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Political Role of the Military in Comparative Perspective

Most of the post-colonial states emerged with constitutional structures inherited from the western democratic models of former colonial powers. Among other things, separation of the legislature, executive and judiciary, popularly elected legislatures, multiparty systems designed to provide a basis for a division between the government and opposition and subservience of the military to civil authorities, were prominent general features of such constitutions (May, Lawson and selochan, 1998: 1). The role of the military was generally seen to lie in defending the country against external aggression, though, of course, “colonial rule left behind armed forces more often oriented towards maintaining internal order than to external defence, and therefore implicity attuned to domestic politics” (May, Lawson and Selochan, 1998). This was evident in states where ethnic cleavages were obvious and where military personnel were recruited from ethnic groups most compliant to colonial policies in Pakistan, for example. Thus the shifts from parliamentary democracy to military rule or military-dominated regimes were not long in coming.

Military intervention in politics is not a recent phenomenon, however. In fact, independent political activities by the military have been widespread and of long-standing. There were 48 independent states in the world at the beginning of the twentieth century. Three more states emerged between 1900 and 1917.32 of century. Three more states emerged between 1900 and 1971. 32 of these states underwent some form of military intervention in their politics. Of the 28 independent states that came into being during the period 1917-1955, 13 of them underwent military rule (Finer 1975: 2) In June 1987 the United Nations Organizations (UNO) had 159 member states and 82 of them (50%) had been under military rule at one stage or the other (Finer 1975: 274).

Extent of Military Intervention – Comparative Data

Military intervention in politics increased all over the Third World since the Second World War and continued upto the middle of 1980’s, but it became endemic in four regions: Latin America, South and South-East Asia, the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa. During that period 13 of the 20 Latin American states (62%), 21 of the 42 African states (50%) and 9 of the 22 South and South-East Asian states (41%) experienced military rule during the period 1958-1973 (Finer 1975: 275) Even Europe was not free from it and 3 of the 18 states (11%) underwent this experience during that period. Taking a longer time frame Gavin Kennedy has shown that as many as 53 successful coup d’etat tookplace in Latin America involving 16 of the 20 states (80%), and 22, 42 and 32 successful coup took place in South and South-East Asia, the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa respectively involving 9, 14 and 25 states during the period 1945-1972 (Kennedy, 1974: 337-344). According to his estimate, there were more than 200 military coup d’etat in those four regions since 1960. The number of coups since 1945 amounted to over 280: there were at least 42 coups in Asia, 86 in Latin America, 62 in the Middle East and 76 in Sub-Saharan Africa (Kennedy, 1974: 45).

If we look at the incidence of such coups year-wise, we find that 20% of all independent states in the world were under military rule in 1961. It rose to 19% in 1966, 27% in 1973 and 29% in 1975 (Margiotta 1976: 214). There was a slight decline of such incidence in the 1980s however, the percentage of states remained under military rule in 1980 being a little less than 24 and in 1984 being 23. The incidence of military coup has begun declining since the mid-1980’s and came down to the lowest level in the 1990’s (Liria 1993; Seitz 1991; Ashkenaz 1994). Having that in view, the number of successful and unsuccessful coups has been recorded in Table 2.1 and 2.2.

There were as many as 317 successful coups during 1945-1985, and including the unsuccessful ones, the total number of coups and coup-attempts were 616 during the period (Table 2.1 and 2.2). Of these, 203 took place in Africa, 208 in Latin America, 113 in Asia, 74 in the Middle East and the rest in Europe. The events of military coup was the highest in the 1950s and the 1960s. the trend is faithfully reflected in the incidence in Latin America where coups began to increase in frequency from the second quarter of the 20th century. The amount of time of time that the presidency in 20 Latin American countries was occupied by the military rose markedly from 28.7% in the decade 1917-1927 to 38.5% in 1927-1977, 49% in 1937-1947 and 45% in 1947-1957% (Huntington, 1962: 33).

The degree of military intervention however varies from country to country and from region to region, and no generalization is possible about its impact on the society. There are states which were subjected to it time and again, and the whole fabric of society was permeated by the military ethos. Iraq, for instance, experienced 7 Coups between 1936 and 1951 and 6 more in 1952, 1958, 1959, 1965, 1966 and 1968 (Finer, 1975). Syria experienced 4 Coups between 1949 and 1952, and another two in 1961 and 1970, excluding another 6 abortive Coups in 1962, 1963 and 1966. Sudan also experienced Coups in 1958, 1959, 1969 and 1984, and two more abortive coups in 1971. In South-East Asia, Thailand is unique in that it underwent 8 coups between 1932 and 1971. In Latin America, however, its incidence was the highest. Kennedy has shown that 4 of the 20 Latin American countries i.e. Bolivia, Paraguay, Honduras and Equador, accounted for almost 50% of military interventions in the region during the period 1960-1972 (Kennedy, 1974: 30). A study of Sub-Saharan Africa between 1960 and 1982 alone recorded 90 plots to overthrow governments, 60 attempted coups, and 50 successful coups (Orkand Corporation quoted in Seitz 1991: 65). Having all these in view Joseph Lapalombara commented in 1977: “Military coups are now so frequent and widespread that they must be considered as significant as elections” (“Foreword” in Nordlinger 1977: X). Janowitz’s statement, some seven years ago, almost in the same vein, speaks of the same thing. He wrote: “The intervention of the military in the domestic politics (of non-western states) is the norm; persistent patterns of civil supremacy are the deviant cases that require special exploration” (Janowitz, 1971: 306).


Looking at the scale or interventions we can conclude that the military constitute an independent political force in the sense that they are a part of the power structure. That the military have intervened in the politics of many and widely diverse countries in the world, and that they have done it in the past and are doing so at present, is indicative of a political phenomenon which is “abiding, deep-seated and distinctive” (Ahamed, 1988: 5). That is precisely the reason why a growing literature has emerged on the military intervention in politics and its impact. The role of the Bengali military personnel in 1971, though expressly political in nature, is distinctive in that it was to create an independent Bangladesh out of East Pakistan and not to take over its administration by displacing civil authorities. In that role the Bengali military were motivated by the nationalistic aspirations of the people of East Pakistan and not by their corporate interests, although, as we will see in Chapter Eight, they were not totally oblivious of these interests in the new state. Of course most military interventions claim to be altruistic, expressing the needs and aspirations of ‘the people’.

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