Dressing Democracy in Uniform
By J. Sri Raman
Wednesday 10 October 2007
Crusaders for "democracy" may be fervent, but are not fanatical. They, in fact, strongly favor considerable dilution of democracy in three clearly defined cases. The quality of democracy, they concede, must be strained when either "terrorism" or "insurgency" has to be countered. South Asia supplies three current and conspicuous examples.
Pakistan provides the first and the best-known example. "Terrorism" cannot but heavily temper the spirit and substance of democracy that Washington can help to restore here. As "democracy" unfolds in this country according to the script written and periodically revised in Washington, everyone knows of the definite limits to which the exercise can proceed.
To go by the script, a great advance in the process has been made with the election of General Pervez Musharraf as president for a second term. True, even a not wildly anti-imperialist Washington Post has been constrained to editorially call the event "Pakistan's Tainted Election." True, he was elected by a legislature without opposition, by provincial assemblies formed under his personal supervision four years after he grabbed power in a military coup. But, the trusted anti-"terror" ally of George W. Bush had to be kept in power, regardless of the rhetoric of people who saw an acute dichotomy between democracy and army uniform.
The script, of course, does not stop here. What is planned, according to pundits, is the enthronement of a "troika" (as the Washington Post calls it). The collective rule by Musharraf (sans uniform but still sure to look "dashing and debonair" according to an admiring official), former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto (set to return home on October 18 and to power in a subsequent general election), and army chief-in-waiting Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani may not, of course, be contradiction-free. The military-civilian mishmash, however, is the anti-"terror" need of the hour.
For New Delhi, the newfound strategic partner of Washington, "insurgency" is the imperative that overrides impractical considerations of democracy in such cases. India's capital has hardly stifled a heavy sigh of relief over Musharraf's re-election.
Sections of political opinion and media, which have worked for a Washington-New Delhi-Islamabad troika against "terrorism," could not but welcome the turn of events. This found an editorial echo in a major Indian daily, the Indian Express, which recalled "the political capital" that New Delhi had invested in Musharraf and referred to the "considerable progress" made over the problem of insurgency-hit Kashmir. Many others, too, harbor the hope for a solution to the vexed problem behind the backs of the State's people through secret parleys conducted in Australia and other places conveniently away from the subcontinent.
"Terrorism" and "insurgency" again have brought the US and India together in the cause of truncated democracy in Bangladesh. Here, too, the declared objective of the army-backed and Washington-supported caretaker regime is to monitor the restoration of democracy meticulously to ensure that neither of the two most popular political parties returns to power through recklessly free elections.
William B. Milam, former US ambassador to Bangladesh and Pakistan, in his frequent newspaper articles, leaves no doubt about Washington's idea of a true democracy in Bangladesh: one minus both the famous "Begums" - former Prime Ministers Sheikh Hasina Wajed and Khaleda Zia - but under military control and, if possible, with a share in the power for parties and personalities close enough to the West and the World Bank.
As eloquent as Milam's words is the silence emanating from India's Ministry of External Affairs about Bangladesh. While Washington's avowed motive in pushing a military-civilian solution here is to save a populous Islamic state from jihadi "terrorism," India's excuse is once again the imperative to counter "insurgency." Mandarins of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government and the media briefed by them make no secret of their belief that a military-controlled Bangladesh will help India counter insurgents in the country's north-east operating out of bases across the border.
The counterinsurgency argument is cited again in defense of India's policy of turning a deaf ear to all-round pleas for a pro-democracy role in relation to Burma. Washington may not talk much of "terrorism" in this context, but the large and lucrative investments of multinational corporations of the West and its allies in the country under a cruel junta's jackboots have brought the Bush administration to a position closely proximate to India's.
Washington has issued well-publicized calls for a pro-democracy role by Burma's neighbors, especially India. But, there are more than faint indications that a totally military-free democracy is not what the Bush administration seeks in Burma, at least in the foreseeable future. Prestigious US journal Foreign Affairs, often perceived as reflecting or influencing opinion in Washington, outlines a possible Burma solution, to be attempted under American leadership in its issue for November-December 2007. The article by Michael Green and Derek Mitchell says: "One way to proceed would be for Washington to lead the five key parties - ASEAN, China, India, Japan and the United States - in developing a coordinated international initiative and putting forth a public statement of the principles that underlie their vision for a stable and secure Burma."
The article adds: "The five partners should develop a road map with concrete goalposts that lays out both the benefits that the SPDC (State Peace and Development Council, the Orwellian name the junta has given itself) would enjoy if it pursued true political reform and national reconciliation and the costs it would suffer if it continued to be intransigent."
Significantly, the article says: "One purpose of such a road map would be to reassure the SPDC of regional support for Burma's territorial integrity and security and demonstrate the five parties' commitment to provide, under the appropriate conditions, the assistance necessary to ensure a better future for the country. This would be an important guarantee given the Burmese military's traditional paranoia."
Meanwhile, there are other indications that a military-civilian halfway house will be the destination in the "roadmap" instead of full democracy for Burma. According to some knowledgeable sources, popular pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is to be given a part akin to Benazir Bhutto's in the unfolding plot. Burmese dictator Than Shwe has reportedly agreed to talk to her if she drops support for anti-Burma sanctions and she is said to have reacted positively. If the initiative succeeds, it may mean an end to her house arrest, but not yet the Burmese people's liberation.
A freelance journalist and a peace activist in India, J. Sri Raman is the author of Flashpoint" (Common Courage Press, USA). He is a regular contributor to Truthout.