Wednesday, May 23, 2007

United States Belongs on the Side of Democracy

I was delighted to see the editorial in the New York Times today titled "Propping up the General". I have been impressed by the Times coverage of Pakistan over the last year. The editorial page and the reporters on the ground (Salman Masood, David Rohde, Carlotta Gall) have demonstrated a more firm handle on the causes and cures of Pakistan's chronic political instability than the Bush administration, which has a single-minded and misguided focus on keeping a general in power just because he is easier to deal with than any democratic government is likely to be. However, in pursuing this myopic policy, US is losing the little credibility it still posseses with moderates and reformers in the Muslim world. The recent protests against the Musharraf government, sparked by the ham-handed removal of the Chief Justice, have largely been powered by Pakistan's civil society led by the lawyers and the regional bar associations. This has been a movement remarkably free of religious undertones and its slogans have been focused on championing a free media and the rule of law.

The United States needs to unambiguously weigh in on the side of constitutional democratic governance and the people of Pakistan. It is the right position on moral and pragmatic grounds. Only consistent and clear support by the US government for civil society forces that advocate and struggle for a rule of law, democratic governance, free media and human rights will eventually create Muslim societies that are not a threat to themselves and the rest of the world. American governments often speak of these principles but rarely stand behind them when it matters most. Pakistan's courageous civil society (which sadly does not even look to the US for inspiration any more) is leading an inspiring struggle of the kind that American officials pray for in Iran, but in Pakistan it only results in banal State Department statements of support for our erstwhile uniformed ally. Pakistanis and the Muslim world will believe in America's rhetoric only if it consistently backs its own principles and does not sacrifice them at the altar of short term expediency. Only America has the clout to make a real difference in promoting freedom and stability in Pakistan and America needs to answer the call. We need not fear a democratic Pakistan. Only a country on a more solid democratic footing with a representative government can be a stable and reliable ally.

Here are the powerful words that end the NY Times editorial:
"A succession of uniformed dictators has misruled Pakistan for more than half of its 60-year history. All have advertised themselves as great friends of Washington, but all have fanned extremism while discrediting America’s reputation among ordinary Pakistanis. There is no security with General Musharraf. The United States belongs on the side of Pakistani democracy".

Monday, May 14, 2007

Tyranny Descends on Pakistan

There is no doubt in my mind that sections of the Pakistani media are now being actively muzzled after their valiant defiance in showing the true face of this ugly regime over the last couple of months. On the website of "The News" there was no report all day on the cold-blooded murder of the Supreme Court additional registrar and CJP loyalist Hammad Raza in Islamabad. Even the New York Times has a full blown story on it already, by their reporter Salman Masood. As if to confirm my fears "The News" finally has a story on this episode but it is about the MQM chief condemning Hammad Raza's murder rather than the news item itself.

I will not criticize the media for succumbing to this extreme coercion while working in an environment of constant threats and extreme insecurity as they are and have been doing a courageous job of standing up to unjust authority. However, I would implore the journalists and media owners to resist, to the best of their abilities, this new phase of darkness being imposed by a government which cares for nothing but the perpetuation of its illegal and authoritarian rule. This valiant effort of the people to reclaim political space from a usurping military should not go to waste. The end result of this struggle needs to be an independent judiciary, free media, a strengthened rule of law and a return to civilian rule.

Here is to the hope that the people of Pakistan will soon escape the yoke of this latest self-styled uniformed savior and will overtime (with painstaking effort) build a democratic polity that can produce civilian leaders worthy of governing this country and able to build a decent state for its people.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

A Dark Day in Pakistan's History - Karachi Burning

The details emerging out of Pakistan are still somewhat sketchy but some facts are clear; more than 30 people are dead and over 115 injured. The CJ was unable to address the Sindh Bar Association and was forced to go back to Islamabad and the private television station Aaj TV, which has been in the forefront of covering pro-judiciary and anti-Musharraf protests, was attacked by armed gunmen. This is indeed another dark day in the checkered political history of Pakistan. It is now well past time for the shameful Musharraf regime to go. This illegal government has now lost the last shreds of moral authority required to govern. I salute the men and women of the civil society of Pakistan and the courageous independent media who are leading this struggle for the supremacy of the law and freedom of expression at grave risk to their life and limb.

As tragic and sad as today's events in Karachi are, this political moment is of historic import for the people of Pakistan and even on this day of darkness I see some hope for a better future. Since the sacking of the CJP on March 9th, the heroic struggle of the lawyers has germinated greater democratic desire and decisively strengthened Pakistan's civil society and its beleagured independent media. In the face of relentless governmental coercion there have been heartwarming displays of peaceful resistance, none more evident than in the historic journey of Justice Chaudhry through the heart of Punjab. Those in Pakistan and abroad who desire an eventual constitutional democratic polity rooted in a rule of law have to be encouraged by these developments. The conclusion of this episode, however, remains highly uncertain because no political sagacity can be expected from those who have brought us to this pass.

This grassroots peoples' movement has also forced the politicians of all hues to make a choice; they either stand on the side of the rule of law or for the perpetuation of a dangerously unstable, one-man military banana republic. Mainstream politicians (despite all their historical shortcomings) clearly seem to grasp the national mood and the King's men who are standing up for the present dispensation to save their personal fiefdoms will hopefully pay a steep price whenever they face the electorate in a fair election. MQM more clearly exposed itself today than it ever has in its sordid history (thanks to private TV channels). The party that started with great hopes, rooted in the educated middle classes has over the years just become a collection of vicious thugs. It is wielding its fascistic tactics on behalf of people who seem to believe they have a divine right to perpetual power and who originally nurtured this party as a counterweight to PPP. MQM has shown itself the mirror image of the worst of MMA; both groups want people to acquiesce to their ideologies by force. Neither believes in nor has any fundamental respect for a constitutional rule of law.

Pakistan stands at a critical juncture as it has so many times in its unfortunate 60 year independent history. I would urge all Pakistanis and their well wishers to lend thier support to the struggle of Pakistan's revitalized civil society. Let's hope that the forces of peaceful democratic activism led by the country's courageous lawyers ultimately emerge victorious and we can close this latest chapter of the military's recurring era of authoritarian and unconstitutional misrule without further human suffering.