It's Martial Law All Over Again

Actions speak louder than words. That's why, for the last few years, I've been giving the benefit of the doubt to Pervez Musharraf and his military government.

In Support of Musharraf

Thus far, many of Musharraf's actions have been nothing short of revolutionary (in a good way), at least in the Pakistani context. For example:

  • The first thing he did when coming to power was, basically, declare that he alone didn't know how to fix the country. He then spent the next few years getting experts to work on the problem and, in the process, brought many of our valuable, brain-drained expatriates back in to Pakistan. That seems to have paid off. Things are going reasonably well for the country. Ultimately, though, it was his original act of humility that endeared him to most of us.

  • He tried to fix local government. People may argue that he could have worked with the system we already had in place but, in my opinion at least, if you want real change (i.e. you really want people to get out of their entrenched way of thinking, acting, and living) you sometimes do have to nuke the existing system and start all over.

  • He successfully weeded a great deal of corruption out of the system (specifically, the government system) and built a number of accountability measures into it as well.

  • He fixed up the economy. Well, at least, improved it significantly (I don't know if anyone can ever "fix" an economy). Again, he did this by getting the right people for the job. Privatization (well, most of it) helped, of course.

  • He tried to fix a lot of basic systems -- like education, transportation, utilities, and telecommunication -- that are crucial to a country's growth and prosperity.

  • He empowered people to think and act for themselves. He got everyone involved in a frank and open discussion on how we should fix the country's problems. And he supported all this by, for the first time in decades, letting the media actually be free.

Of course that's not the whole story. Many of his other actions were suspect. He played both the political game (using one side against the other, building political coalitions when he needed to get stuff done, etc.) and the power game (i.e. trying to consolidate his) and otherwise did a number of things that helped make his rule as absolute as possible. All of which, while needed in order to carry out a successful radical change implementation, are otherwise signs of danger.

However, because he didn't rob us blind like our previous two glorious leaders did and he wasn't an extremist (on either side), his military rule was easier to swallow. And though his being a military man brought with it lots of conflict of interest issues, at least we knew that he was doing things for the good of the country. The military already gets about half of the nation's annual budget. Letting them have that (and a few other perks, should they want's not like we had a choice) was a small price to pay for security, overall political stability, and the economic prosperity we so desperately needed at the time.

The additional problem that Pakistan had -- i.e. maybe doesn't have all that much of anymore -- is a lack of broad-based education, genuine political awareness, and citizen empowerment. All of which are basic prerequisites for a democratic system of government to function properly. Our region of the world also has a long history of being led by dictatorial rulers. In other words, we're used to being ruled by dictators and no one has educated us enough to be ruled otherwise. Musharraf's basic actions -- education, openness, empowerment -- made it appear as if, for the first time in decades, someone one was actually trying to break the cycle (as it had once been broken back when India and Pakistan got their independence). We knew his intentions weren't all that noble, but it was a good compromise.

The final action that made it seems as if all was good was the Supreme Court's reversal of the Chief Justice's dismissal. The way we saw it: the government misguidedly tried to remove its biggest obstacle to absolute power (i.e. a critical Chief Justice) but the rule of law won in the end. Ergo, we finally have a government that, despite all the things it's done wrong, concedes to the rule of law. That, by the way, is a novel concept for Pakistan. Our previous governments have fired Chief Justices, bribed judges, dissolved parliaments, and, in Zia-ul-Haq's case, created a parallel judiciary that supercedes the Supreme Court -- all in order to circumvent the rule of law. Though initially "misguided", Musharraf came out of that fiasco looking pretty good.

Words of Warning from the Wise

Running parallel to all this were the constant warnings by various people -- notably, experts in law, history, government, and politics, many of whom had lived through Pakistan's two previous episodes of martial law -- that a military dictatorship, while bringing short-term stability, ultimately tends to undermine the long-term viability of a truly democratic system of government. That, despite all their positive actions, when push comes to shove, military dictatorships tend to act in surprisingly consistent ways. That is, they do everything they can to retain their absolute power, even if they do think they're doing it for the "good of the people". Naively -- and, really, because we didn't have a choice at the time and we were satisficing -- we didn't listen to these people. Things seemed to be going well, we were making great strides towards the future, and life seemed to be getting rosier.

Things Fall Apart

The last few months in Pakistan has, in many ways, been a big "I told you so" from all these people. Everything they said would happen, has happened. And again, it's the actions that are speaking louder than the words. That is, while at one level, I understand the need for the current declaration of emergency, the government's actions aren't consistent with what it is saying.

We need the emergency declaration because, after a long period of relative peace, the internal security of our country has genuinely been threatened. For example, till earlier this year, we've never had suicide bombers in Pakistan. As far as we were concerned, suicide bombers were either a Japanese or a Middle Eastern concept. Suicide is, literally, one of the worst crimes a Muslim can commit. It's one of the very few crimes that, according to Islamic teachings, has no chance of redemption in the afterlife. Since the American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, however, Pakistan has been inundated with Middle Eastern terrorists seeking refuge within our borders. And while they've been here, they've been spreading the good word. In that respect, then, the declaration of emergency was called for. Heck, last week a suicide bomber walked up to a security check post in Rawalpindi and blew himself up! When the heck has that ever happened in Pakistan before? A few months ago there was the whole Lal Masjid fiasco. And then there's the whole military operation in the northern areas that hasn't been going all that well. Yup, that spelled declaration of emergency.

However, if that was all that the declaration of emergency was addressing, things would be okay. Needless to say, there is more. The government has executed a number of actions that undermine its words:

  • It's arrested the heads of all opposition political parties as well as the heads of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (think: Burma, but on a smaller scale).

  • It's dismissed seven (out of seventeen) Supreme Court judges -- including the Chief Justice -- because they refused to take oath under the Provincial Constitutional Order (PCO) that declared the state of emergency.

  • It's gagged the media, shutting down all but the government run television and radio stations. I'm not sure what it's done with the print newspapers. Their Internet sites are up and running, though (see links at the end of the post).

  • It brutally suppressed demonstrations against the PCO in Karachi and Lahore.

And so its words ring hollow in our ears.

I have a theory, though. I think the government knew this was coming. I think the people in power let the violence escalate. I think they planned, well in advance, a lot of what is now being carried out. The minute they were forced to bow down to the rule of law (or maybe even before that), they starting formulating contingency plans. And this is one of them.

All I know is that I've finally taken off my rose coloured glasses. And things don't look so good no more.

Want to Know More?

Take a look at Adil Najam's posting on All Things Pakistan on the Chronology of a Political Meltdown. It helps put things into perspective. Also check out the Watan Dost blog. Both those blogs are worth following, by the way.

The media might be gagged over the airwaves in Pakistan, but the Internet is still free:

  • Dawn, which includes a link to live Dawn News video as well as the configuration parameters for receiving that channel off the satellite

  • Geo TV, which includes a live audio feed and video news bulletins updated hourly

  • The News