Reading the subtext

THERE is something unmistakably oxymoronic about the statement issued by the Inter-Services Public Relations directorate after the corps commanders meeting at the GHQ on Thursday. If you read the subtext, it means that though the army will support the next democratic government, the latter should not let “schisms” develop in the working of the political system; though the army will keep its distance from politics, the impression that it has distanced itself from the president is wrong; and, finally, the army should not be “dragged” into politics and be allowed to concentrate on its professional duties. There can be no two opinions on the last-mentioned wish attributed to Chief of the Army Staff Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. However, the ISPR does not tell us who or what prompted this reaction from Gen Kayani.

If the army wishes to stay out of politics then why come out with an opinion on matters purely political and constitutionally beyond the pale for generals? Pray, who is stopping the armed forces from going back to their professional duties, from returning to the barracks? Pakistan has had eight years during which the military’s running of affairs well outside its designated area of responsibility has wreaked havoc on the country. One man who led the military and the country called all the shots. Pakistan slipped deeper and deeper into anarchy, with even the economic windfall from Islamabad’s readiness to join the US-led war on terror failing to brake this slide.

Little wonder then that all state institutions, including the army, received a pat on the back for organising a by and large fair (on the day at least) election on Feb 18. A tense, tentative nation heaved a sigh of relief for the result was not disputed and the country spared the turmoil which could have imperilled its very existence. The nation has spoken. Let its voice be heard. If the elected parliament wants to undo the tampering the constitution was subjected to by the former chief of army staff so be it. It is time the generals sought a complete break from the divisive role their erstwhile army chief ended up playing. It should resolutely resist being “dragged” into politics. It should be left to the parliament to sort out any “schisms” that may develop. The army should help the civilian government tackle the daunting challenges posed by the scourge of religious extremism and terrorism. One would caution General Kayani against opting for any role for himself other than that of the army chief. His is a full-time job and so much needs to be done to restore the fighting edge to the military and the morale of the soldiers. Known as a ‘thinking’ man, one hopes that he’ll not be tempted by talk of power troikas for the consequences of choosing such a path are disastrous.

Women’s day

INTERNATIONAL Women’s Day, one of the few surviving legacies of the socialist values of yore, seeks to commemorate the unacknowledged contribution of women to the development and growth of the human race. Today much will be said about their role that has been a worthy one despite the inequalities and prejudices that have handicapped them in many societies. Not to be forgotten either is the oppression that weighs down the bulk of women the world over. But the good news is that by and large the winds of change are blowing. Since 1975, when the UN celebrated the first IWD, women’s rights have come to be widely recognised as human rights. It is also conceded generally that women are entitled to equal opportunities as men to enable them to maximise their potential, though this concept has not always been translated into action. As a result, in many countries — and Pakistan is one of them — the status of women is far from satisfactory.

March 8 is usually an occasion to review women’s progress in their “struggle for equality, peace and development”. In this context the theme for IWD this year ‘Investing in women and girls’ has great relevance for us. With only a third of our women being literate — only a small fraction are educated — they lack the skills which can facilitate their economic empowerment. Not surprisingly their share in the earned income is less than a quarter. There is certainly a lot of investment that is called for. Much of the gender disparity is masked by Pakistan’s stratified society. Women from the highly privileged and well-endowed elitist class have made it to the top but the majority is impoverished with far too many women being deprived of education, health care and decent employment for us to be counted as a civilised state.

It is this majority that needs to be uplifted. Thankfully, the emergence of the women’s movement has brought a sea change in social attitudes and has mobilised women to struggle for their cause. Theirs has been an inclusive struggle which in due course embraced all oppressed classes struggling for the rights and freedoms of the downtrodden. By networking and uniting women have mainstreamed themselves in many areas. As a result, the feminists of today are equally concerned about issues that were previously believed to lie in the male domain — war and peace, politics, the national economy and governance. Women understand the implications of these for their own empowerment and they are now equal participants in the struggle for democracy, justice and liberty. This approach has strengthened their hands. But what is missing is a firm and extensive link with the women at the grassroots which would give qualitative and quantitative strength to the movement.

Why punish Karachi?

WHAT precisely is Karachi’s crime and why is it publicly flogged as a matter of routine? How can the authorities ride so roughshod over the people of a city that accounts for 15 per cent of the country’s GDP and nearly 70 per cent of national tax revenues? Take what happened on Thursday. Business and life in Karachi, the country’s cash cow, were thrown into chaos when the National Transmission and Dispatch Company summarily cut off critically needed supplies from Wapda over a monetary dispute with the Karachi Electric Supply Corporation. Who owes what to whom is immaterial to the people of Karachi. Consumers who pay their bills on time are not a party to this running quarrel between the state and a private company. Adding insult to injury, electricity is also more expensive in Karachi than elsewhere in the country because of fuel-adjustment charges relating to thermal generation. The service, however, is dismal all year round, not just in summer.

KESC may be privately owned now but the government cannot abdicate its responsibility towards Karachi’s 16 million residents. It was the state that created this private-sector monopoly whose performance, marred by mismanagement and outright failure to increase generation capacity, has been pathetic since its privatisation in 2005. It was initially said that the power shortfall in Karachi would be brought under control by 2008. In July last year, KESC said it “might” be able to meet demand by 2011 and the date now being quoted is 2012. This is where the government, which still owns a quarter of the company, needs to step in and force KESC to get its act together. Instead of punishing the people of Karachi, KESC could be taken to court or put through some other form of due process. The government, for starters, should also pay or adjust what it apparently owes KESC (roughly 82 per cent of the amount claimed by NTDC). Summer isn’t far away and a recurrence of the power riots seen over the last few years is a distinct possibility. Worse, given the current political climate, they could be blown out of all proportion and context by vested interests that are already complaining of conspiracies against Karachi.

Kosovo: the tough challenge before EU

By Shadaba Islam

KOSOVO’S declaration of independence from Serbia presents an array of tough challenges for the European Union (EU).

The emergence of Europe’s tiny, new, independent and largely Muslim nation has — once again — split the 27-nation bloc: Britain, France and Germany have joined the US in backing Kosovo’s independence while others, including Cyprus and Spain, oppose the move.

Rifts in EU unity are only part of the problem, however. The EU has also taken on the daunting task of trying to ensure peace and security in an impoverished and volatile country, still torn apart by ethnic divisions between the majority Kosovar Albanian population and a small Serb minority in the north and east of the country.

In addition, further tensions have emerged with Russia which opposes Kosovo’s secession from Serbia. Officials in Brussels are also struggling unsuccessfully to balance support for Kosovo with diplomatic overtures to Serbia which has warned it will never accept the violation of its territorial sovereignty.

Kosovo has, in fact, loomed large on the EU’s foreign policy agenda for more than a decade. Many view the creation of the new state as a chance to dispel the ghosts of the 1990s, when Europe had to rely on the US to halt the bloody break up of Yugoslavia. The territory has been administered by the United Nations since 1999 when Nato bombed Belgrade to end a crackdown on Albanian separatists. The province has, however, officially remained part of Serbia.

EU governments sought initially to forge a joint response to Kosovo’s independence. But the divisions proved to be insurmountable. Those extending immediate recognition to the new state argue that failing to meet Kosovar Albanians aspirations for independence will mean more instability in the region. The EU, they insist, will help build a democratic, stable and multi-ethnic state which could – one day – have a ‘European future’.

Others fear, however, that Kosovo’s secession sets a dangerous precedent for other separatist movements. Despite reassurances from Brussels that Kosovo is a unique case, Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain — struggling to contain their own pro-independence groups — have said they will not recognise Pristina’s declaration of independence. EU officials warn that partial recognition could deter investment, prevent Kosovo from accepting loans from international institutions, impede the Union from signing trade and cooperation deals and place limitations on the travel of Kosovars.

Differences over Kosovo’s status notwithstanding, EU states have sent a joint 2,000 strong police and justice mission to Kosovo to train and mentor police, judges and customs officials. The bloc is also planning to inject substantial funds into one of Europe’s poorest nations. A recent EU report warned that unemployment in Kosovo is close to 50 per cent, wealth per person is five per cent of the EU average, and corruption and organised crime are rampant. Transparency International, the Berlin-based corruption watchdog, recently classified Kosovo as the world’s fourth most corrupt economy, after Cameroon, Cambodia and Albania.

Kosovo’s economy will remain dependent on foreign aid for the foreseeable future, say analysts while its security will be guaranteed by 16,000 Nato troops and its political affairs managed by the EU mission.

The EU’s already-strained relations with an angry and assertive Russia also appear headed for even choppier waters. Moscow has blocked any United Nations resolution on Kosovo’s independence, warning that statehood for Pristina is a ‘provocation’ that will encourage restive minorities along the former Soviet Union’s southern rim. If Kosovo can break free, argue officials in Moscow, Abkhazia and South Ossetia also deserve independence or secession from Georgia.

Disagreement over Kosovo adds to the growing list of differences between the West and Russia, including Moscow’s fury at US plans to deploy a missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic and rising EU concerns at Russia’s use of its vast energy resources as a foreign policy tool.

Not surprisingly, EU relations with Serbia have also nose-dived. EU officials have been trying — with no success — for the last few months to reassure Belgrade that their support for Kosovo’s independence does not mean that Brussels is turning its back on Serbia.

While Belgrade is not being offered a full partnership agreement until it rounds up key war crimes suspects, the EU has said it is ready to sign an interim accord with Serbia as proof of its determination to forge closer ties with the country and prepare it for future EU membership.

Serbia, however, is in no mood to compromise. Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica has spurned EU offers of friendship and Serb leaders have also slammed the EU policy mission in Kosovo as an ‘occupation’ of Belgrade’s territory. Recent attacks by Serb citizens on foreign embassies and missions have also shocked the US and the EU, with many angrily arguing that the authorities did not do enough to stop the angry crowds.

Kosovo also faces the threat of an economic embargo by Serbia, which, incensed by Kosovo’s independence, could decide to cut it off. But economists argue that a trade blockade by Serbia would hurt Serbia more than Kosovo, because Serbia exports $200m worth of goods to Kosovo each year.

Responding to these and other challenges to their regional role and authority will be a key challenge for EU governments over the coming months. The task ahead is daunting. But at stake is EU credibility as a regional power, capable of bringing peaceful change in its neighbourhood through soft power, not the military.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels.

OTHER VOICES - Bangladesh Press

An ordinance that raises deep concern

Prothom Alo

We are deeply concerned by a proposed amendment to the Contempt of Court Act. We urge the government not to sign the ordinance into a law. The fact that the government brought changes to a sensitive law such as this without consulting the Supreme Court came as a surprise to many. It was not clear if the government had discussed the issue with the Supreme Court Bar Association and the office of the Attorney General. The move is doubly disturbing as the ordinance is directly linked to the jurisdiction and freedom of the Supreme Court.

We have always advocated amendments to the Contempt of Court Act 1926, but not in this form. The past coalition government tried to bypass recommendations of the Law Commission, led by Justice Mustafa Kamal, but the attempt fell apart. Over the past two decades, many countries including the UK have upgraded the contempt of court law. But the proposed ordinance in Bangladesh is far removed from public interests. Contempt of court charges stemming from the landmark ‘Majdar Hossain Case’ are still pending with the Supreme Court. We have noticed dithering among government officials in implementing court orders.

The caretaker government is pledge-bound not to push the country back to the pre-1/11 days. It is also sincere about strengthening constitutional institutions, but we are flabbergasted by the latest move on the ordinance.

Finally, we urge the government to make the proposed ordinance public before a final decision is made. — (March 6)

Interest rate cuts: an eyewash?


Private banks agreed to cut the interest rate on industrial loans from the current 16 per cent to 14.75 per cent. The banks also agreed to reduce commissions and service charges. The central bank seemed happy with the banks.

However, businessmen saw the move as deceptive. They said that only two banks had slapped a maximum of 16 per cent on term loans and the rest of the banks disbursed loans with a less than 15 per cent interest rate. It means the new rate cut is trivial. Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) leaders also complained that the decision to reduce service charges was not more than an eyewash.

There is no denying that loan recipients in Bangladesh pay higher interest rates than in other countries.

High interest rates not only slow investments in the private sector but also destroy the equilibrium of the market and ordinary people have to bear the consequences. Industry analysts argue that there are many reasons for the high rates. Banks try to recoup losses from loan defaults by slapping high interest rates on subsequent loan recipients.

This is nothing but incompetence on the part of the banks. If banks are sincere, they can cut the interest rates further; all they have to do is become more competent and cut down on waste.

— (March 6)

— Selected and translated by Arun Devnath

© DAWN Media Group , 2008


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