Role of the Military in Asian Democracies - Seminar 
AN IDC Report 

New Delhi, 28 March 2001

Asia News Network (ANN), a group of Newspapers of South East and South Asia, organized its Regional Conference in Delhi on 17 March 2001, in collaboration with Konrad Adenaeur Foundation, on the topical subject of ‘Role of the Military in Asian Democracies’. The entire show was hosted and coordinated by the Statesman group. The atmosphere in Delhi was already heavy with the ‘tehelka expose’ a few days earlier and India had no Defence Minister. The gathering at the Vigyan Bhavan’s main hall was large as most were eager to know what the Prime Minister Vajpayee would say in his keynote address. It turned out to be an illuminating but controversial day. Besides the foreign participants, the audience included many former Service Chiefs and retired Services officers, Defence Attaches including those from Pakistan, media personalities and analysts. The dais sported prominent speakers from India and South East Asia –– this region has more military rulers than democracies –– but the organizers hogged the show and did not allow enough time for questions from the floor.

IDC found it very rewarding because the definition of democracy itself was debated at length. It varied from what India perceives it to be to what Singapore ordains it to be. The Philippines described democracy to be ‘People Power’ –– the toppling of two Presidents, Marcos and Estrada, with military support but without bloodshed. A consensus on the overall role of the military besides the most accepted task of guarding the frontiers was therefore not forthcoming, but there were excellent pointers on what the Defence Forces would be required to do in the 21st century. Most speakers felt that transparency must be the order of the day for the Armed Forces.

Mr. Ravindra Kumar, the Director and Managing Editor of Statesman, opened the Conference and explained the working of the Asia News Network. The 10 leading Asian Newspapers –– The Korea Herald, Philippine Daily Inquirer, The Star of Malaysia, Straits Times of Singapore, The Jakarta Post, The National China Daily and Viet Nam News and so on, share their analyses and data on the Net. He even told the PM who walked in slowly, that he might find himself on the headlines in the East earlier than even in India, if a story had broken and the Eastern papers decided it was a headline stealer. He then invited him to deliver the keynote address.

Vajpayee’s theme was to glorify the Armed Forces, but he cautioned that they should remain apolitical and not get involved in other issues of the State, as that is what democracy is all about. He termed it the ‘will of the people’ and an ideal form of governance. He however specified that the Armed Forces must be accountable to the Government of the day and interact with it on important concerns of security. He then shifted to terrorism and extolled the problems and challenges that this new menace posed. The PM left soon after his address and did not join at the tea break. There was little new in his speech or anything of substance which one could analyse. It was Indiacentric with highlights on terrorism and understandably without any reference to the ‘tehelka’ affair, defence procurement or any reference to the world politics of Kosovo and NATO etc.

The first session was intellectual in nature and full of stargazing titled, "The Military in the 21st Century". Lt Gen Pongthep Tesprateep, Asstt Chief of Staff for Operations in Royal Thai Army presented the theme paper. His thread was to explain the post cold war developments and admit that for quite some time USA will remain the sole super power in the world arena. Unlike what PM Vajpayee had said, the Thai General propounded that the Military has a role other than purely the defence of the country. He felt that the military had a role in terms of development and to prevent internal bloodshed, as some eight years ago there was a revolt in his country and the Army was deployed. Then the civilian in him switched to the effect of globalisation on the Military and so RMA came out loud and clear. He highlighted the two issues at length. He also touched on NMD and Theatre Missile Defence of USA in passing but did not elaborate.

In the discussion papers it came out that military-civil understanding was a bugbear, which the militaries faced in the developing countries and hence their role got diffused. It was just the opposite in the West, which is becoming NATO-centric and Europe is planning combined forces to assist the national governments as it did in Kosovo. To join NATO the new nation applicants must be democratic and have free market economies. This is the change that is being forced upon the East European States, which Russia is opposing.

The subject shifted to the unipolar world and roles of USA, the UN and of militaries in peacekeeping. As for USA, Gen Powell has articulated his doctrine where he has argued that US troops should not be used where US interests are not served. If military forces are to be used in peacekeeping or war avoidance, then Powell wanted the definition of how long the military should be employed, to be worked out. He also advocated no piecemeal usage implying large application of force. It was questioned but accepted that this may be policy as long as USA is the sole super power, in spite of what Madeline Albright had said, "What is the use of a powerful military which cannot be used". One could see the signs of USA being the leader in the technology of military fighting in the 21st century, where militaries will have to fight smarter if not harder. Again it was RMA and reduction in force strength.

In the second session on the subject of ‘Role of the Military in Asia’, Mak Joon Num a well-known researcher explained that Asian democracies are not true democracies but self-styled democracies. He explained the Total Defence Concept of Singapore and to some extent Malaysia. Dwi Fungsi and Abri Masuk Desa of Indonesia had stressed the need for the military to contribute to development of character and nation building by being involved in national affairs, quite opposite to what PM Vajpayee had held out. He then explained how retired senior military officers in Malaysia and Singapore were inducted into Government and supported it with the regional military policies. Malaysia he said had laid down self- reliance, regional co-operation and external assistance with deterrence as its hallmark. On Indonesia he was most uncertain and said the military had a role in Parliament and the running of the country but it had been curtailed so he saw trouble ahead. His paper was illuminating but careful in not passing judgments on other nations.

Lt Gen Nambiar Director USI began by colouring the map of West, South and East Asian nations in dark red, pink and blue to represent their democratic traditions and concluded that there were more non-democratic nations (red) in Asia, mainly in West Asia. This turned the tables, as most red nations on the map were Islamic and it was suggested he may like to recolour the same map by religious beliefs and may get close to the same colour combination. Nambiar extolled India’s as a role model Army, which had fought and won wars but conceded it had not contributed to nation building. When asked if the Indian Army could contribute to national development, he said it was already overstretched. He stressed the military’s role in UN peace keeping.

In the last session on the ‘Role of the Military in Society’, Gen Jose T Almote, a former National Security Adviser, spoke about Philippines and people power. He gave examples of various countries and varied approaches. In the case of Philippines he was clear that if the President lost the will of the people to govern, the military had the right to intervene. This was argued out but no conclusions were reached. By now the hall wore a depleted look and in sum it came out that:

  1. There will be down sizing of Armies.

  2. Transparency will be demanded from the Armed Forces of Asia and more civilian control will ensue.

  3. Each nation will have to determine its civil and military relations.

  4. UN operations vis-a-vis NATO and the European Rapid Reaction Force will see dynamic changes.

  5. RMA is the order of the day and Militaries will have fight smarter as the effects of technology will be all pervading. USA is still the leader and will be a unipolar power.

  6. There was no consensus on Democracy as that depended on the culture of the people.

This conference came at an interesting time when the above aspects were being looked into in India and the world over. In UK, the Armed Forces are going all out to help the Government contain the disastrous foot and mouth disease, which may cost the country some US$1 billion. In Russia Sergei Ivanov, a civilian and earlier National Security Adviser, very close to Brajesh Mishra India's NSA, has taken over as the Defence Minister from a serving General and the Minister for Atomic Energy Adamvov, who visited India has also been changed.

In India Arun Singh, Security Adviser to the Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh has the added responsibility of becoming the all powerful Adviser Defence to the Defence Minister and this time Jaswant Singh will take some senior Service officers along to USA to discuss security. All this augurs well for the changes in thinking in India, just when structural changes for a CDS, Inspector General of the Army and Commander Strategic Forces are in the air.

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