By Imaan Mazari-Hazir
December 11, 2018
The military in Myanmar holds commercial interests in a wide range of sectors, from banking to textiles; from breweries to jade and ruby mines. It also has immense political control, with the Constitution setting aside a quarter of the seats in Parliament for the military, and due to its commercial interests. Moreover, it has embedded itself within the bureaucratic system, mainly through the General Administration Department. In 2017, Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan, a contributor to a 2015 Transparency International report, was quoted in the Financial Times as saying: “Despite the political changes in Myanmar, the military remains solidly in control, and its books are still closed to public scrutiny”.
A similar sort of control and influence is exercised by the military in Pakistan’s political landscape, owing to the concurrent expansion in its economic and political control. Of such enormous strength is this control that in the latter half of 2014, former Defence Minister, Khawaja Asif, gave a statement saying: “What comes out from the army is ultimately one opinion… they have supported democracy”. This was during the dharna days when there was news circulating of former COAS Raheel Sharif resisting internal military pressure to expedite the resignation of former premier, Nawaz Sharif.
What is the worrying aspect of the statement of the former Defence Minister? That in order for democracy to avoid being derailed, the COAS must find the continuation of democracy an endeavour worth supporting. This has, however, been the case throughout Pakistan’s history: military dictators have overthrown elected governments and the peoples’ mandate has been constantly stolen from them over unsubstantiated allegations of threats to national security and corruption. Brick by brick, the army has laid the foundations for its involvement in Pakistan’s politics, with complete impunity for their violations of the Constitution.
For the bulk of Pakistan’s history, it has been generals who have determined what is “best” for the country. These generals steer clear of the need to bother with what they consider mere obstacles to efficient administration, such as due process, fair trial, free and fair elections or the right to freedom of association and expression. They have constructed an empire that has allowed them to govern even when they are not in government.
There are three major ways in which the Pakistani security establishment has been able to establish its hegemony and unrivalled political power: the first two reasons underpinning the success of the third. First, through the strengthening of formal institutional structures of the military and paramilitary, whilst simultaneously weakening civilian democratic structures, principally the Parliament. Second, through the establishment of welfare foundations (Army Welfare Trust, Air Force Foundation, Bahria Foundation, etc) and increasing involvement in large-scale corporate ventures (including inter alia in the oil, gas, cement, education, IT and power sectors). Third, by engaging in a ruthless campaign of silencing and discrediting activists, journalists, academics, human rights defenders, students or anyone even remotely critical of their hegemony: in sum, through propaganda warfare.
In 2007, Ayesha Siddiqa gave a talk in which she elaborated upon two key examples of the security establishment’s economic power and how it inherently feeds it’s political influence. First, while giving the example of Shahrah-e-Faisal, she noted that there are military installations and cantonments on both sides of the road. Thus, the billboards that are erected on the roads are given out by senior officers: an illustration of using state land and resources for commercial gain. Second, she highlighted the army’s National Logistics Cell (NLC) and Frontier Works Organization (FWO), both of which serve as major financial assets to the security establishment.
In addition to these organizations, the military has ensured it has diversified businesses, owning bakeries and gas stations, and even producing cereal and cement. Many of these assets and commercial enterprises, though disguised as working for the welfare for soldiers, escape transparency entirely. Therefore, any assessments of the following can only be estimated: the real value of military assets, the number of state assets used by the military for purely commercial purposes, and the revenue and profit generation of military-owned enterprises.
This is problematic for two major reasons. First, it allows an arm of the state to capitalize on the use of state resources while avoiding any sort of accountability and transparency for this use. Why is this harmful for the country? Take the example of oil companies in the Niger Delta, which operate with impunity despite their documented negative impact on the lives and environment of the inhabitants of the Delta. With a state institution holding such economic influence, the power for exploitation is even greater because the state, by its very nature, has a monopoly of power.
Second, there is an inevitable growth in political power exercised by those who hold such massive economic interests in the country. Again, taking the example of oil companies in the Niger Delta, these companies are able to collude with the State in eliminating human rights activists and groups who challenge their harmful impact on local communities. As mentioned above, when a state institution holds this kind of economic clout, one can only imagine the political mechanisms available to it for silencing any discussion or critique of these ventures, no matter how detrimental their impact may be on the democratic system within the country.
Even conservative estimates illustrate that the military’s corporate ventures have an approximate value of over $25 billion: in 2016, our senators were informed that the Pakistani military holds assets worth $20 billion. In any country in the world, such economic power concentrated in the hands of a single arm of the state would be extremely worrying but in a poor country like Pakistan, with a faltering and unstable democracy, this situation is even more alarming.
It is basic political and economic theory, seen so clearly around the world whenever power structures are examined, that he who pays the piper calls the tune. If Pakistan ever wishes to evolve and progress, offering its people opportunities, economic stability and securing their fundamental human rights, such unfettered economic and political control of the military elite must be checked.
Imaan Mazari-Hazir is a lawyer