Pakistan's regional differences grow sharper. Gen. Zia's tight control spawns nationalism along ethnic lines

A decade of military rule appears to have created deep and potentially dangerous divisions within Pakistan. Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, who came to power in a coup 10 years ago this month, is still apparently secure. But a wide range of politicians and observers here say that his rule as President is slowly tearing the country apart. And they fear that Pakistan's large neighbors - India and the Soviet Union - could exploit these differences to dismember the country.

``The effect of 10 years of General Zia is that we are not a nation any more,'' says Malik Qasim, secretary-general of the 11-party Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD), the main opposition grouping.

``We are passing through a very critical time in our national life,'' says Prof. Usman Ramz, the parliamentary leader of the fundamentalist Jamaat-i-Islami, a bitter rival of most MRD parties. ``If things are not put right I have reason to believe that our integrity is in danger, nay, even our existence,'' he adds.

Pir Pagara, a religious leader with close ties to the government, said recently that the country was showing ``symptoms of another martial law.'' But, he said the government's problems were not of its own making and blamed previous administrations.

Despite the creation of a civilian National Assembly in the February 1985 elections - in which candidates ran on a ``nonparty'' basis - and the subsequent lifting of martial law, the military still remains the dominant force. Zia retains wide powers, including the right to dissolve the legislature.

The mainstream civilian opposition has so far failed to pose any real threat to this system. Although opposition leader Benazir Bhutto drew huge crowds on her return from exile in April 1986, her bid to force fresh elections by last autumn fizzled.

The MRD, which includes Miss Bhutto's party, is beset by internal rivalries. The movement last month failed to agree on a longstanding proposal to host a conference of all opposition parties.

``Politically there is nothing in the field right now to challenge this thing [the present system] for a year or a year and a half,'' a Western diplomat says.

The entrenched power of the military, which is dominated by officers from Punjab Province, where 60 percent of Pakistanis live, appears to have alienated many people in the three smaller provinces. Some of these people have begun to question the very idea of Pakistan as a nation.

Regional nationalism has long been part of politics in Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier Province - where colonial borders cut arbitrarily through traditional tribal homelands - and has recently taken root in Sind Province as well.

``Our new generation, the Sindi new generation, the Baluchi new generation, they are all talking about this: what are we doing in Pakistan? We are not getting our share,'' says Haji Biloor, a leader of the Awami National Party which draws support from ethnic Pathans.

The Bhutto family comes from Sind, and many Sindis view the court-ordered execution of former premier Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1979 as the murder of one of their own. The two largest waves of protest against Zia - in 1983 and 1986 - were both concentrated in Sind.

With regional nationalism on the increase, there has been a proliferation of parties based on the distinct ethnic groups. Some, like the increasingly powerful Jiye Sind, a Sindi separatist group, openly call for the breakup of Pakistan. Others advocate a loose confederation between the four provinces.

Fueled by remittances from expatriate workers in the Persian Gulf, large amounts of foreign aid, and black-market money from a substantial drug trade, Pakistan's economy has boomed in recent years. Economic growth has averaged over 6 percent a year since Zia took power. But increased defense spending has limited funds available for development.

With sophisticated arms flooding the country because of the next-door Soviet-Afghan conflict, ethnic riots have become more like mini-wars. Last December, about 200 people died in clashes in Karachi.

Pakistanis are acutely aware of how vulnerable they are to pressures from outside and there is a growing apprehension about Soviet and Indian intentions. They have bitter memories of the Indian-aided secession of East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, in 1971.

The Soviets are already widely believed to be trying to destablize Pakistan in order to force the government to abandon its support for the Afghan resistance. Bombings have become daily events in areas adjacent to the Afghan border.

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