Dark days in Pakistan

ROSS LAVER September 1 1986

Dark days in Pakistan

ROSS LAVER September 1 1986

Dark days in Pakistan


In Ancholi, a crowded and dusty suburb of Karachi, the air was filled with tension. Under a blazing afternoon sun, more than 200 blue-helmeted Pakistani policemen, some clutching shotguns, waited for hours along the main Karachi-Islamabad highway for a threatened demonstration by opponents of Pakistan’s president, Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq. Then, at dusk about a dozen young militants scrambled into the road, blocking traffic and chanting, “Zia kuta, Zia murdabadl” (Zia is a dog, death to Zia!) Minutes later a larger mob set fire to a pile of tires and began hurling rocks at the police, scattering pedestrians and cyclists to the side of the road. The police countered with tear gas and a succession of charges with clubs. But each time the protesters evaded arrest by hiding out in the narrow back streets, only to resume their attacks as soon as the police withdrew.

The running battle between police and demonstrators in Ancholi was similar to dozens of other confronta-

tions that rocked Pakistan during the past two weeks. The violence left a death toll estimated between 20 (the government’s figure) and 40 (the opposition’s) and took the nation of 94 million dangerously close to the brink of open revolt. Together, the clashes have given the strongest indication yet of the strength of an opposition that has developed since Zia seized power in a 1977 coup. Spearheaded by Benazir Bhutto, 32, daughter of the country’s last elected prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the anti-Zia forces have relied until recently on peaceful calls for full and fair elections (page 24). But a government crackdown starting Aug. 13, including the arrest and detention of Benazir Bhutto and an estimated 1,000 other leaders of her Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and other opposition groups, shattered Pakistan’s fragile peace and sent angry mobs into the streets to demand Zia’s resignation. Declared Mohammad Shah Amroti, 65, one of a handful of opposition leaders still at liberty last week: “We

shall continue the struggle for democracy until victory is ours.”

As the unrest continued into last week, doubts emerged about the Zia regime’s ability to maintain control. Throughout the country, protesters wrecked and burned dozens of railway stations, jails, police stations and government buildings. But by midweek the opposition fragmented and, in the face of a determined police and military response, the protest appeared to weaken although at week’s end there were reports of fresh outbreaks of violence in the southern part of the country. Still, said one disheartened PPP member: “What can we do? We have no leaders, they have all been arrested. We protested as instructed Monday . . . and some PPP people burned down government offices and the banks, but now we can’t face army bullets.”

Some Western nations have been exerting pressure on Zia to speed up the democratization process, but they were clearly alarmed by the process. For one thing, the administration of President Ronald Reagan and most U.S. al-

lies value Pakistan as an important ally in containing Soviet influence. And any instability in the country would weaken its effectiveness in that role. Pakistan’s importance is heightened by its shared border with Sovietoccupied Afghanistan. In fact, prior to the Soviet intervention in 1979 the United States had cut off aid to Pakistan because of the country’s controversial nuclear energy program. After Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan, Washington agreed to a five-year, $4.5billion aid program. And Zia has been willing to act as a conduit for U.S. funds to the Afghan rebels.

But some of Bhutto’s supporters have exhibited a strong anti-American sentiment, burning U.S. flags at demonstrations. Although Bhutto says that she would not jeopardize American aid to her country, she has been less specific about the extent to which she would support U.S. policies in the region. Still, in the midst of last week’s

unrest, one American source in Karachi said that recent conciliatory statements by Bhutto have convinced Washington that she is not a threat to its interests in the region. “Since her return to Pakistan last April she has really turned around the anti-American rhetoric in the PPP,” the source said. “At public rallies she has gone out of her way to tell her supporters not to burn U.S. flags.” But an External Affairs spokesman in Ottawa said that Bhutto might have to take a

tougher position with Washington because she is losing support within her own party as a result of her softened stand. Said the spokesman: “She is alienating left-wing elements who have given her their support.”

Violence and factionalism have marred Pakistani politics since the nation’s birth in 1947. Administered until then by the British colonial government as part of India, it emerged from the British partition of the subcontinent as a distinctly Muslim nation. But Pakistan was also a country of two distinct parts, East and West Pakistan, separated by 1,600 km of Indian territory. In 1951 an assassin killed Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan. In 1953 tensions between Muslim sects resulted in rioting and arson. And by 1958 Pakistani politics had degenerated into a hothouse of regional and factional disputes.

As a result, in October, 1958, Pakistan entered the first of many periods

of martial law, declared by Gen. Mohammad Ayub Khan. In 1969 widespread popular agitation against his regime forced Ayub Khan to step down in favor of Gen. Agha Mohammad Yayha Khan. The new leader announced that general elections would be held in December, 1970. But by then the rising tide of East Pakistani separatism had engulfed that region and alienated it from the West. East Pakistan’s Awami League, campaigning for autonomy, won a landslide victory,

and its leaders intensified their demands for independence. Yayha Khan’s government sent in troops to put down the ensuing disturbances, but the Indian government invaded and supported the rebels. For Pakistan’s military, the outcome was disastrous. In late 1971 the discredited, outmanned forces of Yayha Khan accepted an Indian ceasefire offer and East Pakistan became independent Bangladesh.

The secession of East Pakistan did not alleviate regional tensions in the West. The country is composed of four distinct provinces—Sind, the NorthWest Frontier, Baluchistan and Punjab. Of those, Baluchistan has most often been the scene of violent campaigns for independence. And Punjab has also been the object of deep resentment from the remaining three provinces, which resent its power and its domination of the country’s military.

The violent consequences of the latest unrest were felt most strongly in the southeastern province of Sind, a dry, sunscorched plain that has traditionally been a hotbed of antigovernment agitation. Local opposition sources said that at least 29 people died and thousands were injured in fighting between opposition and government supporters in more than 30 towns and villages across the region. And in the provincial capital of Karachi, a teeming city of six million people on the shores of the Arabian Sea, a crowd of about 4,000 protesters kicked and punched two plainclothes policemen to death after the funeral of an opposition supporter who had been killed by a blast from a police shotgun. Meanwhile, gangs of youths fought daily battles against police in the city’s slum districts of Layari and Chakiwara, pelting passing vehicles with stones and barricading roads with burning tires and scrap lumber.

Despite the unrest, Pakistani authorities said that the Zia regime, based in Islamabad, 1,120 km from Karachi in the north of the country, was in no immediate danger of collapse. For one thing, the 62-year-old dictator still commands the loyalty of the country’s 500,000-strong army, without

which no political leader can hope to rule Pakistan. But at least as tellingly, the forces opposed to the president remain badly divided along ethnic, regional and ideological lines. Since 1981 they have campaigned for democracy under the banner of an 11-party coalition, the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD). But beneath a thin veneer of unity, each faction still harbors a deep distrust of the others’ motives.

Said one prominent MRD supporter to Maclean ’s last week: “I would not want to be in Benazir Bhutto’s shoes at all. It is going to take a lot of political skill to hold the movement together, and I don’t know if she is up to it.”

The collapse of the protests last week took place as the underlying tensions within the opposition alliance erupted into the open. One of the opposition parties, the centrist Tehrik-i-Istiqlal (Movement for Steadfastness), announced that it was leaving the MRD. Its president, Asghar Khan, declared that the rest of the opposition had miscalculated by launching a campaign to bring down Zia’s regime without first making sure that they had widespread popular support. Said Khan, a retired air force commander who played a key role in ousting Benazir Bhutto’s father from office in 1977: “It is one thing to command a procession of 500,000 people. But it is another to lead them in a disciplined manner to fight for the common cause.”

With most of the opposition’s leadership in jail, last week’s antigovernment demonstrations were poorly organized. Most of the rallies attracted only a few hundred supporters, a disappointing turnout by the normal standards on the densely populated Indian subcontinent. In Regal Chowk, Karachi’s bustling business centre, organizers were forced to cancel a planned protest march after police carrying shields and lathis—1.5-m bamboo staves tipped with steel— turned out in superior numbers. And local residents said that many of those who took part in the slum skirmishes were teenagers motivated less by politics than by longstanding hatred of the city’s security forces. Said a Western diplomat in Karachi: “A lot of the people who are out there throwing stones are just kids blowing off steam.”

Still, the unrest underscored Zia’s increasingly tenuous grip on the impover-

ished Islamic nation. A committed Muslim Zia prays five times a day and refuses to drink alcohol. He has ruled Pakistan with an iron fist ever since he overthrew Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in a July, 1977, coup, which he codenamed “Operation Fair Play.” Zia’s friends say that he originally intended to return the country swiftly to elected democracy and that he took power only to end Bhutto’s increasingly repressive regime. But on the many occasions when Zia has pledged a full return to democracy, he has reneged on his promises in the face of opposition unrest.

Zia’s gravest tactical error may have been allowing Bhutto to be executed on April 4, 1979. A military court ordered the former prime minister to be hanged after finding him guilty of conspiracy in the murder of a political opponent. But many Pakistanis remain convinced that Bhutto was innocent and that Zia simply wanted to eliminate a popular rival. Whatever the reason, Bhutto’s execution made him a political

martyr for many Pakistanis. Even now his round, smiling face gazes from portraits in shops and homes across the country. “We are sorry your killers are still alive,” declares a popular poster in Urdu, the national language.

Bhutto’s daughter, Benazir, is an ambitious, well-educated woman, with a bachelor of arts degree from Oxford, who grew up speaking more English than Urdu. She has spent the past nine years either under house arrest in Karachi, in Pakistani prisons or in self-imposed exile in Europe. She returned to Pakistan from London in April, four months after Zia suspended martial law as part of what he described as a carefully controlled return to democracy. Almost immediately hundreds of thousands of supporters rallied to Bhutto and, virtually overnight, the PPP, which her father founded in 1967, was transformed from a broadly based but stagnant organization into Pakistan’s strongest political party. Said a Western political analyst in Karachi: “Benazir is the star of the biggest soap opera in Pakistan right now—the orphaned daughter of an executed prime minister.”

Bhutto has inherited her father’s populist streak. To the poor and the underprivileged—the majority of Pakistanis—the Bhutto name recalls her father’s promises of roti, kapra, ma-

kan (bread, clothing, shelter). But her critics say that Benazir Bhutto has so far failed to mobilize Pakistan’s urban middle-class, many of whom have prospered recently because of the relative strength of the Pakistani economy. Last week’s antigovernment protests were notably stronger in rural Sind province than further north in the more heavily industrialized Punjab, where 56 per cent of Pakistanis live. Acknowledged Sardar Sherbaz Khan Mazarí, leader of the Pakistan National Democratic Party and one of the founders of the MRD: “If the Punjab does not come out then the opposition campaign cannot succeed.”

Bhutto has also alienated many of Pakistan’s wealthy, politically influential landowners whose financial support is critical to the PPP. Among their complaints is her removal of many oldguard landowners from party offices and their replacement with young, inexperienced Bhutto supporters. Among those who deeply resent Bhutto’s influence is Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi, a former president of the PPP’s provincial wing in Sind who left the party earlier this year. Said Jatoi, who now plans to form a rival party: “Her arrogance is matched only by her ego.”

Even in rural Sind, support for the opposition is limited. In Tando Adam, an agricultural town 200 km northeast of Karachi, 2,000 followers of Bhutto rioted last week, killing two policemen and setting fire to a bank, three shops and a government office. A day later, Zia loyalists retaliated by burning down a paint store owned by a PPP supporter. Most of the town’s inhabitants are Mohajirs who, like Zia himself, migrated to Pakistan from India when the two countries were partitioned in 1947. Many Mohajirs—most of them deeply conservative—say that they prefer Zia’s brand of authoritarian rule to the inherent instability of democracy.

But U.S. officials say that they fear the growing pressure for change in Pakistan could eventually overwhelm Zia, as it did with other U.S. allies: the Shah of Iran in 1979 and former president Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines earlier this year. As a result, the Reagan administration has brought pressure on Zia to relax his iron grip. In January he responded by lifting martial law, and he repeated an earlier pledge to hold free elections in 1990.

Meanwhile, Zia has carefully distanced himself from the current crackdown on the opposition. Five days before Bhutto’s arrest he boarded a regularly scheduled Pakistan International Airways flight to Saudi Arabia, beginning a 12-day pilgrimage to Mecca. His aides say that the trip was planned long in advance, but opposi-

tion spokesmen say that they are convinced that Zia’s absence from the country was more than a coincidence. During his absence, government spokesmen said that all decisions were being made by Prime Minister Mohammad Khan Junejo. But opposition spokesmen generally concluded that Junejo’s stern response to the protests

clearly demonstrated that his actions were orchestrated by Zia.

As for Bhutto, the government could keep her detained without trial for up to 30 days. But many analysts said that they expected Zia to release her as soon as the unrest died down. Said one source close to the Reagan administration: “We hope that Benazir is released soon. It’s kind of dumb to keep her locked up because that only gives the opposition a reason to protest.”

Still, Bhutto’s popularity presented Zia with a painful dilemma. If he tries to neutralize the opposition, either by keeping Bhutto in prison or sending her into exile, he would be open to charges that his much-vaunted partial return to democracy was a sham. But if he frees her, she will likely begin agitating again for new elections— which even some government supporters acknowledge she would almost certainly win. Zia’s best chance may be to bring forward the date for elections to 1988 from 1990 and try to split the opposition coalition in the meantime. As one diplomat in Karachi put it last week: “A lot of people have underestimated Zia from day one. Whatever else you can say about him, his staying power is remarkable.”