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DAWN - Editorial; February 04, 2009

February 04, 2009

Abduction of UN official

MILITANCY and violent crime have risen dramatically in recent years. Life and property are at risk across the country and the state has failed its citizens. But when security personnel feel insecure and high-profile politicians fear for their lives, it comes as no surprise that ordinary people are at the mercy of those toting guns and bombs. This is an appalling state of affairs, and much thought and all available resources must be channelled towards finding a solution that is even halfway satisfactory. The huge problems involved in fighting insurgencies in Swat and the tribal areas are understandable. But there are fewer excuses for letting gun-toting terrorists in major cities escape the security net.

Those who come to this country to help people in distress cannot be assured safety either. Monday’s ambush in Quetta that left an employee of the UNHCR dead and led to the abduction of the refugee agency’s Quetta office chief is more than a personal tragedy for the families of those who were attacked. It could have wider repercussions as well. It is an ominous development that sends all the wrong signals to foreign and local agencies providing aid to those who desperately need assistance. As it is many NGOs engaged in vocational, educational and healthcare services in the NWFP and the tribal belt have been forced to leave in the face of threats and attacks by the Taliban. An assault on an international NGO in Mansehra in February 2008 left four staff members dead and many others wounded. In November last year, the UN’s World Food Programme reported that nearly 900 tons of essential supplies “destined for the undernourished” in Pakistan and Afghanistan had been looted in the NWFP the previous month. If such relief programmes come to a halt, tens of thousands of people with no other means of support will lose their only hope for survival. This cannot be allowed to happen in a country where the number of internally displaced persons is on the rise and where poverty is endemic. NGOs and relief agencies must be provided adequate protection.

No trace had been found until Tuesday afternoon of John Solecki, the UNHCR Quetta chief. The identity of his captors remains unknown and there is considerable room for speculation as to who they might be. Given that the incident took place in Balochistan, it is being said they could be associated with the Taliban, with Baloch nationalists or a criminal gang. Mr Solecki apparently did not ask for a police escort but it is time that heightened security measures were put in place for all high-profile relief agency officials in Pakistan. At the same time, no effort should be spared to ensure his recovery and bring the culprits to book.

Need for transparency

THE National Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee has done well to scrutinise closely the audit reports of the defence ministry. By investing more time and effort in this exercise it has unearthed many sections in the 2005-06 report that it has described as indicating “financial irregularities” involving Rs100m. Meanwhile, costs totalling Rs23bn are being reviewed as they have not been explained satisfactorily. All this raises several pertinent issues in terms of financial transparency in government spending, especially when massive amounts are involved as is the case with the defence ministry. True, the defence budget for 2008-09 gave more details, although there was no vote on it. Since 1965, the army’s dominant role in politics saw defence spending under wraps with a one-line entry in the federal budget that did not reveal any details of the allocations for essential and non-essential expenditure. While the thrust towards greater transparency is to be commended, it is not enough. The auditors can play a more effective role in exposing corruption and thus help identify the guilty and bring them to book. The irregularities reported on this occasion may or may not run into billions of rupees. One doesn’t know whether or not the auditors have probed deep enough in areas where the scope for embezzlement is greater, for instance in arms procurement where ‘commissions’ can be a lucrative source of income.

With better budgeting and auditing practices greater transparency can be introduced in defence planning. These would also facilitate a more meaningful debate on the subject. Needless to say, defence spending has been the subject of much controversy given the country’s limited resources and the fact that a disproportionately large chunk of the budget goes to the armed forces. In fact, it is not just the accounts that need auditing. At stake is the performance of the armed forces, and it is this that also calls for stringent auditing if the cost-benefit ratio is to be determined. Once these issues are addressed in earnest, it should become possible to look into the laws and rules that have been framed to give the armed forces enough leeway to earmark financial privileges for themselves — privileges that have enabled them to build huge business empires. On the pretext of secrecy in the interest of national security and strategy, military rulers have used their clout to shield defence spending from public scrutiny, thus escaping accountability. This should not be allowed to happen any longer.

Oil shortages

PETROL pumps in most parts of the country are filling consumers with pain. These are days of acute oil shortages which are blamed on the price adjustment mechanism used by the government to determine domestic oil rates in accordance with fluctuations in the global market. Thus the monthly oil price adjustment mechanism has become part of the problem rather than the solution to the ongoing crisis. Just as global oil prices began sliding last year, pump owners stopped receiving fresh supplies of fuel at a time of domestic price adjustment, so that losses could be avoided in case rates were revised downwards. The oil marketing companies (OMCs) that face a severe liquidity crunch because of the non-payment of their dues by the government are hesitant to supply oil to pumps at the beginning of each month for the same reason. The pump owners — who pay the OMCs for fresh supplies 15 days in advance — want their suppliers to adjust the increase/decrease in domestic prices on the first of every month.

The OMCs do not agree. They want to be paid according to the price effective on the day that advance payment is made. The government is well aware of the problem. It took the decision to adjust domestic prices on a monthly basis instead of basing these on the fortnightly assessment system in place earlier. But it appears helpless in dealing with the dispute between the OMCs and the pumps. This apparent lack of initiative on the part of the government is being blamed for the routine oil shortages. Even official announcements — and they are just that — to revise domestic rates downwards, in spite of falling global prices, have failed to calm the market, and supplies to the consumers continue to be disrupted. The government must find a way out of this. If it does not want its image tarnished, it will have to be seen as taking proactive action by an increasingly sceptical public. Further delay will not help anyone as action is desperately needed to stave off the inconvenience that the public routinely faces when pumps stop operating.

OTHER VOICES - European Press

Malta Today

Blasphemy of censorship

THERE is something deeply hypocritical behind the Censorship Board’s recent decision to ban a play outright, apparently on the grounds that some scenes may be upsetting.

The play in question is Stitched, by Scottish author Anthony Neilson, and to be fair this is not the first time it has elicited controversy. UK newspaper The Guardian reported that some members of the audience walked out during a performance at the Edinburgh festival in 2002....

However, this particular example of state censorship stands out from the others, if nothing else because there has to date been no official explanation whatsoever.

Considering that the censorship board has taken upon itself to shield us all from indecency, one would assume that the decent thing to do would be to also tell us why. After all, this has always been the case with previous decisions. For instance, when former chairman Tony Mifsud announced an immediate ban on the RSC’s Bible, he explained that the play would have been doubly offensive to Catholic sentiments, because it was intended to be staged during Lent.

...On this occasion, however, we are expected to simply take the Censorship Board’s word for it that the play is “unsuitable” to be staged at all... and this assumes sinister implications, when one considers that the play also discusses abortion: a contentious social issue, which has in the past given rise to all sorts of legal misconceptions.

When the government proposed entrenching the abortion ban in the constitution in 2005, there were some who argued that even expressing a pro-life point of view should be made illegal. This in turn prompted a retired judge to write to a newspaper in order to explain ... that breaking the law is one thing; but campaigning to change a law is something else....

Now, a play dwelling on the same subject has been banned outright with no explanation.... This is clearly not conducive to healthy debate, neither to democracy....

But there is another anomaly staring us all in the face. Unlike past censorship acts, this one appears to have less to do with religious sentiments, and more with public decency. Two objections immediately spring to mind: the first is that, in these days of Internet access, when lewd and/or violent images are available at the click of a mouse, it makes little sense to train all the big guns only on theatre — which ... attracts only a few thousand viewers in Malta — while nothing at all is done about a medium that gains access into all our homes. — (Feb 1)

The ‘conquest’ of Swat

By Dr Tariq Rahman

SWAT has been conquered by the Taliban. Between the guns of the army and the long knives of the Taliban the common people eke out a miserable existence. About 400 private schools announced they would not teach girls from Jan 15 onwards.

This means that approximately 40,000 girls will be deprived of schooling. Only girls up to the fourth grade will be able to get basic schooling if more schools are not burnt down. So far almost 200 have been burnt down and about 20 are occupied by the military.

But this is nothing compared to the blood-curdling beheadings which are going on. To escape this horrible fate a dancer Shabana from this blighted valley is said to have begged her tormentors to shoot her dead. Indeed, all professions connected with the performing arts are dead.

Artistes have fled to other cities. Swat lies under the grim, puritanical control of hate-spewing FM radios and vigilantes out to crush dissent and bring the lifelessness of the graveyard to the ‘Switzerland’ of Pakistan.But why has all this happened? The answer is that the governments of Pakistan have allowed it to happen under their noses.

To begin with, the movement against the government, though it used the idiom of Islam, was nothing more than the demand for speedy justice. The Swatis had fast-track justice under their rulers (the walis of Swat) and this is what they wanted.

Meanwhile, militancy, again using the idiom of Islam, grew in the whole country. This time, again, the state and its agencies were at fault. The basic idea was that if fighters were sneaked across the Line of Control in Kashmir India would bleed so much that it would come to the negotiating table. On the side these fighters also indulged in sectarian vendettas so that neither mosques frequented by Sunnis nor Shia imambargahs remained safe. What did Pakistan gain as a result? Not an inch of Kashmir but the possibility of being declared a ‘terrorist state’ and the perpetual fear of a war with India.

As if we did not have enough troubles of our own making, we got new ones after 9/11. These were the Taliban fighters — including Arabs, Chechens, Uzbeks etc — fleeing the American occupation of Afghanistan.

Earlier American and Pakistani policies in the region had fostered an environment of religious extremism that led to the creation of the Taliban. Now this monster was coming to take sanctuary inside Pakistan. Pakistani intelligence agencies did not want to fight all these Taliban groups as they still believed they would need them as friends in Afghanistan once the Americans abandoned the country. This disastrous idea strengthened the Taliban.

However, as the Americans forced Pakistan to abandon its erstwhile guests, a number of people — purportedly from the Al Qaeda group — were ‘sold off’ to the Americans without the due process of law.

In short, two contradictory policies were in place: to look the other way while some Taliban kept crossing back and forth from Afghanistan to Pakistan; to fight the others if they struck in Pakistan. This policy also failed as the Taliban gathered strength in Fata. The armed forces and the Americans fought them through artillery and air bombardment but both methods killed ordinary people causing widespread misery which has strengthened the Taliban even more.

These disparate fighting groups, all using the idiom of Islam, have actually created a state within a state. The common people are confused because they operate in the name of the sacred. The media does not condemn them because America is so unpopular that its enemies (the Taliban) are seen as heroes. The government has lost its credibility.

It is seen as a stooge of America and, further, it has hardly confessed to its past blunders. Moreover, the government is polarised when it comes to the centres of power (the army, intelligence agencies, the president and prime minister) and does not speak with one voice. The state is weak, the people confused, and the militants further strengthened.

What, then, is to be done? There are two options. First, to withdraw from Swat and Fata and create a buffer state ruled by the Taliban or the several factions which go by that name. This would stop the daily deaths of our soldiers and policemen. However, it would be a terrible blow to the state and would also mean abandoning Pakistani citizens to a cruel minority all set to create a hell on earth. Even worse, the Taliban would spread from this new state to other areas in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In short, the war would go on.

The second option is to fight the Taliban after getting everybody on board. For this there should be a plan to look after displaced people and a strategy to win hearts and minds. Also, it is infantry and intelligence which is needed, not warplanes dropping bombs on villages while the Taliban scamper to safety. This option is costly in terms of the lives of our soldiers and also unpopular. But it can succeed, especially if the Americans get out of Afghanistan or at least stop using drones to drop bombs on our areas.

But let us remember that fighting means consistently fighting and not just sporadically sacrificing young soldiers and officers while the top brass makes compromises. The real heroes of this unacknowledged war are these young soldiers and officers.

Here let me narrate the story of Lieutenant Omar, a boy officer now lying with a wounded leg in one of our army hospitals. Fighting the Taliban this young man found himself all alone as the regiment had withdrawn. Stunned, with a bleeding leg just hit by a bullet, and with the whistle of bullets in his ears, he was convinced he would die. But just then came the familiar voice of a soldier from his platoon. “Sir he is here!” And two soldiers lifted him and dashed across — notwithstanding the whistling bullets — to safety.

These three young men need to be recognised as among those who are the saviours of our freedoms. If there are privileges and plots of land to give out then these heroes deserve them more than peace-time officers. Will they be recognised and their mission completed? Or will they have risked their lives in vain?

Rural jobless in China

By Tania Branigan

AROUND 20 million migrant workers have returned to the Chinese countryside after failing to find work in the cities because of the economic downturn. The figure — greater than the population of Australia — is double a previous official estimate and will heighten the concerns of the Chinese authorities about maintaining stability.

It came a day after the government warned that 2009 would be “possibly the toughest year” for economic development in China since the turn of the century. Chen Xiwen, director at the Office of the Central Leading Group on Rural Work says that a government survey showed that 15.3 per cent of an estimated 130 million rural migrants to the cities had returned home jobless. Adding in new entrants to the rural labour market gave a total of around 26 million unemployed and potentially restive people in the countryside. Some economists believe this is an underestimate and say the real figure could ultimately reach 40 million.

The figures do not include the urban unemployed or students. Last month the government said that almost nine million urban residents registered as jobless in December and the first increase in the urban unemployment rate (to 4.2 per cent) after five years of successive falls.

Many believe the true rate is far higher. Academics have also estimated that 1.5 million of this year’s graduates could fail to find work.

There is a considerable number of rural migrants who are unemployed. After they return to villages, what about their incomes? How will they live? That’s a new factor concerning social stability this year. Local officials have been told to handle unrest with care and go to the frontline to explain to and persuade the public.

China sees tens of thousands of “mass incidents” each year and the authorities have issued a string of warnings to officials about the risks of the economic downturn exacerbating problems.

Mao Shoulong, a professor at Renmin University, said unrest often developed because there were not clear channels for expressing grievances and disadvantaged groups had no way to protect their rights and interests. But he added that the authorities had learned from experience. “They even try to hold direct dialogue with people and they are more cautious about using armed police,” he said.

China has around 750 million rural residents; more than the combined populations of the United States and European Union.

But growth in the countryside has lagged far behind the cities, with the rural-urban income gap expanding rapidly over the last two decades.

— The Guardian, London