Military coups: A 20th century phenomenon
The 20th century was the era of military coups — mostly in developing countries in Asia, Africa and South America.
The phenomenon was largely associated with the dynamics of the erstwhile Cold War — a conflict fought by proxy between the time’s two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union.
Military coups were prominent instruments used by the superpowers to initiate a rapid regime change in countries where a government was perceived to have become a threat to the regional, political and economic interests of the major powers.
Ideology too played a role, but it was only tributary compared to interests which were related more to the realpolitik of the Cold War.
Both the superpowers used their intelligence agencies to infiltrate the politics and militaries of various regimes; they funded and helped plan military coups and then the regimes which came to power through these coups.
The US was most successful in this respect. It backed and funded a number of military coups across Asia, Africa and South America. It then sustained rigid military dictatorships because they were seen as barriers against leftist revolutions, which (as these did in Cuba, Angola and Nicaragua), had the tendency to largely tilt towards the ‘Soviet camp.’
Some of the most brutal coups backed by the US (in South America) took place in Guatemala, Chile, Argentina, Brazil and El Salvador. All were against regimes perceived by the US to have been leftist and allegedly ‘working to establish Soviet influence in South America.’
The ploy to use coups to topple regimes which were perceived to have been sliding towards the Soviet Camp (and thus threatening regional and economic interests of the US and other major western powers) was also used in Asia.
A left-leaning nationalist regime elected in Iran in 1952, and which had sidelined the Iranian monarchy and begun a project to nationalise American and British oil companies in the country, was systematically toppled in a US and UK backed coup d’etat in 1953.
The US used its intelligence agencies and Iranian agents among the pro-monarchy sections of the Iranian military and society; and, ironically, also utilised the services of a large number of Iranian religious leaders, to whip-up protests against the nationalist regime. It then used this pretext to topple the government in a military coup.
In Indonesia, the US had been funding the opponents of Indonesian nationalist leader and president, Sukarno, because, though a nationalist, he was seen as being close to the large Indonesian Communist Party.
In 1965, when the communist party, frustrated by the slow reforms of the regime, tried to overthrow Sukarno with the help of left-leaning military officers; a stronger pro-US faction of the military intervened, and unleashed members of radical religious outfits to commit massacres and large scale atrocities against the communists and their sympathisers.
Thousands of Indonesians perished in the commotion before the pro-US Indonesian military chief, General Suharto, toppled the regime in a military coup.
In 1971, the staunchly anti-communist and pro-US dictator of Thailand, Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn, carried out a purge within the Thai military after facing protests against his regime on the streets. He believed that certain pro-Soviet officers were planning a coup against his regime.
Another US-backed coup took place in Thailand in 1976 when a movement headed by pro-Soviet and pro-China student groups turned violent. They were brutally crushed by the coup leaders.
US also directly facilitated two military coups in South Korea (1961 and 1979), thwarting any attempt of a dialogue between South Korea and the communist dictatorship in North Korea.
The violent 1975 coup in Bangladesh is alleged to have been backed by the US, but no conclusive evidence of this has ever surfaced.
However, though the coup (against a nationalist regime) faced a counter-coup (by left-leaning officers), this coup too was neutralised by yet another counter-coup which brought to power a pro-US military regime.
Declassified documents (in the US) suggest that the US backed the 1958 military coup in Pakistan because a pro-Soviet leftist party, the NAP, was expected to win the 1959 election.
Various political historians in Pakistan have also suggested that in 1977, the US helped facilitate a right-wing movement against the populist regime of ZA Bhutto and support a coup against him because he had refused to stop Pakistan’s nuclear program. No clear-cut evidence of this has so far surfaced, though.
The US was also instrumental in backing military coups in Africa. But coups, especially in central Africa, became so frequent and chaotic, that both the Soviet Union and the US largely decided to leave alone such countries because they didn’t quite have the resources or regional importance to play a significant role in the Cold War.
The most notorious US-backed coup in Africa took place in 1960 in the Republic of Congo against the popular nationalist (and left-leaning) president, Patrice Émery Lumumba, after he had asked the Soviet Union for aid and expertise.
But it wasn’t always about ousting regimes which were seen as moving towards the Soviet camp. The US also backed coups against regimes which were installed by the American government itself!
In 1963, the US government approved a coup against its main man in South Vietnam, Ngô Đình Diệm, who was leading the fight against Soviet-backed North Vietnam troops and the communist Viet Cong guerrillas. The US deemed Diem’s regime unfit to control the ‘communist menace’ and the turmoil in South Vietnam.
In Turkey too (a country which was part of the US-led Nato alliance), military coups (especially in 1960, 1971 and 1980) were quietly backed by the US. Reasons to support coups against pro-US regimes here was the fear that Turkey was floundering as an ally (in 1960); and was gripped by leftist militancy (1971; 1980).
Compared to US-backed coups during the Cold War, coups backed by the Soviet Union were less in number, mainly due to the Soviet policy of attempting regime change by funding and backing revolutionary movements and militancy.
For example, not a single military coup was backed by the Soviet Union in South America where the Soviets instead, largely concentrated on funding leftist guerrilla movements and left-leaning regimes.
The Soviet Union’s first backing of a coup took place in a European country when in 1945, the Soviet Union facilitated the communist party and the military of Romania to eliminate all opposition and establish a communist dictatorship in the country.
The Soviets repeated this in 1948 in Czechoslovakia.
Though the Soviet Union was not involved in backing nationalist coups in Syria, Egypt and Iraq in the 1950s and 1960s, the regimes which came to power following the coups all came under Soviet influence.
No evidence has surfaced about Soviet involvement in the 1969 military coup in Libya as well, but Libya decided to follow Egypt, Syria and Iraq’s lead to move into the Soviet sphere of influence.
The same is true about the 1962 and 1965 coups in Algeria, a country which opted to have closer ties with the Soviet Union.
However, there is evidence that the military coup which took place in Burma in 1962 did have Soviet (and Chinese) backing.
There is also evidence of Soviet involvement in the 1974 coup in Ethiopia which overthrew the country’s monarch. Soviet involvement was also present in two further coups which finally established a leftist military junta in Ethiopia in 1977.
The Soviet Union’s last major foray into using the ploy of enforcing a regime change through a coup d’etat came in Afghanistan.
It backed a nationalist coup in 1974 against the Afghan monarchy, and then facilitated a leftist military coup in 1978 when the nationalist government agreed to accept US aid and assistance.
Outside of Asia, South America and Africa, not many coups took place in Europe. We have seen that the Soviet Union was involved in facilitating two coups in Europe; however, the US too backed a coup in the continent. The 1967 right-wing military coup in Greece was initially backed by the CIA.
After the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, military dictatorships began to be replaced by democratic set-ups. Military coups became extremely rare.
Thwarted: Military coup attempts neutralised by popular uprisings
A study of successful military coups in the 20th century suggests that they were frequent; yet, the amount of coups which failed actually outnumbers the ones which succeeded.
However, very few of them failed due to widespread popular opposition.
In 1961, a group of former generals of the French army who had served in the then French colony of Algeria, planned to topple the government of Charles de Gaulle through a military coup.
Gaulle had planned to give Algeria its independence after a bloody war had raged there between French troops and Algerian nationalists.
The generals with the help of sympathetic officers and soldiers planned to gain control of the troops serving in Algeria and then take-over Paris with the help of paratroopers dropped over France’s strategically located airfields.
In April, troops loyal to the plotters took control of several battalions in Algeria and arrested pro-Gaulle ministers. Then, from a clandestine radio station in Spain, the plotters announced that they have taken control of the French army stationed in Algeria.
The very next day, Gaulle, who was a World War-II hero, appeared on French TV and radio and appealed to the people and the military to resist the coup attempt.
The first to respond were members and supporters of left-wing parties who appeared on the streets and denounced the coup attempt. This was followed by a strike called by the country’s largest trade unions. Members of the French intelligentsia and civil society too came out and denounced the coup attempt.
Civilian demonstrations and the fact that Gaulle’s address was also heard by troops stationed in Algeria, convinced the troops to not follow the path taken by the plotters.
On April 16, the coup was crushed.
Soon after, one of France’s leading newspapers, L’Express claimed that the coup had the backing of the American CIA who was perturbed by Algeria’s independence because they believed it would lead to a pro-Soviet government in Algiers. It did lead to that.
In 1973, Colonel George Papadopoulos, who in 1967, had taken-over power in a military coup in Greece, abolished the Greek monarchy. Greece had been a constitutional monarchy.
Ironically, when Papadopoulos and fellow colonels had taken over power in 1967, the king had refused to order any action against the coup-makers.
The coup was backed by the American CIA who had alarmingly seen the coming into power of an elected centre-left regime in Greece.
However, the conduct of the military junta in Greece was such that US President, Lyndon B. Johnson, asked the Greek king to use generals loyal to him to launch a counter-coup. The counter-coup failed and the king went into exile.
But Greece remained to be a monarchy, though now without a parliament, and under the control of a military junta, which, being a product of staunchly conservative ideas, needed the traditional moorings of a monarchy in their scheme of things.
But in 1973, when the economy began to buckle and Papadopoulos became president through a bogus referendum, he launched a purge within the military and abolished the monarchy.
He then sent in troops to a university in Athens to crush a left-wing students’ protest. Military tanks crashed in through the gates. The chaos which followed saw a military general, who was part of the regime, organise a counter-coup which toppled Papadopoulos.
Plotters of the counter-coup accused Papadopoulos of being weak and not able to safeguard the ideals of the 1967 coup.
When Turkey invaded neighboring Cyprus which was also close to Greece, many top military officers withdrew their support from the coup, and civilians poured out on the streets denouncing the coup and demanding a return to democracy.
In 1974, the coup collapsed and democracy returned to Greece.
In 1990, a hardline group in the ruling Soviet Communist Party and the KGB, who were radically opposed to the liberalisation policies of Soviet head of state, Mikhail Gorbachev, received intelligence that they were to be replaced by those more sympathetic to Gorbachev’s reforms.
A veteran member of the Communist Party, Gennady Yanayev, used the KGB to put Gorbachev under house arrest. He then announced a state of emergency and alerted troops in Moscow.
Yanayev also ordered the arrest of Soviet president, Boris Yeltsin — a former communist who had become a vocal advocate of political and economic reform.
Yeltsin managed to evade arrest and reach the Soviet parliament building.
Here, he appealed to the military and the people to resist the coup, and guarantee Gorbachev’s release.
Military tanks began to roll towards the parliament building. But then so did groups of civilians. The people began to erect a barricade around the building.
In the evening, the military declared a curfew. This was taken as a sign that soldiers were planning to launch a siege and force their way into the building.
A crowd set fire to a military vehicle; and when the troops stationed outside the building received orders to attack it, they did not comply. The coup eventually collapsed. Yeltsin emerged from the parliament and spoke to the crowds from atop a tank which had refused to fire.
After the failed coup attempt, the Soviet Union broke up.
In 2002, the socialist government of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela was removed by a military coup.
Days before the coup attempt, political parties opposed to the socialist policies of the Chavez government had organised a huge rally. The rally marched towards the presidential palace where it clashed with the supporters of the regime.
Gunfire was exchanged between the two groups and 19 people were left dead. The military approached Chavez and asked him to resign. Saying he was an elected president, Chavez refused.
He was arrested and taken to an unknown location. The people were told that Chavez had resigned and asked for political asylum in Cuba.
The military installed a prominent opponent of Chavez, Pedro Carmono, as interim president. He dissolved the national assembly and the country’s Supreme Court. He also declared the 1999 constitution void.
His announcement was not taken well by impoverished families residing in the slums of Venezuela’s capital. They had been Chavez’s main constituency.
Thousands of slum dwellers began to march towards the presidential palace where Carmono had settled with his cabinet.
Many Chavez supporters also besieged the television channels owned and run by opposition parties, and occupied them.
This was when members of the presidential guard surrounded the palace and demanded the return of Chavez. Carmono escaped and left the country. The coup collapsed and Chavez returned to power.
It is interesting to note that in 1992, when Chavez was a member of the military, he had attempted to pull off a military coup which had failed. He was arrested and thrown in jail. After his release, he became a politician and was elected as president in 1999.
*A military coup attempt was thwarted by a popular uprising in Turkey recently. Details of the event are still sketchy and scarce to be elaborated here.
The one that got away
There has been only one incident in which a military coup was launched to establish a democratic set-up.
In the 1920s, a strictly conservative dictatorship which worked closely with the Catholic Church was established in Portugal after a successful coup d’etat. The military chose an economist, Antonio Salazar, to head the government and he managed to rule for 36 years!
Salazar was vehemently anti-communist, a staunch Catholic and authoritarian. He also refused to let go of Portugal’s colonies in Africa even during the post-World-War-II decolonisation period.
During his watch, thousands of opponents were arrested, tortured and killed by the Portuguese secret police. Though quietly backed by the US, American opinion began to exhibit concern when incidents of torture and killings increased.
In 1965, US president, Lyndon B. Johnson, suggested that Salazar introduce some minor reforms. Salazar allowed some political activities and elections, but was able to keep opposition parties at bay through intimidation and arrests.
In 1968, Salzar died from a stroke. But the dictatorship continued and a protégé of his, Marcello Caetano, became the new prime minister. He tried to accelerate some of the political reforms, but then pulled them back after they triggered a few protest rallies.
He then began to reassert Salazar’s authoritarian policies which saw a fresh round of arrests, tortures and killings. Meanwhile, as liberation movements in Portuguese colonies in Africa became violent, more and more young Portuguese men were conscripted in to the army and sent to Africa to fight. Many returned in body bags.
But Caetano refused to grant independence to the colonies. Resentment against this policy began to grow among the junior officers who were serving in Africa. Also, thousands of Portuguese men began to move to other European countries to avoid being conscripted.
In 1972, a group of junior military officers who had served in Africa, formed a clandestine group called the Armed Forces Movement. Most of its members were secret communists. They began to plot a military coup to overthrow the decades-long dictatorship.
Two years later, in 1974, the coup plot was in place. To alert the rebel majors, captains and soldiers, a signal was devised. It was a popular song that was to be played from a radio station.
On April 24, the song was played at midnight, signaling the beginning of the coup. Soldiers and tanks moved in and within six hours they had taken over strategic buildings in the country’s main cities.
The coup was announced on the radio by the coup-makers. Thousands of men, women and children poured out on to the streets and greeted the soldiers. The government collapsed.
A military junta was formed under a sympathetic general. It was to announce widespread socialist reforms and also withdraw Portuguese troops from Africa.
The junta lasted for little more than a year, even though a split occurred in it between radical communists and moderate socialists. The moderates prevailed.
In April 1975 elections were announced and the political parties were allowed to participate freely. Junta leaders withdrew and handed power to the elected representatives.
Pakistan: Fallen horses
Much has been written about the four successful military coups in Pakistan (1958; 1969; 1977 and 1999). But there were at least four more attempts. These ones, however, failed.
Details about the failed attempts have only come out slowly, so much so, that still very little is known about them.
The first such attempt was made in 1951 (against the civilian but semi-democratic regime of Liaquat Ali Khan). The attempt was led by Major-General Akbar Khan.
Akbar Khan had been a hero in Pakistan’s first war against India over the Kashmir issue in 1948. The war had ended in a stalemate after the United Nations (UN) intervened. Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan had accepted the UN’s peace plan.
Akbar Khan was furious. He was an admirer of Turkey’s secular-nationalist and modernist leader, Kamal Ataturk. In 1950, when the outgoing military chief of Pakistan, General Douglas Gracey (a Briton), was handing over the reins of the military to its new chief, Ayub Khan, he told him that Akbar was part of a group of Young Turks in the army and should be watched.
Young Turks was an outfit which Ataturk had belonged to before overthrowing the Ottoman regime in Turkey in the 1920s.
Akbar Khan’s wife was close to the country’s left-wing intelligentsia. She was thus, also on very good terms with the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP).
When Akbar Khan began to talk about a nationalist coup against the Liaquat regime with some sympathetic officers, his wife suggested that the CPP be brought on board as well.
It was through her that Akbar contacted some leading CPP members, who included author and Marxist ideologue, Sajjad Zaheer, and famous Urdu poet and journalist, Faiz Ahmed Faiz.
Though Akbar had insisted that his coup would be nationalistic in essence, he asked the CPP to help him mobilise the masses (through the party’s trade and labour unions). He also agreed to carry out socialist reforms (after the coup).
Twelve military officers, three members of the CPP, and Akbar’s become the core group which was to navigate the coup.
The plan was to take over strategic state and government buildings and the radio stations, with the help of rebel battalions and regiments, and arrest the military chief.
Then Liaquat Ali Khan was to be forced to resign and hand over power to a revolutionary military junta.
But the coup plan collapsed when one of Akbar Khan’s confidants, a police officer, leaked the plan to the government.
Eleven military officers and four civilians were arrested, including Akbar’s wife. The wife was, however, released, but Akbar, along with all other officers and two civilians were given long jail sentences. Sajjad Zaheer was sent back to India from where he had arrived in 1948 to organise the CPP.
The jailed men were released six years later in 1957.
The second such attempt which was foiled was made in 1973 against the government of Z A. Bhutto.
Bhutto’s left-leaning and populist Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) had come to power in December 1971 after East Pakistan separated and became an independent country. The PPP had swept the 1970 elections in West Pakistan.
The coup plan was hatched by a group of officers who had actually paved the way for Bhutto to come to power. After a vicious civil war between the Pakistan army and militant Bengali nationalists saw East Pakistan become Bangladesh, these officers forced the end of the Yahya Khan dictatorship.
They asked the general to resign and hand over power to Bhutto, unless he wanted to be removed by an officer’s coup. Yahya resigned.
However, weary of ‘activist officers,’ the Bhutto regime began to systematically remove them from the scene by dismissing them.
Enraged by the ploy, and believing that officers who had been weak and corrupt during the East Pakistan war were being retained, the rebel group began to plot a coup d’etat against Bhutto with the help of sympathetic officers and soldiers.
One of the leading plotters was Brigadier F B. Ali. He had originally been a Bhutto supporter, and one of the officers who had forced Yahya to resign.
He turned against the Bhutto regime after it began to dismiss many of his colleagues. In 1972, the regime dismissed him from the army as well.
Noticing that the regime’s actions had created resentment among many officers, Brig. Ali, along with Major Farouk Adam Khan, Squadron Leader Ghous, Colonel Aleem Afridi and Lt. Colonel Tariq Rafi began plotting a coup to oust Bhutto.
It is not known what sort of a government they were planning to install as a replacement, but evidence has surfaced suggesting that they were looking to set up a revolutionary military junta populated by officers who would also see the removal of the generals elevated by Bhutto.
Colonel Afridi quietly backed out from the plan and then informed the military’s top leadership about it. The conspirators were arrested, court martialed and jailed.
Ironically, the court martial proceedings were conducted by a junior general called Ziaul Haq.
Four years later, he was made the army chief by Bhutto. In July 1977, he toppled Bhutto in a military coup.
The next failed coup attempt came in 1980. This was against the reactionary Ziaul Haq dictatorship which itself was established through a 1977 military coup.
This attempt was led by Tajammul Hussain Malik, a two-star general in the Pakistan army.
One of the few heroes to emerge from the 1971 East Pakistan debacle, Malik was forcefully retired in 1973 by a military tribunal headed by Ziaul Haq during the trial against officers who had attempted a coup against the ZA Bhutto regime.
Though it is believed that Malik was not directly involved in the 1973 plot, after being forcefully retired, he did plot a coup four years later against the then floundering Bhutto regime in June 1977.
The coup plan was aborted when Malik could not gather enough support from serving officers. A month later, Zia toppled Bhutto and declared martial law.
Malik, however, returned to the scene in 1980, this time to plot a coup against the Zia regime. He managed to bag the backing of some senior officers, including his son, and planned to assassinate Zia during the Pakistan Republic Day parade on March 23, 1980.
The plan was to eradicate Zia and install a radical military junta which would replace Zia’s ‘fake Islamic regime’ with ‘a genuine one.’ It is not known what a ‘genuine Islamic regime’ meant to the plotters.
However, the plot was leaked shortly before going into implementation, and the plotters were all arrested. They were given stern jail sentences, including life imprisonment. They were released in 1988 after the demise of Ziaul Haq and the election of Benazir Bhutto as prime minister.
Four years later, in 1984, Zia faced another coup attempt. This time it came from the left. The plot had its roots in 1982 in Lahore when two majors in the Pakistan army, one (of them Major Aftab), met with lawyer, philosopher and Marxist ideologue, Raza Kazim at his residence.
Kazim had been in jail a year before for authoring a pamphlet against Ziaul Haq. The majors began expressing their disgruntlement towards the Zia regime, but did not inform him that they were planning to organise a coup against him.
The majors, along with a member of the Pakistan progressive intelligentsia, Ali Mehmood, continued to secretly meet Raza. He was also contacted by Mustafa Khar, a former minister in the ZA Bhutto regime (1971-77), and a senior member of the PPP. He had flown into exile to the UK after Zia’s 1977 coup.
Khar informed Kazim that the majors could be trusted and requested him to help them bring down Zia. Kazim was asked (by the majors) to talk to some other anti-Zia officers about history, philosophy and politics.
In late 1982, Khar and Major Aftab told Kazim that they were collecting funds to organise exiled Pakistani activists in the UK. They told him that the money would also be used to whip up protests against the Zia dictatorship in Pakistan.
Kazim was a successful lawyer, and he agreed to hand them Rs. 20,000. In total, he gave the plotters over Rs. 90,000. This is when he was eventually told that all this was being done to plan a coup d’etat against the Zia regime.
Decades later, Kazim told the Pakistan monthly magazine, Herald, that the plotters were planning to topple Zia and establish a populist military regime (headed by Major Aftab).
Khar had suggested to the plotters that Kazim be given an important post in the new regime and be made its main ideologue.
But the plotters suddenly discontinued their interaction with Kazim. He was already having second thoughts about the whole plan because he thought Major Aftab was a megalomaniac who saw himself as being some sort of a messiah.
It was only a year later, in 1984, that Kazim realised that the coup had been planned but was nipped in the bud by military spooks. All the conspirators were arrested, including Kazim. Khar was still in the UK.
They were all given heavy jail sentences, but were released in 1988 by the first Benazir Bhutto regime.
It is not known exactly how the plotters had planned to pull off the coup and how many officers were involved. But according to Kazim, over 500 military officers and soldiers were interrogated.
The last of the failed coup attempts was made in 1995 against the second Benazir Bhutto regime. It included a group of officers who were close to the Zia regime which had folded in 1988 after his demise.
Zia’s appointees in the military had been suspicious of Benazir even when her party had won the first post-Zia election in 1988. They feared that her regime would rollback Pakistan’s nuclear program and Zia’s ‘Islamisation’ policies.
Fears of this nature grew when she returned as PM in 1993. In 1995, Brig. Zaheer Abbasi, Brigadier Mustansir Billa and Qari Saifullah were arrested by the military high command and accused of planning to pull down the Benazir government through a coup d’detat.
The officers were allegedly planning to launch a coup against what they believed was a ‘liberal and corrupt regime’ out to rollback Pakistan’s nuclear program and neutralise Zia’s Islamisation project.
After the coup, they planned to impose a strict Islamic set-up and dismiss the then military chief, General Abdul Waheed Kakar.
It was actually Gen. Kakar who first discovered the plot through military intelligence. He got the plotters arrested and informed PM Bhutto.
The military spooks told Karkar that the mentioned officers were planning to launch a military coup against him and Benazir in collusion with a militant religious outfit; and that they had planned to assassinate her and dismiss him.
The alleged conspirators were given verifying jail sentences.