Mangrove destruction; Testing times for democracy and more

Beena Sarwar shares her recent writings and some relevant links with the Pak Tea House

Found a piece I’d written back in 2005, pubished in The News & Chowk and also circulated to this group – ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being Asif Zardari’ –. Interesting in the current context. Below:
1) Excellent little report on the mangrove destruction on Pakistan’s coastline: ‘With nary a thought to the environment’ By Shahid Husain, The News, September 17, 2008 – “Reclamation of land by two of Karachi’s mightiest civic agencies, the Karachi Port Trust (KPT) and the Defence Housing Authority (DHA) is damaging the environment and will leave the city prone to tsunamis, warn experts.” Full story here:

2) My recent story for IPS PAKISTAN-POLITICS: Testing Times for Democracy (please also see  ‘The perils of democracy‘ by Aasim S. Akhtar in The News on Sunday’s Political Economy section)

KARACHI, Sep 17 (IPS) – Political opposition against President Asif Ali Zardari –fuelled by the recent U.S. military incursions into Pakistani territory and rising food prices — appears to be tempered by the realisation that the only alternative to the current democratically elected dispensation is military rule. For the first time in Pakistan’s chequered 61-year history as a
nation-state, the army which has carried out numerous coups in the
past has taken a neutral political position.

And where previous presidents have been quick to dismiss governments
on one pretext or another, the current one is co-chairperson of the
ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), while Prime Minister Yusuf Raza
Gillani is the party’s senior vice-chairman.

“It’s a terrible situation to be in,” commented Talat Aslam, editor
of the Karachi daily, `The News’, talking with IPS. “You represent a
party that has traditionally been anti-establishment, your entire
history has been spent fighting the presidency, and now you are
protecting that same system, allowing right-wing parties like the PML-
N (Pakistan Muslim League faction led by former prime minister Nawaz
Sharif) to steal the populist platform.”

Zardari and the PPP, however, are “attempting to retake some
political power from the military, not foment radical change,” noted
political activist Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, who was at the forefront of
the movement against former president Pervez Musharraf’s emergency
rule, and in the drive for the reinstatement of the judges sacked by
Musharraf.

The refusal of Zardari’s ruling PPP to reinstate the judges by
executive order led its coalition partner the PML-N to withdraw from
government. The PPP retained power by forging alliances with other
former political rivals.

Now, most deposed judges have been `restored’ after taking a
controversial new oath that, according to critics, validates
Musharraf’s Nov. 3, 2007 emergency orders and legitimises the
judiciary headed by Abdul Hameed Dogar. The deposed chief justice,
Iftikhar Muhammad Choudhry, along with some other senior judges, has
steadfastly refused to take this oath.

The movement by lawyers, students and civil society agitating for the
restoration of the judiciary – since Musharraf first `suspended’
Choudhry on Mar. 9, 2007 — is credited in large part for catalysing
the political transition that subsequently took place in Pakistan.
Once the elections had taken place, the ball was in the court of the
political parties.

In the eyes of many, the fact that some of these judges have not been
restored does not necessarily mean that the lawyers’
movement `lost’. “Not all heroes end up winning,” says Karachi-based
analyst Kamal Siddiqi. “Some show us that we can fight for what we
believe in. The lawyers showed the world that Pakistanis too can
protest and launch a movement that can unseat the powerful.”

The movement has undoubtedly lost steam, but Akhtar notes that it is
hardly Zardari’s fault that many judges have taken fresh oath. “Do
they have no agency whatsoever? Has Zardari drugged them into taking
unprincipled decisions?” he said, talking to IPS over the phone from
Islamabad.

“Regardless of how little democratic process there is within the PPP,
Zardari does not act alone. We may disagree with his becoming
president but we can’t disagree with the process through which
parliament makes decisions, like making him president. It was to
restore the democratic process that we took to the streets against
military dictatorship. If we don’t like the outcome, we have to
engage with and deepen that process. There is no shortcut. If we try
too hard to find one, we might be back to another military
dictatorship.”

Political opposition to the government has gained momentum with the
U.S. military incursions into Pakistani territory on Sep. 3, just two
days after the presidential oath-taking.

Akhtar urges a mature response from the political opposition. “The
truth is that the PPP and its allies from all shades of the political
spectrum have virtually ceded control over strategic policy in the
Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) to the (Pakistani) army,”
he said. “Instead of blaming the elected government for the attack,
it would be more meaningful to criticise them for not demanding a
share of decision-making power over the so-called ‘war on terror’.”

Many see Pakistan’s ineffectiveness in clearing its north-west
territories bordering Afghanistan of militants as a factor behind the
U.S. military action – a decision that Pakistan insists it was not
taken into confidence about.

“The U.S. military incursions are a clear violation of international
law and they can have very negative repercussions,” Asma Jahangir,
the Lahore-based lawyer who chairs the independent Human Rights
Commission of Pakistan told IPS. “On the other hand, we leave the
Americans with little choice.”

Those inhabiting the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, for whom
the `war on terror’ is a life and death issue, are caught between the
Taliban and the Pakistan army and now the U.S. missiles. Thousands
have had to flee their homes in the conflict zones. Large numbers of
internally displaced people are adding to the challenges that the new
government faces.

Meanwhile, the central point confronting the Pakistani state and
society remains the conflict between the civilians and the army, the
outcome of which will in the long run determine other matters.

The widespread support for the democratic process in Pakistan,
visible even in the normally bickering political factions, reflects
the hope that now finally the army will be pushed back and the
intelligence agencies reined in and there will be peace with India
and Afghanistan.

For once these hopes are aligned with those of Pakistan’s powerful
ally the U.S. that controls the army’s purse strings. What remains to
be seen is whether Pakistan’s new political leadership has the
political skill and courage to steer the country out of its current
imbroglio.