By Aasim Sajjad Akhtar*
When General Musharraf came to power over two and a half years ago, most Pakistanis were relieved. The systematic de-politicisation of society that has taken place particularly over the past 25 years, had convinced citizens that inept elected governments could only be toppled by the armed forces. Sadly, a democratic culture has never evolved in Pakistan, and the persistent interference of the military in politics is the primary reason for this.
Thirty months later, the public sentiment is quite different. The extent to which this military government has abided by the policy prescriptions of the international financial institutions (IFIs) is quite amazing, and the effect has been devastating. The real price of gasoline in Pakistan is now twice that in the United States. Prices of utilities are amongst the highest in the world. The lethal regressive general sales tax (GST) has been slapped even o­n medicines, in a country where a meager 0.8% of GDP is spent o­n health, and thousands die from preventable diseases annually.

Especially post-September 11, the US seal of approval has transformed General Musharraf from an international outcast to becoming the world's favourite dictator-democrat. And the IFIs and Western governments are happy to keep the loans coming sure of the General's wholehearted commitment to the neo-liberal agenda. But the brewing discontent at home, coupled with the imminent threat of war with India, means that the Musharraf is as vulnerable as he ever has been.
The presidential referendum held o­n April 30 simply confirmed the completely farcical nature of politics that the military seeks to impose o­n the country. With political parties largely co-opted by the state, the lack of organized resistance is telling. The trade union movement is virtually dead, and other groups such as students and professionals are largely silent. Journalists and lawyers played a more positive role in opposing the referendum, but the critical mass needed to really make an impact was missing. Perhaps the most active and meaningful pockets of resistance are amongst social movements, but those who are making their voices heard are also suffering the consequences.


Landless tenants in Punjab province have been the target of state repression in recent months as a powerful and symbolic movement for land allotments has gotten under the government's skin. Three tenants have been shot and killed in the past few weeks, with thousands more charged under draconian anti-terrorist legislation. Squatters all over the country resisting summary evictions have also been victimized through the lodging of false criminal cases. Opponents of mega water projects are facing charges of spreading inter-provincial disharmony.

While these groups are fighting livelihood battles, the politicized nature of their struggles has brought them into direct conflict with the illegal and undemocratic military regime. Despite the liberal face that General Musharraf has shown the West, it is clear that his regime's level of tolerance to opposition is the same as all the dictatorial government s that have come before him – that is, virtually zero. Pakistani intelligence agencies have masterminded the art of harassing political activists, thereby ruining the country's political culture, but they are still unable to stop gruesome events such as the bombing of a bus full of French engineers in Karachi.


The situation in Pakistan is at a boiling point. With India's religious right breathing down their necks, the military establishment has not made any clear attempt to distance itself from jihadi organizations. There is a chance that a war between India and Pakistan could give General Musharraf the excuse he needs to postpone elections. All signs point to the fact that the oppressive paradigm of development that has been propagated by the establishment for decades will continue to flourish.
In this environment, there is an acute need to support those who are resisting and highlight the o­ngoing violations of basic human and community rights. It is clear that Western governments and donors have abandoned any remaining principles concerning civil and political norms, and that their support for the military regime will continue to be based o­n their narrow self-interest. In fact, the IFIs have made it clear that continuity of the economic agenda of this government is essential – a clear validation of the Musharraf regime. It is left to civil and political society the world over to lend support to those who are increasingly isolated because of their political positions and their struggle in Pakistan.

* Coordinator, People's Rights Movement, a confederation of different movements including landless tenants, squatters and fisherfolk. [email protected]