The Road Ahead for Benazir Bhutto

Ethnic conflict threatens to undermine her authority

By , Shazia Rafi writes from New York.

IN the summer of 1988, Benazir Bhutto's rallies were greeted with enthusiastic slogans of ``Zia Jayey, Saadhi Cory Ayey'' (May Zia go and may our Cory arrive). This wish was dramatically fulfilled within months with the death of the Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq in August 1988 and the election of Benazir Bhutto as prime minister 90 days later. Although Benazir's administration, like that of Mrs. Aquino in the Philippines, has seen mounting challenges - including allegations of corruption and incompetence - the comparison ends there. Benazir is confronting far more serious problems. In addition to possible war with India over Kashmir, ethnic violence within the country has reached civil-war proportions.

In the latest round of violence, clashes between the Mohajir Qaumi Mahaz - a party of Urdu-speaking groupings - and Sindhi nationalists left over 200 dead and hundreds more injured in a 48-hour period. The killings took place in Hyderabad and Karachi, the largest cities in Sindh (Benazir's home province).

The army has placed both cities under curfew, arrested up to 1,300 people, and enforced yet another temporary truce. The uneasy calm is still being broken by sporadic attacks.

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Militiamen have been entering private homes to compile ominous lists of ``enemy'' ethnic populations, who are then considered legitimate targets of kidnapping and killing. Over 1,200 businessmen and their associates were kidnapped in Karachi and Sindh alone last year largely to fill party coffers.

Faced with such anarchy, Karachi's residents have taken matters in their own hands. Citizen's groups have set up steel gates on their streets, patrolled at night by private guards armed with illegal semiautomatic weapons.

The prelude to this tragedy was General Zia's determination to keep political parties at bay by suspending the political system and giving official encouragement to ethnic and religious groups. This led eventually to the creation of parties whose combination of ethnic exclusivity and demagoguery have become the major challenge to national government.

Additionally, Pakistan's wholehearted commitment to working with the United States on the Afghan policy has left Pakistani black markets flooded with semiautomatic weapons. The concurrence of the Iranian and Afghan crises also led to Pakistan's emergence as a major transshipment point for heroin.

Benazir's ability to deal with this unholy mix of ethnic politics, illegal arms, and drugs is hampered by a hung parliament, coalition governments in three provinces, and an opposition government in the fourth and largest province, Panjab. Confrontation with the opposition in Panjab has embroiled her government for over a year in a fruitless battle of wills.

The question mark in all this is Pakistan's army. The army entered Hyderabad and Karachi after the current round of killings was over. Troops were greeted with garlands and by demands for a return to martial law. So far the military is operating under civilian authority, but it cannot continually be used to maintain truces among warring factions without extracting power as the price.

Although terrified by recent events, Pakistan's people still want a civilian administration to succeed. Benazir remains the only national political figure. However, in the deadlock between Mohajir and Sindhi her role as ``national broker'' is diminishing. A bold, new initiative is needed to demonstrate the ability of her civilian, democratic administration to govern beyond the maintenance of uneasy and temporary alliances.

Of equal urgency is the need to bring about a ``real'' end to the Afghan war. There must be a cessation of arms transshipments through Pakistan and a gradual withdrawal of illegal arms from the region. In this endeavor the US must participate as a full partner. Pakistan, who resolutely stood by the US in supporting the Afghans and who has been its most consistent ally in the region, must not now be abandoned to pick up the debris alone.

It is imperative, not merely for Benazir's political future, but also for peace in South Asia that the opportunity of freedom and democracy be used to rebuild a decent, cohesive society in Pakistan.

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