Third SAATH conference on Pakistan in Washington

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Forced conversation of Christian and Hindu girls is matter of concern; will prepare legislation to stop China from bailing out Pakistan; says Congressman Brad Sherman

Hussain Haqqani claims Pakistan is sick man of Asia, only a democracy in name not in reality. Dr. M. Taqi, Christine Fair also address the meeting. Conference demands action against hate groups and extremist organisations. Verbal arguments before moot

Nation and ANI report

WASHINGTON: A conference titled “Democracy, Human Rights and Ending Terrorism in Pakistan” held at a place near the White House here has expressed grave concerns over what it called Pakistan’s drift towards authoritarianism, expansion of the military’s control over public policy and weakening of civilian institutions.

Addressing the conference, Hussain Haqqani, former ambassador of Pakistan to US and earlier to Sri Lanka during Nawaz Sharif’s regime, said; “Pakistan is only a democracy in name not in reality”. The event was organised by South Asians Against Terrorism & for Human Rights (SAATH) Forum on Tuesday (December 18).

According to an ANI report, he raised concerns over growing threats to minority communities and the deteriorating human rights situation in the country where the elected government has failed to protect civil rights. Haqqani was of the view that assurances given by Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa proved sufficient to half target killings of Hazara citizens in Balochistan, which raises questions as to why similar assurances and actions were not available under previous army chiefs.

Haqqani went on to say; “Sindhi and Balochi language provinces are the oppressed groups and communities in Pakistan. Their culture and languages are being eliminated in the name creating a uniform country. Countries don’t become strong by eliminating diversity – they become strong by embracing it.”

The participants denounced blocking of websites, including Voice of America (VOA), stifling of debate and freedom of media. The conference condemned the practice of abductions of journalists and bloggers and threats to Pakistani dissidents and social media activists abroad.

The conference demanded action to be taken against hate groups and extremist organisations like the Tehreek-e-Labain Pakistan (TLP) and Jamaat-ud-Dawa, also known as Lashkar-e-Taiba, ostensibly being mainstreamed by the security establishment.

Hussain Haqqani claimed the people of Pakistan are paying a huge price for sheltering these terrorists, He said; “The memories of Peshawar attack haunts the Pakistanis till today in which many students were massacred by the terrorists. We want a country where children can safely go to school rather than becoming targets of terrorists many of whom were cultivated by Pakistan itself.”

The conference was attended by Congressman Brad Sherman who claimed and showed his concern over the forced conversion of Hindu and Christians girls in Pakistan. He said; “We see the issue of forced conversions of about 1000 young women in Pakistan forcibly converted after marriage 70 percent of them being Hindus. I want to condemn this in legislature.”

Haqqani said in his concluding remarks; “Media in Pakistan was fully controlled in 1971. We did not hear about the atrocities in East Pakistan. We did not know about the loss of half of our country.”

Meanwhile, Seema Sirohi, a Washington DC-based commentator writes for ‘The Wire’ that Congressman Brad Sherman, who is likely to be the chairman of the subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific next year when the Democrats take control of the House of Representatives, agreed with conference organisers that the recent elections were not “free and fair.”

He also mentioned Amnesty International’s report on “enforced disappearances” in Pakistan and said he had raised the issue with secretary of state Mike Pompeo. Then in a reference that will hit the establishment where it hurts most, Sherman reminded Pakistan of 1971 and what can happen if diversity is not honoured. That his comment came on December 16, the anniversary of Pakistani surrender to Indian and Bangladeshi forces, was significant.

Sherman also warned in no uncertain terms that any IMF bailout to Pakistan couldn’t be used to pay its debt to China. He denounced China’s “debt-trap” tactics to burden countries around the world and then robbing them of their sovereignty. “We have seen it in Sri Lanka. We are seeing it in Africa.”

The IMF bailout for Pakistan is crucial. Reports say that it is seeking a $8 billion loan to tide over a severe balance-of-payment crisis. Since the US controls nearly 17% of the vote share in the IMF, dwarfing other countries, it can create major roadblocks for Pakistan.

Sherman said he was working on legislation called the Chinese Debt Trap Relief Act, which would allow countries to default on Chinese debt and simply not pay. The Bill would instruct US banks and rating agencies not to count the default against those countries. “If China wants to make these loans, fine. If they don’t get repaid, that’s their business and countries will be then free to engage in other financial transactions,” he said.

It’s unclear whether such a Bill would pass, but it indicates that both Democrats and Republicans are united in the pushback against China and its “predatory” economic policies.

Husain Haqqani, also one of the conference organisers, called Pakistan the “sick man of Asia.” While other South Asian countries are embracing innovation, Pakistan is mired in ideological debates, he said.

Dr. Mohammad Taqi, co-organiser and a well-respected columnist on Pakistani politics, said what transpired this year was nothing short of a coup with the last vestiges of dissent being wiped out.

Christine Fair, an expert on Pakistan and professor at Georgetown University, described various ways the ISI works in Washington’s think tank circuit, recruiting pliable young experts desperate for a visa to Pakistan.

She said in order to change the “”narrative” on Pakistan in Washington so that effective policy could be made, one has to change the “narrative-makers”, meaning the experts in various think tanks, many of whom are under ISI’s influence.

The two-day conference was the third such gathering abroad of Pakistani liberals and progressives. The first two were held in London. The conference issued a three-page, 22-para declaration at the end, reaffirming its support for a “liberal, democratic, secular, progressive Pakistan.”

The statement covered almost every infection in Pakistani society – from terrorism to curbs on the media, from the suppression of leaders of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement to the “conspiracy” theories peddled by officials, from disappearances in Balochistan, Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkwa to mainstreaming of various terrorist groups.

According to Seema Sirohi, the declaration may make its way to the White House, adding a crucial input from Pakistani Americans as the Donald Trump administration further hones its South Asia policy. The review was done by seven experts from different organisations, including Haqqani, who heads the Hudson Institute’s South Asia programme. They came together to advocate “a renewed and visible effort” to align various diplomatic and political efforts to produce results.

“If Pakistan will not play a positive role, the United States and its partners should pursue a tough-minded strategy,” the authors say. The team of authors included Bharath Gopalaswamy, director of Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, Ashley Tellis of Carnegie Endowment, and General David Petraeus, former commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan and Manish Tewari, a former Congress minister and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Verbal scuffle

Meanwhile, about five people of Pakistan origin held a demonstration outside the venue and tried to enter the conference but the organisers including Hussain Haqqani, Shahzaib Jilani and Dr. Taqi did not allow them and said that they couldn’t because they were not invited, one of them threatened Haqqani with dire consequences, calling him an “Indian agent.”

They identified themselves as supporters of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehree-e-Insaf (PTI) party. One of them, Junaid Bashir (from New Jersey) challenged Haqanni to “come back to Pakistan” and said Sir aap Pakistan kyon nahi aatay, yahan beth kar Pakistani ki burai kart ay hain, aap wahan aayen, phir hum dekh lenge” (Sir, why don’t you come to Pakistan, abusing Pakistan while sitting here. You come to Pakistan then we will see what will happen).

After a verbal scuffle for about 15 minutes, all five people went back and Hussain Haqqani took his colleague back to the room. A video clip of the arguments went viral widely.