Fear drives conspiracy of silence in Pakistan

October 26, 2009

Many Pakistanis and their leaders may hate the Taliban, but few dare speak openly against them for fear of reprisals from the hardline Islamist group.

The militants have carried out four attacks and killed at least a dozen people since the army launched an assault on their South Waziristan stronghold, while more than 150 people were killed in a deadly spree preceding the offensive – including a brazen raid on army headquarters in Rawalpindi.

Yet despite the attacks, few Pakistanis are prepared to come forward and bear witness against the militants.

While Naveed Haider was not afraid to give his version of events after witnessing the drive-by shooting of an army brigadier in the capital, he said he understood why others were more relectuant.

“They are scared,” he said pointing to a dozen people standing around him. “The shooting took place in front of all these people, but no one will speak because they are fightened.”

“What can we do?” a man in the crowd responded. “We are poor people. How can we speak?”

The apparent fear is not confined to ordinary people and seems even to have struck the country’s leaders — many who don’t move without a heavy bodyguard.

Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani invited political leaders for a briefing with the army chief before the South Waziristan offensive,  but former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, the main opposition leader, and Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman, an Islamist ally of the government, declined to attend.

“Nawaz falls ill, Maulana flies off, both avoid Taliban fury,” The News said.

Though Sharif was represented by his brother Shahbaz, chief minister of central Punjab province, the newspaper quoted unidentified “knowledegable sources” as saying that Sharif opted out because he didn’t want to be viewed as supporting the offensive “at a time when the Taliban had already started vengeful strikes in different parts of the country”.

Underlining security concerns, Shahbaz is seeking the postponement of a Punjab by-election due early next month on the grounds that the family faced threats from the militants.

Rehman, head of Jamiat-e-ulema-e-Islam, the country’s largest Islamic political party which draws much of its support from the northwest where most of the militants operate, also missed the government’s briefing on the offensive, the newspaper said. He has received threats from the militants in the past.

Some analysts say Sharif’s ambivalence might be linked to his political rivalry with President Asif Ali Zardari who has seen his popularity plunge, but local media urged a stance against extremism.

“At this time of great danger, we must also ask: what else will shake leaders such as Nawaz Sharif, who are still on the fence, to take a firm stand against militants and support the effort to subdue them?” Dawn asked in an editorial entitled “The evil in our midst”.

Karachi resident Quratulain Shafi, in a letter published in the Daily Times, called on politicians to bury their differences in the face of mounting problems faced by the country. “Stick to your word,” he said.

“We need both major political parties … to work together and with an eye on Pakistan’s interests, rather than their own, if the country is to succeed in defeating the current challenges.”

(Photos: Police in Lahore, and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif)

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