Power And Privilege

A score of Pakistani peasants, dressed in shalwar kameez and turbans, stood nervously before a table piled high with land contracts. They had come to the sprawling Military Farms--a 17,000-acre dairy, meat and grain-producing agribusiness in the heart of the fertile Punjab--at the urging of its owner, the Pakistani Army. According to Army Col. Saleem Khan, the commander of a paramilitary unit assigned to the area, the tenant farmers were voluntarily signing new land-tenure contracts. After two years of resistance, he claimed, a majority of the 15,000 tenant families who'd been working the land had agreed to the military's new terms. As proof, he pointed to several "signed" contracts on the table marked by a farmer's thumbprint in purple ink. (Most of the farmers are illiterate.)

But when retired Adm. Fasih Bokhari--who personally visited Military Farms to investigate charges of Army coercion--asked the peasants if they were signing willingly, almost all of them demurred. "We are being forced to sign," ventured one man. "We want to work under the old system," added a second peasant. Hearing the farmers' responses, the colonel exploded in anger. "We've been soft so far!" he shouted at those who had dared to speak out. "You don't know how tough we can be."

Actually, the peasants do. Pakistan has been ruled by Army dictators for half the country's 55 years of independence, and over time they've carved out a world of wealth, power and privilege for themselves. The armed forces as an institution, and individual military men, own some of the best pieces of urban and agricultural real estate in the country--tens of thousands of acres. Lots of countries shower money on their soldiers, but Pakistan may be in a class by itself. The half-million-man military commands a whopping 45 percent of the national budget (in a nation where at least one third of the 140 million citizens live below the poverty line). In contrast, only 2.5 percent of government spending is devoted to health care and education. A pliant judiciary and timid, self-seeking politicians rarely, if ever, challenge the military's clout. "All countries have armies, but in Pakistan things are reversed," quips Pakistani nuclear physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy. "Here it is the Army that has a country."

Next week's parliamentary elections in Pakistan have been widely criticized as a charade to cement the military's hold on power. In August President Pervez Musharraf issued a set of new laws and constitutional amendments that will prevent two former prime ministers, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, from running. Their absence has crippled their parties--the Pakistan People's Party and Pakistan Muslim League, respectively--which are the country's largest. Both accuse the government of resorting to "pre-poll rigging" by openly organizing and aiding a pro-government offshoot of Sharif's PML. And no matter who wins the vote--a poll released last week by the independent Pakistan Institute of Public Opinion showed the PPP with 24 percent of the vote and the PML with 19 percent--the new Parliament will have little clout. Constitutional changes guarantee that Musharraf will remain president and chief of Army staff for five more years--with the power to dismiss the prime minister and dissolve Parliament--while a permanent, military-dominated National Security Council will be able to recommend the dissolution of the elected Parliament even beyond that.

Just as important, the military's stranglehold on the country's parlous finances would not be threatened even if the polls were legit. It has become Pakistan's policy, indeed credo, that the military unquestionably gets what it wants. A powerful military is crucial, say government supporters, to protect Pakistan from India, its bitter enemy. The country's Parliament has never debated a defense budget; it simply rubber-stamps a line-item lump sum presented by top Army leaders. In 1985, when Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq held power, Prime Minister Mohammad Khan Junejo vowed to cut defense spending and to put generals into tiny Suzuki cars rather than more luxurious Toyotas. Zia promptly sacked him.

Financially strapped Pakistan can't afford to pay its officers competitive salaries. After money goes to the military debt, retirement payments and secret projects like the nuclear program, a naval commander makes less than $1,000 a month. So the government compensates by doling out perks. Not only does the military give officers benefits such as free housing, health care and education, it also throws in some former British colonial privileges. Every Army officer has an enlisted man assigned to him who serves as a full-time valet, or batman. After retirement, lifetime employment is ensured in one of the country's many military-related businesses. The Army owns and runs two of Pakistan's largest industrial and business conglomerates, the Fauji Foundation and the Army Welfare Trust, whose interests include banking, real estate, airlines, insurance and construction companies.

The biggest perk of all is land. Soldiers and sailors are rewarded with land for distinguished service and to keep them from bailing out for a civilian career. The armed forces have established Defense Colonies and Generals' Colonies--exclusive housing estates--in the most desirable locations in every Pakistani town and city. Before or after retirement, senior Pakistani officers can buy a plot of land within a military colony for a pittance--usually less than 10 percent of the market rate--and then build a house at subsidized rates, sometimes with military labor. Many then opt to sell the land and house at the going market rate, pocketing a handsome profit. Traditionally, a retiring general gets two or three pieces of real estate. The more senior and influential the general or admiral, the more land he receives. Senior military officers also get agricultural land at the giveaway price of $5 or less an acre.

When Musharraf grabbed power in 1999, he denounced the kleptocracies of civilian prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. His calls for political reform are partly based on Bhutto's and Sharif's penchant for distributing state lands as payoffs to their supporters. Yet when Musharraf disclosed his personal wealth after taking office, he listed nine pieces of real estate and three houses among his assets. His daughter resides in one of his houses in Karachi's Defense Colony, and his parents live in another in Islamabad. He also owns other pieces of real estate in Karachi, Rawalpindi, Peshawar and Lahore, at Gwadar near the Arabian Sea and 50 acres of agricultural land at Bahawalpur in Punjab. Says retired Lt. Gen. Talat Masood: "It's institutional corruption, pure and simple. Most Pakistanis feel these military privileges such as virtually free land are unfair, if not immoral."

Part of the reason for awarding rural land to the military, especially along the long border with India, was ostensibly strategic. The thinking was that military men who settled on the land would defend it at all costs. But since most military officers are not from rural backgrounds, few actually live in these backwaters. Most either sell the land at market rates or rent it out to peasant sharecroppers, thus becoming feudal landlords in a country where feudalism is a major reason for poverty. "The military has no business acting as a feudal landlord," says Masood. "These practices have to stop.

Growing numbers of Pakistanis complain that the armed forces must trim back and reform so the country can live within its means. "Unless we significantly cut our defense spending, no progress can be made to address the core issues facing Pakistan such as poverty, illiteracy, unemployment and economic stagnation," says Amjad Waheed, a Pakistani economist. "India wants us to continue this arms race, as it will ultimately result in our economic collapse." In other countries where the military has skewed the economy, like China, governments have forced their armies out of business. But Musharraf seems unconcerned. When asked last month if the military's almost permanent confrontation with India was overburdening the economy, he replied: "There is nothing of the sort to worry about."

The peasants who work Military Farms are worried. The new land deal is ostensibly an improvement over the old sharecropping system. Under it the farmers gave half their produce to the military as rent and then sold the remaining 50 percent on the open market. Under the new system, the landless peasants are required to pay the Army the equivalent of about $50 annually to rent an acre of land. They are then free to sell their crops to whomever they want. But there's a catch: under Pakistani law a contract farmer can be kicked off his land, whereas a sharecropper cannot. And the new contract states --that the military can expel the farmers if they're found to be engaging in any "anti-state" activity, or if the Army decides it needs the land to "defend the national interest." The farmers say they fear that the Army intends to evict them and then lease the land out at profitable rates to international agribusinesses, or perhaps even subdivide it among the officer corps.

But that's only one part of the dispute. What the farmers really want is ownership rights to the roughly 70,000 acres of land they have been tilling for the military and the Punjab state government for generations. Some 1 million of them have formed an Association of Tenants of the Punjab in order to lobby the legislature. Their slogan: "Ownership or death." The farmers might have a good argument, but they're not likely to persuade the armed forces. This year, at least two farmers who've refused to sign the contracts have been killed in confrontations with soldiers, and dozens more have been injured. Until the generals loosen their grip, the people of Pakistan face a bleak future no matter whom they vote into office.