regulatory Authority – all controlled by the military, strengthening the belief that democracy in Pakistan has already become too weak to prevent even soft martial law.

Source : Asia Sentinel More   

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Malaysia Treads Carefully Amid Spratly Tensions

An accommodative economic policy may have earned no favors

Malaysia Treads Carefully Amid Spratly Tensions

By: BA Hamzah

The recent confrontation off the Laconia Shoal –just 100 km from Sarawak and 2,000 km from China – involving the Chinese Coast Guard and other vessels harassing a drillship contracted to the national oil company Petronas has spotlighted Malaysia’s increasingly fraught relations with China. The social media is abuzz with netizen complaints on Malaysia’s “soft policy” with some calling for a tougher response for infringing Malaysia’s sovereignty.

The former foreign minister Musa Amann, for example, is asking the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to be more aggressive in response to China’s provocation. In a letter to the Prime Minister, Musa cited a similar incident in 2012 in which the Chinese Coast Guard vessels harassed foreign vessels on contract to Petronas conducting an aseismic survey in the same area.

This coincides with rising tensions across the entire region, raising the risks of armed confrontation. A naval skirmish between the US and Chinese navies looks increasingly likely, with the US sending destroyers into territory in the Spratly Islands last week on what the US described as freedom of navigation missions.  These are entangling risks that Malaysia should steer clear from.

The recent spats do raise questions whether an increasingly assertive China has changed its policy despite Putrajaya’s support of grandiose geopolitical projects like the Belt and Road Initiative and whether China is moving more aggressively southward from the Spratlys, where it has transformed several artificial islands into garrisons, in a kind of creeping annexation into Malaysia’s maritime waters.

Is Beijing building a new sand wall in the Laconia Shoals and possibly putting a permanent naval presence on James Shoal, an underwater feature that is embedded on the continental shelf of Malaysia? These questions call for face-to-face diplomacy and adroit statesmanship. It is not easy to keep calm after such a stormy incident. Putrajaya shouldn’t be too hasty in demonizing China when it has few cards to play. Although recent spats at sea shouldn’t be treated as little bumps in our diplomatic relations, roughening up with a powerful neighbor can be very messy.

Strategically located between the Strait of Malacca and the Sulu Sea, Malaysia considers itself an important geopolitical and economic force in Southeast Asia. It is a pioneer in regional cooperation and has played a leading role in creating a durable security architecture for such cooperation. But a more important contribution Malaysia has made to regional peace and security has been its leading role in effecting some political and strategic reconciliation between Southeast Asia and China.

Historically, long before the sovereign Malay states won independence as the Federation of Malaya in 1957, their seafaring people used to roam the nearby maritime areas, including the Spratlys for economic and military activities. The presence of Malay seafarers in the Spratlys preceded the colonial era and was long before the establishment of the 1947 nine-dash line through which China stakes formal claim to the entire South China Sea.

Like many seafarers from the coastal states in the region that today make up the current states of Indonesia, Cambodia, and Vietnam, the seafarers from China also sailed through the South China Sea since ancient times. The seafarers from the Ming China (1368 - 1644), for example, were noted for their expeditions.

Malaysia became the first ASEAN state to establish diplomatic relations with China, in May 1974. What began as a calculated diplomatic strategy, it has since 1990 spilled over into economic, cultural, educational, and military ties. Despite disagreement over China’s extensive territorial claims in the Spratlys, Malaysia doesn’t consider China a hostile power. On the contrary, following the decision to establish diplomatic ties and despite the memory of a brutal insurgency inspired by Communist China, Malaysia has adopted a friendly approach towards China.

Since the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013, economic ties between China and Malaysia improved tremendously, with China becoming Malaysia’s largest trading partner for the last decade, with bilateral trade increasing from US$63.6 billion in 2017 to US$77.7 billion in 2018. China has invested more than US$43.8 billion over the past 10 years in Malaysia, including bailing out the once-ailing Proton, the national car project that then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad pioneered in the early 1980s, taking 49 percent of the equity.

Malaysia is among the 65 countries that have participated in BRI projects and a major recipient of Chinese FDI. It doesn’t look upon BRI projects as a form of debt diplomacy to increase its political clout in the developing world, as many countries do. But the country does have its own woes with China over multi-billion-dollar mega projects initiated when Najib Razak was prime minister. Najib has been accused of getting the Chinese to initiate the projects to provide funds to bail out 1Malaysia Development Bhd., the state-backed investment fund that capsized with US$4.8 billion losses from corruption and mismanagement.

After the Barisan Nasional was drubbed in the May 2018 general election, many predicted the relationship with China would suffer because Mahathir accused Beijing of bribing Malaysian leaders to get overpriced mega projects, promising that if returned to office, he would cancel them.

However, once elected, he surprised even the Chinese when he made a 180-degree turn to embrace the projects, renegotiating them for better prices and insisting that Chinese companies employ more locals and source their construction materials from local companies. Interestingly, the Chinese companies agreed to cut cost and to abide by the conditions, an indication that the BRI projects are not cast in stone but can be renegotiated.

Some of the mega projects that have been renegotiated include the Bandar Malaysia and the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL). The warming relationship with China has seen a spike in Chinese imports of, for example, of palm oil, offsetting a decision of the European Union to ban palm oil imports over charges of environmental damage.

This policy shift with China has earned Mahathir many critics in the country, but it has earned him the respect of Chinese leaders, eager to portray to the world their readiness to debunk any allegation of unfair agreements with the developing countries. At the Second Beijing Forum on BRI which took place on April 26 and 27, 2019, Mahathir rubbished the claim that Beijing was using the BRI “to gain control of participating countries.”

The focus of Malaysia’s policy in the South China Sea revolves largely around maintaining friendly relations with China, claimant states and other stakeholders. However, this does not mean Malaysia has chosen appeasement in its relations with China. Putrajaya continues to support the ASEAN-initiated Code of Conduct mechanism against China in the South China Sea. 

Similarly, Malaysia’s support for freedom of navigation in the South China Sea reflects its responsibility to the international community and respect for rules-based international order; these two are currently at odds with China’s position.

Malaysia relies on international law and diplomacy to resolve territorial disputes in its waters. Though Malaysia’s 1979 map of the continental shelf has been the bone of contention with many in the region, its appeal for international law and diplomacy has produced positive impact on its neighbors. Boundary disputes with Thailand and Vietnam, for example, have been temporarily shelved through joint development schemes. Disputes with Singapore and Indonesia were resolved through the International Court of Justice.

Malaysia’s reliance on international law and diplomacy to manage boundary disputes is a testimony to its active engagement policy with all the contending stakeholders in the South China Sea. In the same vein, Malaysia’s reliance on the ASEAN member states to seek peaceful solutions in the South China Sea helps to reinforce its active engagement in the region.

BA Hamzah teaches a course on strategic studies and sea power at the National Defence University of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur.

Source : Asia Sentinel More   

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