Three lessons from three countries

Just like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Thailand have displayed an amazing array of ongoing tussles between civilian and military forces to gain and retain control of the policy and decision-making processes

Three lessons from three countries

As 2015 emerges from the eastern horizon, a look at the three countries in east gives some useful lessons to Pakistan that witnessed the worst terrorist attacks and the resultant military courts that might ultimately devour democracy as happened in 1977 and 1999 after Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif established such courts in a desperate move to curb violence.

If we look at the past hundred years or so, we realise that democracy has not emerged or consolidated itself all of a sudden; rather it has moved forward by fits and starts - India, of course, has been an exception and deserves another detailed article -here a quick look at Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Thailand might give us some lessons to learn.

Just like Pakistan, these three countries have displayed an amazing array of ongoing tussles between civilian and military forces to gain and retain control of the policy and decision-making processes. At times this tussle has erupted with full force such as in Myanmar (then Burma) in 1988 and in Bangladesh in 1990, and at other simmered for long with bouts of trouble in Thailand almost throughout the past 50 years.

Unlike Pakistan, these countries have also experienced some periods of relative calm when it seemed that their armies had finally given up their desire to exercise control over all matters of ‘national interest.’ Despite such intermittent tranquility, the three countries have faced repeated jolts to their democracy.


After separation from Pakistan, it was expected that Bangladesh would be able to initiate a democratic process that would be long lasting. Sheikh Mujib gave Bangladesh a secular constitution but then committed such grave mistakes only comparable with Bhutto’s. Both managed to pass a consensus constitution and then embarked on an unconstitutional path by mutilating fundamental rights and introducing idiotic amendments as if both were in competition to outdo each other for uprooting democracy itself.

For example, when Bhutto was facilitating the passage of second constitutional amendment to declare Ahmedis as non-Muslims, Mujib was introducing one-party rule in Bangladesh through the fourth constitutional amendment; when Bhutto had imposed a ban on National Awami Party (NAP), Mujib was planning to outlaw all political parties save his own. Mujib introduced a new political party called Bangladesh Krishik Siramik Awami League (BAKSAL) and became its president. Through the fourth amendment in June 1975, Mujib made it obligatory for all political parties and leaders to merge into his own party because September 1975 onwards all other political outfits would have lost their legal status.

The political elements should not be overwhelmed by the demands of non-political forces to surrender their fundamental rights.

Mujib termed this dictatorial amendment a revolution and created a 15-member executive council on the pattern of the Soviet Politburo. This council included leaders such as Nazul Islam, Mansur Ali, Abdul Hasnat, M. Qamruzzaman, Abdul Malik and Prof Yusuf Ali. All newspapers and magazines were banned except the four under government control. This was the backdrop against which the Bangladeshi army staged its first coup on August 1975 killing Sheikh Mujib and his entire family; just one daughter -- Hasina Wajed -- survived who happened to be out of country on that fateful day.

The army appointed Mujib’s vice president -- Moshtaq Ahmad Khondaker (1918-1996) as the new president but within three month there were two more army revolts as president Moshtaq was forced to resign and the first Chief Justice of Bangladesh, Abu Sayem (1916-1997), was appointed the president. But again, within two years i.e. in April 1977, Lt General Ziaur Rahman took over and became the seventh president of Bangladesh in as many years. This has a striking similarity with the first decade of Pakistan which saw seven prime ministers and an action replay of this was staged in 1993 when Pakistan had four prime ministers in one year i.e. Nawaz Sharif, Balkh Sher Mazari, Moin Qureshi, and Benazir Bhutto.

Gen Ziaur Rahman established Bangladesh Nationalist Party and restored a multi-party system; then after four years, from within the army certain elements revolted and killed him in 1981 paving the way for General Hussain Muhammad Ershad to take over in 1982; he continued till 1990 when he had to resign under pressure from mass protests. Parliamentary elections were held in 1991 in which the widow of General Ziaur Rahman, Khaleda Zia, won and became the first woman prime minister of Bangladesh.

In 1996, Mujib’s daughter -- Hasina Wajed -- defeated Khaleda and formed the government. In 2001, Khaleda won again and continued as PM till 2006 when Hasina boycotted the elections and the army imposed an interim government for two years. Hasina won the elections in December 2008 and became PM in January 2009 and then again in January 2014 when Khaleda Zia boycotted the elections. In 2014, Hasina Wajed has consolidated her power and started prosecuting those involved in war crimes during the 1971 war of independence. Now, she appears to be in control and the army is not directly involved in decision-making.

Myanmar (Burma)

Burma won independence from Great Britain in 1948 and has seen the army as the most powerful power broker in the country. It has never held a single general election that could be termed fair and free. In all elections, the army decides as to who would be forming the next government.

General Ne Win took over power in 1962, imposed one-party rule and remained president for the next two decades. There were anti-army protests in 1970s that were ruthlessly crushed, but probably the worst countrywide agitation took place in 1988 resulting in the takeover by General Saw Maung who changed the country’s name to Myanmar. Relatively free elections were held in May 1990 but when the army realised that the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s party had won almost 80 per cent of the seats, the army refused to acknowledge the popular mandate and continued to rule. Now compare this with Pakistan in 1970 and 1977 when on various pretexts the popular mandate was flouted by the army.

In 2007, Myanmar once again saw public demonstrations that were suppressed with force by the army. In 2008, a constitutional referendum was held apparently for a more ‘organised’ and ‘disciplined’ democracy. This type of bespoke democracy has been a favourite staple of generals from Ayub Khan to Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan and from General Ziaur Rahman to General HM Ershad in Bangladesh.

According to the military sources, the army-drafted constitution was approved by over 90 per cent of the votes with a turnout of 99 per cent. Myanmar held elections under the new constitution in 2010 that were overall considered a fraud by international observers because it once again brought to power an army-sponsored party, Union Solidarity, which claimed to have won around 80 per cent of the votes. In those elections only government sanctioned parties were allowed to contest and the popular National League for Democracy (NLD) was declared illegal.

The new president, Thein Sein, is also a former military commander who took oath in March 2011 and started political reforms such as allowing the NLD to contest by-elections and removing some of the restrictions on freedom of expression and movement of opposition leaders, especially on Suu Kyi. Censorship has been relaxed and trade union formation has been allowed within the labour laws. These changes have been welcomed by the world community, particularly by the USA whose former secretary of state, Hilary Clinton, visited Myanmar; that was the first visit by a secretary of state in 50 years.

In by-elections of April 2012, NLD won 43 of the 45 seats contested. In November 2012, Barack Obama visited Myanmar and then in May 2013, Thein Sein became the first Myanmar president to visit the US White House in 47 years.

Now the situation is that the most popular leader, Suu Kyi, wants to run for president in 2015 but the current constitution bars anybody with a foreign spouse or whose children hold a foreign passport; Suu Kyi’s husband was a British scholar and her children were also born in the UK and hold British citizenship. Now, if a constitutional amendment is not made, the reforms will fall short of delivering the most important result. Contrast this with the Eight Amendment in the Constitution of Pakistan introduced by General Zia to give discretionary powers to the president to dissolve the parliament and dismiss the elected government.


Our third case study is Thailand that has seen 18 constitutions, 20 military coups and 30 prime ministers since 1932. During the past seven decades, both Pakistan and Thailand have remained staunch American allies but Thailand has been a constitutional monarchy.

In the 1980s, General Prem Tinsulanonda served as prime minister for eight years and then other generals continued. It is generally believed that the Thai King and the army are mostly on the same page and reinforce each other and have often been in collusion against the civilian leaders who try to consolidate democracy.

In 1997, a new constitution was drafted by popularly elected constituent assembly and became the first document to be called "people’s constitution". The first elections under the 1997 constitution were held in 2001 and were termed the most open and corruption-free elections in Thai history. Thaksin Shinawatra won the elections and became the first civilian to complete a constitutional four-year term. Now compare this with Pakistan where to date no prime minister has completed a constitutional five-year term (only ZA Bhutto could have completed his five-year term as prime minister had he not called early elections).

In 2005, Thailand had the highest voter turnout in history and Thaksin Shinawatra won a landslide but citing charges of election fraud, the army overthrew the government, abrogated the constitution, dissolved the parliament and the constitution court by declaring martial law. The junta appointed a 250-member legislature dubbed by critics as a ‘chamber of generals.’

Another army manufactured constitution was promulgated and elections were held in December, 2007. Thaksin Shinawatra was in exile but still had popular support so another candidate became PM with his backing. The new PM, Sundaravej, was also not acceptable to the army so in 2008 -- with the army behind it -- the Constitutional Court of Thailand dismissed him on charges of hosting a TV show; media described it as a ‘judicial coup.’ Does it ring a bell when you recall the dismissal of Pakistani PM, Yousuf Raza Gillani, on charges of contempt of court for not writing a letter?

The resultant agitation and blockade by the opposition in 2009 prevented the Chinese PM Wen Jiabao from attending in Bangkok the Fourth East Asia Summit which had to be postponed. Five years later, the Chinese president had to cancel his visit in the wake of a similar blockade in Islamabad.

Yet another general elections had to be held in July 2011 and Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinawatra won by a landslide. Soon troubles were started and finally in May 2014 the Thai army declared martial law for the umpteenth time and suspended the countryconstitution. In August 2014, handpicked military officers elected the army chief, General Prayut Chan-o-cha, as prime minister.

Lessons learnt:

There are at least three lessons to be learnt from these episodes. First, democracy is a long-winded and often exhausting process to be managed; it frequently derails and tends to go off at a tangent, but this should not be taken as an ultimate sign of a failed democracy -- attempts to put it back on track should continue unabated. Second, the army -- be it relatively new and weak as in Bangladesh, or deeply entrenched as in Myanmar -- never lets the seedlings of democracy grow into a budding plant let alone be a strong tree. The knights are never content with what they have and always strive to discourage and suppress any discussions on their own incompetence and sheer lack of professionalism in their predecessors. Rather they become master manipulators to enhance their sphere of influence by undermining democratically-elected institutions in cahoots with state operatives who come through a so-called ‘selection process’ which claims to produce meritorious office bearers.

The third lesson is probably the most important one in the context of Pakistan especially with the formation of military courts at the cost of other judicial courts with civilian supremacy. The political elements should, under no circumstances, be overwhelmed by the demands of non-political forces to surrender their fundamental rights as envisaged by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; no matter how their country’s constitutions are mutilated and amended under pressure from those who want to show quick executions as a sign of improved security, which it seldom is.

Three lessons from three countries