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COVID Appears to Strengthen Militaries’ Grip on Asian Governments

[avatar user=”Subir” size=”thumbnail” align=”left” link=”file” target=”_blank”]SUBIR BHAUMIK[/avatar]

It may be too early to predict a return to military rule in many Asian countries that are fledgling democracies after being ruled by jackboot juntas over long periods of time. But as Asia struggles, like the rest of the world, with the COVID-19 pandemic, militaries in countries such as Myanmar, Indonesia, Thailand or the Philippines are beginning to demand more and more power to fight the virus.

With countries such as Bangladesh calling out the army to handle the virus crisis, and the military leading the government’s response in Pakistan, it is evident that the military’s influence on many Asian nations will increase substantially.

The military’s reassertion has been helped by poor political leaderships, weak institutions and high levels of public mistrust — factors that have delayed or stymied the transition of these countries to democratic governance in the past three decades.

Already a few months into the battle to contain the COVID-19, one has seen countries, that experienced either direct military rule or frequent military interventions, to fall back on the military to lead the battle against the pandemic.

But a more dangerous trend is discernible: democratic governments are faced with an erosion of control because embattled local communities are falling back on their own with localized prevention and protection schemes. This is likely to tempt these governments to roll back decentralisation in a bid to regain state control over communities. This is specially because most of these countries have a history of battling ethnicities which challenged post-colonial nation-states.

That some of the post-military governments are equally repressive and authoritarian and thus lack legitimacy helps bolster the case for a return to greater military control.

Take the example of Bangladesh. Sheikh Hasina’s government has a strong nationalist legacy because her party –founded by her father Mujibur Rahman — led the nation’s struggle for freedom. After Hasina returned to power with a sweeping electoral victory in 2009, she has presided over Bangladesh’s golden decade in economic terms. The country has emerged from a basket-case to one of the fastest growing Asian economies. Hasina deserves credit for providing leadership in pushing for market-friendly reforms and in retaining a level of inclusive growth that produces trickle-down benefits for the poor, something sorely missing in the development paradigm of neighbors India and Myanmar.

But politically, Bangladesh has slipped, its democracy quotient dipping severely. Hasina has always kept the military in good humor, ensuring a huge rise in their UN peacekeeping role that is financially rewarding for officers and men. She has also given them important civilian reconstruction tasks like the Hathirjheel project in Dhaka. She even expanded their business outreach on the Pakistani model. No wonder, Hasina was the first South Asian head of state to call out the army to battle COVID-19 because she is acutely aware of the limited capacity of her administration and the ruling party, where rampant corruption and nepotism during a decade in power have weakened what was once the most formidable grassroots political organizations in the region.

Though a shrewd Hasina has the Generals under control, the army’s leading the battle against COVID will only add to its influence beyond national security issues.

In Pakistan, where COVID-19 has created a huge crisis, a substantial military role in fighting the virus is inevitable. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s party does not have the grassroot reach of either the People’s Party of the Bhuttos or the Muslim League of the Sharif’s. So, dependence on the all-powerful military is inevitable.

The contrast with neighboring India cannot be more glaring. The Indian army has played a strong supportive role in creating capacity to fight the pandemic but the leadership at both federal and state levels has been provided by politicians and bureaucrats. Though Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been faulted for a delayed initial response and a hasty lockdown inflicted huge miseries on the country’s poor, leaders like West Bengal’s Mamata Banerjee, Delhi’s Arvind Kejriwal, and more importantly Kerala’s communist chief minister P. Vijayan, and Maharastra’s Uddhav Thackeray, have stood out in providing leadership. The battle against COVID-19 has been primarily led by the medical fraternity and the civilian bureaucracy.

Contrast India with Indonestia. Like Modi, President Joko Widodo dithered and delayed a firm response to the spread of COVID-19, because he feared social unrest if stiff restrictions on movement were imposed. Then in mid-March, Widodo appointed a former Special Forces chief to lead the government’s task force, even as Lieutenant General Doni Monardo was heading the country’s national disaster agency. The two-star general has close ties with other members of the President’s inner circle, who have military backgrounds.

The Jakarta military commander, Major General Eko Margiyono, was appointed to lead the team in the capital, which has been badly hit by infections, killing more than a dozen doctors. Widodo has often relied on the military to make up for the weak, and often factional, civilian bureaucracy.

The Indonesian military’s reach to the grassroots may help restore the relevance of the central government because many local Governors, Mayors and Heads of communities had started to impose their own lockdowns to fight the virus.

In the Philippines, the lockdown of Manila and other areas in Luzon was quickly enforced by the military and the police. The Philippines army chief Lieutenant General Gilbert I. Gapay said on social media: “As the country’s fight against COVID-19 is expected to impair some of our government services, the Philippine Army is projected to perform functions beyond its major role”.

Many feel that the current situation in Philippines resembles a “a de facto state of martial law, but the president’s office has stated multiple times that the quarantine is not, nor is it leading to, martial law. People were not comforted when President Rodrigo Duterte later said he had “given a go signal” to the military and the police to shoot people violating lockdown orders.

Thailand has experienced uninterrupted military rule since the 2014 coup. Last year’s polls partially restored a parliamentary system of government, but the former army chief who launched the 2014 coup, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, has remained as Prime Minister. His handling of the virus risis so far has been heavily criticized for being too little, too late. But to cover up his inept initial handling, Prayuth has now declared a State of Emergency. But the panel to handle the crisis has hardly any medical expert and is almost filled with military officers.

It is the same story in Myanmar, where the army has recently stifled efforts by the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) to introduce bills in parliament to take the country towards its promised goal of ‘authentic democracy.’

The bitter parliamentary battle, where lawmakers in uniform shot down dozens of bills in two months of bruising legislative showdown, has somewhat shattered the confidence of the civilian-led government of Aung San Suu Kyi. When the government finally woke up to the threat of COVID-19 at the end of March, the response was to form an emergency task force with military officers and one civilian-led ministry social welfare.

That has only reinforced the army’s tight control over the media. It helps the army stifle criticism over human rights violations in Myanmar’s multiple conflict zones. Hundreds of websites and media outlets have been blocked, journalists arrested and media companies hauled up for ‘fake news’. Humanitarian access to conflict-wracked Rakhine State has been barred on grounds of national security.

Across Asia, powerful militaries, once discredited by long years of inept and brutal governance, are beginning to claw their way back to positions of power. They may not be kings again, but surely they will be kingmakers and control the levers of government.

The battle against the virus needed a strong institutional response which in countries with long military rule, only the army was capable of providing. And the men in uniform, long used to power and bothered by the return to democracy, will not miss out on the chance.

(Published under special arrangement with the author. The article was first published in South Asian Monitor and the original article can be read here)

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