Benazir Bhutto on the Future of Democracy in Pakistan

Pakistan on the brink
Benazir Bhutto
July 24, 2007
This is an abbreviated version of a speech given by Ms Benazir Bhutto at the International Institute for Strategic Studies on July 20, 2007

As we meet, Pakistan is in crisis - a crisis that began almost 50 years ago when President Ayub Khan the country's first military ruler seized power in 1958. Thirty years ago, in 1977, another military coup d'etat against a democratically elected government further deepened the crisis . Four military dictatorships, most recently General Zia-ul-Haq and General Pervez Musharraf, have ruled my nation for the last 32 years alternating with elected civilian governments that have been summarily brought down by intervention by the military intelligence agencies. Democracy has never been given a chance to grow in Pakistan. Today the crisis has not only continued but it has dangerously accelerated, not only in Pakistan but for the whole region and the wider world community. And much to the dismay of the people of Pakistan, Islamabad has become the site of a training and staging area for al-Qaida.

Tragically from our soil, from areas that were under the control of my government but have now been ceded to the militants, pro-Taliban forces linked to al-Qaida launch almost daily attacks on Nato troops across the border in Afghanistan. They also pose an internal threat to the 160 million people of Pakistan killing members of the armed forces, political workers, and innocent civilians across the length and breadth of Pakistan. Last week we had four suicide attacks and in the last suicide attack that took place in Islamabad 18 people were killed. From parts of the Pakistani territory that the present regime has termed ungovernable those forces of militancy and extremism are planning further acts of terror and aggression against the west and against the people of Pakistan threatening to match or even exceed the scale of the September 11 atrocities. Without hesitation I believe that the future of democracy in South Asia and, without exaggeration, the stability of the entire world lies in the balance directly as a result of the international community's acquiescence to military dictatorship.

In the view of my party military dictatorship fuels the forces of extremism by putting into place a government that is unaccountable, unrepresentative, undemocratic and unable to fulfil the aspirations of the great and hardworking people of Pakistan. Military dictatorship born from the power of the gun undermines the concept of the rule of law and gives birth to a culture of weapons, violence and intolerance. The suppression of democracy in my homeland has had profound institutional consequences; the major infrastructural building blocs of democracy have been weakened, political parties have been marginalised, NGOs dismantled, judges sacked and civil society undermined. The Red Mosque incident that we saw earlier this month is the direct result of an eight-year military regime's policy of the so-called Islamisation of my nation. Just as the military establishment of the 80s used the so-called Islamic card to promote military dictatorship while demonising political parties so too has the military dictatorship of the 21st century used the so-called Islamic card to pressure the international community into backing military dictatorship in Pakistan. We in the PPP agree that the militants of the Red Mosque had to be stopped from taking over Islamabad and imposing their own brand of politics which they wrongly tried to justify in the name of Islam. But we believe that this incident should have been dealt with six months back when burka-clad people took over a government-owned library.

It is sometimes argued in the west traumatised by terrorism that a military regime is the only thing that stands in the way of a nuclear-armed fundamentalist Pakistan. Nothing can be further from the truth. The militant dictatorship needs the external crutch of a militant threat to justify its existence to the international community. Whether in the east or the west dictatorship fuels extremism rather than contains it. The Red Mosque siege has shown us how dangerous parts of Pakistan have become since democracy was derailed in the country in 1996, when Pakistan was one of the 10 emerging markets of the world. If the military regime and its civilian allies are allowed to rig the upcoming election scheduled for later this year I am in no doubt that it will give the Taliban sympathisers five more years to spread their tentacles across the nooks and corners of our country and if that is the case then we really could be facing an Islamist takeover of Pakistan in five years time. The choice in Pakistan is not really between military and the mullahs, the choice in Pakistan is between dictatorship and democracy, and it's not just the choice in Pakistan in my view, humbly, I say that is the choice the world too faces with us.

Yet to understand the present and to change the future we must understand how we came to this point. Shortly after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 international calls for a Pakistani return to democracy subsided. The west saw an opportunity to use the events in Afghanistan to hobble the Soviet Union. The western policy at that time was directed to only one goal; to use Afghanistan as the final nail in the coffin of the Soviet Union. Short-term advantages checkmated long term policy goals as the West funnelled aid and training of the extremist mujahideen through Pakistan's intelligence services which were then commanded by a military dictator with close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. He turned to the Muslim Brotherhood within Pakistan and to the Muslim Brotherhood outside Pakistan to put together the Afghan mujahideen. The mujahideen would later morph into the Taliban and the Taliban would morph, in turn, into al-Qaida and the rest is ugly, painful history. But it was not necessarily unpredicted. A short-term policy decision has generated a long-term crisis not just for South Asia but for the entire world. Decisions made in the early 1980s can be directly linked to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, to the attacks on Madrid, London, Glasgow, Peshawar, Islamabad and Quetta and to the continuing plots emanating out of al-Qaida and the Taliban from the safe haven that they have established in the tribal areas of Pakistan, against my people and against yours.

The ISI CIA alliance supplied weapons and training to the mujahideen but it also converted Pakistan into a violent society of Kalashnikovs, heroin users and radicalised Islam. The military dictatorship of Zia-ul-Haq diverted funds from the social sector to military intelligence the government relinquished its responsibility in providing education, health, housing and social services to our people so parents who were desperate to house, feed and clothe their children handed them over to the political madrassas. The political madrassas did house, clothe and feed the children but they also provided the poison of hatred and they provided paramilitary type training as well as turned the places of religious worship into a cover for training militants and promoting terror. The people of Pakistan and, indeed, the people of the Muslim world question how the international community can support democracy in Afghanistan while supporting dictatorship in Pakistan. I suggest that the west sadly and inadvertently has become the enablers of the Pakistani military dictatorship's suppression of political aspirations of the people of Pakistan.

So where do we go from here? Another rigged election? It is expected that the opposition will unite if the elections are rigged and copy the Ukraine and its Orange Revolution . But can Pakistan afford a non-facilitated transfer to democracy? Can Pakistan afford to see a popular movement where the extremists might seek to control as they sought control of the popular movement against the Shah of Iran in neighbouring Iran in1979?

I say trust the people of Pakistan. They have never voted for the religious parties because the people of Pakistan realise that being a Muslim does not depend upon state laws, being a Muslim depends on the acquiescence to God's laws and God's laws are universal so a person can be a Muslim in England, in America or anywhere in the world. Every PPP worker from the smallest village of Pakistan to our great cities, believe that democracy means development and that democracy undermines extremism. The restoring of democracy through fair elections will be a giant step not only for the internal development of the progress of the people of Pakistan but also for regional peace and stability.

For full text of the speech, click here


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