Feb 21, 2009

Work for justice and peace will result

I am in Colombo where life moves with a gentle and calm purposness, where elegant afternoon teas of scones and strawberries are served on the Verandah at the Galle Face Hotel to be replaced by long cool drinks as soon as the sun goes down. But as the army pickets every few hundred yards remind you, it is not all gentle. There has been a civil war raging here for decades and things are bad at the moment. The war and its not so subtle reminders have not managed to stop life from carrying on here. There may be fewer tourists than normal but there are tourists and Sri Lanka has a highly developed tourist industry. Colombo Fashion week has managed to attract not just designers from the region but buyers from all over the world. As I write this two LTTE (Tamil Tigers) aircraft came in over the sea and attacked Colombo. There ensued two hours of heavy anti aircraft and morter fire and dog fights over our hotel. In the midst of all this we realised that life does go on. The hotel staff were fabulously efficient, they distributed water, gave regular updates on what was happening, kept everyone calm and promised that the show would go on. Fear was conquered by maintaining a sense of defiance. It was Colombo Fashion Week and so everyone went about congratulating Rizwan Beyg and Deepak Perwani for their triumphs on the ramp.We calmed down and then realised that while ours were the best, while every woman wanted to be dressed in a Rizwan Beyg original, there were no buyers for them, no overseas orders, no visits to their studios. All this because we cannot seem to get it together at home. A suicide bomber is a suicide bomber whether Muslim or Hindu Tamil, the destruction is the same.And it was in the lobby where I saw an article in the local paper about restoring justice in post conflict areas. Where the vision of the Legal Aid Commission was 'work for justice and peace will result'. It reminded me of home, of the past two years, of the tireless struggle of Pakistan's lawyers who have the same vision. The black coat movement, as it was called, was likened to the Orange Revolution and there was an expectancy that there would be change. Change did come; Pakistan's otherwise sendentary social upper and middle class came out in numbers, as did the journalists, doctors and teachers, workers, peasants and political workers. As numbers swelled so did hope. We went to an election a year ago and voted out General Musharraf and his politics. Moved We understood that the country was faced with huge problems and that immediate action needed to be taken. We needed a government with a vision for Pakistan. The government, however, spent more time justifying doing nothing and the people, disappointed with the government not keeping its word continued to organise peaceful protests and came out on the streets to remind the government of the many promises it had made. The numbers fluctuated but the resolve did not falter. International polls have documented the increasing number of Pakistanis who have been touched by the lawyers movement at some point over the past two years – and it is difficult not to be touched. It is difficult not to want a system of governance and justice that works for all citizens. A system that does not harass the citizen, one that guarantees him his basic rights. But for some reason our government appeared to be completely occupied with doing all it could to secure its own position, or at least that is what they thought they were doing. In reality what was happening was a series of crisis that hit us one after another and the only solution put forward was vast amounts of rhetoric.And in the once beautiful valley of Swat, less than a hundred miles from Islamabad, a disgruntled population's long standing demand for the rule of law continued to fall on the deaf ears of those in government. However, these demands were heard by a cleric and his band of well armed followers. They rode in and filled the huge vacuum created by decades of inaction and non-governance and went about imposing their notion of administration and justice, which was to strike terror in the hearts of the citizens by providing a violent, brutal and speedy system of justice. As with all systems that exist through coercion and violence they sought to impose their authority by targetting the most vulenerable segments of society. The first victims were women. Schools were blown up to ensure that the girls did not go to school, men and women were executed pubically for defying the Taleban and floggings were a daily occurance. As the death toll rose so did opinion that the government in Islamabad was completely at sea. To counter this the army was sent in to take back control. The army bombing did little to make things better. Civilian casualties mounted daily as did anger against the government and military. Pushed in to a corner the government succumbed to pressure of violence and agreed to the imposition of Sharia in Malakand Division and one district in Hazara.So what we have are two different groups wanting the same thing but going about it in different ways. The lawyers leading the country on to the streets for two years, have been peaceful, almost carnival like. Theirs being a plural movement, the protests are joined by people from all walks of life. Young and old, men and women, conservative and liberal walked together for the rule of law. The Taliban have shown they are able and willing to meet that demand but their methods are extreme to say the least. Why is it that our government is willing to succumb to violence and not listen to the peaceful voice of people? Do they realise that their actions are seen as surrendering to pressure at the barrel of a gun. And do they not see that the action to disciple Aitzaz Ahsan for demanding, on our behalf, the rule of law and a system of governance is as anti-democratic as General Musharraf's crackdown in November 2007? It is time to do something to earn a democratic dividend. Time to restore the judiciary, reduce the size of government and do some work to bring Pakistan back from the brink.
by Ayesha Tammy Haq

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