Opening old wounds – Ours and Theirs

A staggering 27,117 people stand united, holding green and red boards above their heads, to put up the world’s biggest ever human flag at the National Parade Ground on Victory day yesterday

Bangladeshis set world records during 16th December celebration.

The approach of 16th December fills me with unease every year. It’s one of those times when I try to avoid Facebook, Twitter, and the media in general. The level of insanity that is inevitably present makes me depressed, and let’s be honest – we don’t need extra reasons to be depressed these days. In recent years, there have been attempts to deal with the loss of East Pakistan by trying to re-write history so that the blame falls on America and Jews as well as the usual Indian bogey. This year, with the sentence of Abdul Quader Molla coinciding, I knew it was going to be particularly awful. And I was right.

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Pakistan should apologize to Bangladesh: Salima Hashmi

Bangla PakWhile the bilateral trade between the two countries has been growing slowly over the past years, there is no doubt that some scars have yet to heal. Here is an excellent piece published in The Independent which serves as a stark reminder of our past. Something that we, the team at New Pakistan, think would serve as a good replug for our readers:



DHAKA, MAR 24: The Pakistan government should formally apologise to the people of Bangladesh for the atrocities committed by Pakistan occupation army during the War of Independence in 1971, Salima Hashmi, daughter of Pakistani late poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz said in Dhaka on Sunday. “My father wrote a number of poems on the genocide committed in Bangladesh. He expressed the sufferings faced by the people in 1971,” a visibly emotional Hashmi said while talking to the Independent after receiving the “Bangladesh Liberation War Honour Award” at a ceremony in the city.

“I was overwhelmed with emotions while coming over to Bangladesh and receiving the award on behalf of my father,” the daughter of the renowned Pakistani poet, who was outspoken on the atrocities committed by the Pakistani occupation forces during the 1971 Liberation War of Bangladesh, said.

The Pakistani government repeatedly warned my father for writing in favour of Bangladesh’s freedom struggle. We did not know much about the atrocities committed by the Pakistani Army, as information was not passed by the military personnel, she recounted.

Welcoming the present Awami league-led government’s initiative to honour the foreign friends for their outstanding contributions to the Liberation War of Bangladesh, she said: “Pakistani women have already apologised to the women of Bangladesh for the ill-treatment they received at the hands of the Pakistani army.”

Asma Jahangir, a renowned human rights activist of Pakistan and daughter of the late Malik Ghulam Jilani, then vice-chairman of the West Pakistan Awami League, also received the award on behalf of her father in Dhaka yesterday. “It’s a positive step taken by the Bangladesh government. It’ll strengthen Bangladesh’s relations with different countries,” she observed.

The recipients of “Bangladesh Liberation War Honour” and “Friends of Bangladesh” have thanked the Bangladesh government for bestowing the honours upon them for their outstanding contributions during the Liberation War. Some of them shared their emotions with The Independent on Sunday.

The Bangladesh government honoured 68 foreign nationals, as well as an organisation, in the sixth phase of honouring the country’s foreign friends.

Dr Amiya Kumar Chaudhuri, an Indian national, thanked the government for recognising their contribution in the 1971 War of Independence. He was an active member of the Calcutta University Shahayak Samity during the Liberation War. He used to collect funds for Bangladeshi intellectuals by arranging cultural events. “It’s really a remarkable moment for us. We highly appreciate the Bangladesh government’s initiatives to honour its foreign friends,” he said.

Chaudhuri organised a number of seminars to impress upon the then Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi the need to recognise Bangladesh’s struggle for freedom.

“We arranged many seminars to mobilise public opinion in favour of Bangladesh. Despite financial problems, we continued the movement to support the people of Bangladesh,” he added.

Dr Dhrubajyoti Lahiry, then a lecturer in Presidency College of Kolkata, was another member of the Calcutta University Shahayak Samity. He said they had extended all-out support to the refugees from Bangladesh. He also arranged seminars throughout India to create mass awareness about Bangladesh’s freedom struggle. “The award made me a little uneasy at first. But, at the same time, I feel happy that the government of Bangladesh has taken a landmark initiative to honour  all foreign friends for their role during its War of Independence,” he said.

The undaunted spirit of Bangladesh’s freedom movement, and the tyranny, persecution and anguish suffered by her people were vividly reflected in the paintings of Prof. Dhiraj Choudhury. Appreciating the Bangladesh government’s initiatives, he said, “It would inspire young people contribute to the country’s cause.”

Choudhury, a former professor of Delhi Art College, said, “I arranged a solo exhibition on the theme ‘Happenings and inheritance of Bangladesh’ in 1971. It created public awareness in favour of Bangladesh in the global arena and raised funds as well.”

Dr Tomio Mizokami, professor emeritus of Osaka University of foreign studies in Japan, expressed deep gratification after receiving the award. “It’s remarkable. It’s difficult to express in words. I feel honoured to have received such a prestigious award,” he said.

“During the Liberation War, I came to know about the atrocities committed by the Pakistani Army through print and electronic media outlets. I, then, decided to do something for the oppressed people of Bangladesh,” he added.
“I started collecting funds in Japan. I also shipped food and other essential commodities to the distressed people,” he recalled.

Munshi Mohammad Fazle Kader expressed his gratitude to Bangladesh for receiving the award.
“I’m a simple person. It’s a lifetime achievement from Bangladesh,” he said.

An eyewitness war of the Liberation War, he added, “I was working at the deputy high commission in Kolkata in 1971. I’m one of the persons who raised the national flag of Bangladesh at the deputy high commission in Kolkata.”

“The oppression of the Pakistani army against minorities, and the Bangladesh people, inspired me to work in favour of the Liberation War of Bangladesh. I prepared documents, distributed letters and leaflets and participated in meetings and processions to raise voice against the atrocities committed by the Pakistani Army,” he added.


Leaving billions on the table


While backwards-looking groups like Difa-e-Pakistan are demanding that Pakistan limit trade with India, Bangladesh is taking a reasoned economic view of their relations and reaping the benefits – benefits to the tune of $1 billion.

For the first time in history, Bangladesh’s exports to India will cross the $1 billion mark in a 12-month period next July, a top Indian official has said at a conference jointly held by Indian Council of World Affairs and Association of Asia Scholars.

This is made possible because Bangladesh is willing to separate its economic interests from foreign policy matters. It does not mean that they are unwilling or unable to criticise India openly, though, even on matters of trade. When India imposed a ban on cotton import, Bangladesh spoke out against this violation of trade norms. Actually, Bangaldesh has moral authority on their side in this complaint because they are seen as a ‘good faith’ trading partner, and not one that uses trade as a tool of foreign policy.

Consider also that Bangladesh has benefitted to the tune of $1 billion and their national economy is almost half the size of Pakistan’s. Imagine how much we would benefit from taking a rational, unemotional approach to intra-regional trade. According to India’s National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon, Bangladesh is only the latest country to take advantage of the fast-growing market within South Asia.

“Intra-regional trade within South Asia has begun to grow and has doubled over the past five years. We are therefore at a point where it is increasingly evident to all the countries in South Asia that there are substantial costs to not moving forward by lowering tariffs, minimising sensitive lists, and tackling non-tariff barriers. Each government has taken significant actions in the recent past,” he added.

Analysts much smarter than me have made convincing arguments for why trade with india is a rational policy choice. If that’s not convincing enough, though, $1 billion certainly should be.

Paying Taxes: A Patriotic Duty

Distractions come and go, but one thing is constant: The need to seriously address the nation’s economy. It’s easy to blame feudal politicians and they very rich for state of the economy. But as 700,000 individuals are opening their notifications from FBR instructing them to start paying taxes, we should be asking, “what of the other 99.7 per cent of citizens?”

The economy is a constant source of political battles, and as we approach the 2013 elections it will become even more so. Increased petrol prices, the fear of inflation, debt financing, and the price of food are constants in the political discourse. As the party currently in power, PPP takes a lot of complaints for the state of the struggling economy. But even PPP critics recognize that the problem is one that is not so easily solved as simply as replacing the present leaders.

Dr Pervez Tahir, former chief economist of the Planning Commission, criticises the government’s lack of focus on the economy, “despite [PPP’s] edge over the other parties in its concern for real economic issues”. Dr Maleeha Lodhi, also a regular critic of the present government, admits that the government is probably doing the best that it can given the political circumstances.

The new taxes have been imposed through presidential ordinances while the removal of the GST exemptions has been effected through SROs (statutory regulatory orders). This may have been the only course available to the government after the collapse of its talks with the PML-N and resistance from its coalition partners.

The good news is that many economic indicators are showing positive signs. Services exports surged almost 56 per cent since seven months, recording $3.424 Billions during July-January period, and foreign exchange reserves reached an all time high of $17.38 Billions.

The bad news is that economic growth is being held back by a culture of tax evasion in the country. Huzaima Bukhari and Dr Ikramul Haq suggest that the solution is to follow the model of Nigeria and Philippines and institute forced repatriation of funds from countries like Switzerland where money is being hidden. While repatriation of hidden funds is not a bad idea, it’s not enough. This would only provide a temporary economic boost and not change the regular practise.

The fact is that sustainable solutions to the economic situation require sacrifice and a shift in the popular thinking. We need to change the culture of tax evasion in the country.

The culture of tax evasion is not unique to Pakistan. The same problem exists in many developing countries including Bangladesh where tax-GDP ratio is only 9 per cent. And, despite the popularity of blaming tax evasion on the rich, tax evasion is a problem that is also widespread in the middle class. Again, this is not unique to Pakistan, but has been found in India also.

The point is not that the rich should not have to pay their fair share of taxes, but that we all should. No more excuses.

FBR collected Rs1 Trillino in the first three quarters of Fiscal Year 2011 – a 12.8 per cent increase since one year. This is still below targets, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Now, as the nation faces petrol price hikes, we need to be willing to face the music and pay our fair share. Certainly the price hikes will be felt, but we must examine it in context of the greater economy and not the immediate circumstance. Consider the statement of PM Gilani today.

On Friday Gilani told lawmakers the latest price increase was necessary because the government could not control rises on the international market.

“We have given 35 billion rupees (411 million dollars) subsidy on petroleum prices so far and our taxes on petroleum products are the lowest in the world,” Gilani said.

He urged the public to conserve electricity, gas and petrol “in the national interest.”

I have written before that loosing our country from the conditionalities and obligations that come with foreign aid requires “making the sometimes uncomfortable decisions required to solve” the nation’s problems. We can strengthen our nation and our security not by blaming others for our problems, but by investing in ourselves. There is a saying that “taxes are what we pay to live in a civilized society”. If we want to see Pakistan rise to its potential, we should not avoid paying taxes, but pay them willingly. That is the true sign of patriotism. Of course, there’s another saying which is “you get what you pay for”. Keep that in mind the next time you’re complaining.

Lessons from Tunisia: Familiar Faces After a ‘Revolution’

Tunisia protestersIt has become as predictable as the sun rising each morning. Some country will grow tired of corrupt and heavy handed leadership, mass street protests will arise, and a plane carrying the head of state will depart for Paris, London, or Rihadh. BBC will broadcast the celebratory gunfire and the ‘soft revolution’ will be awarded the name of some colour or spice. Then the same cast of characters in the media will begin asking why this same ‘soft revolution’ doesn’t happen here. But does such a ‘soft revolution’ make sense for Pakistan? Or is it just another excuse to avoid the hard work required by democracy?

Now that the celebrations are starting to wind down and the people of Tunisia are taking a look at their new government, what they’re seeing looks a lot like what they had before.

The prime minister said opposition leaders would have cabinet posts, but the ministers of defence, interior, finance and foreign affairs would keep their jobs in the new government.

He named Najib Chebbi, founder of the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), which opposed Ben Ali, as minister of regional development. Ettajdid party leader Ahmed Ibrahim will be higher education minister and Mustafa Ben Jaafar, head of the Union of Freedom and Labour, health minister.

This shouldn’t be a surprise, really. A couple of years ago when it became fashionable among the intelligentsia to long for ‘the Bangladesh model’, the unspoken truth is that even after the caretaker government there, the new government was led by Sheikh Hasina Wajed – the head of the Awami League, former Prime Minister and daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The main opposition, the Bangladesh National Party, is still led by Khaleda Zia who was outgoing Prime Minister when the Army intervened. So, the Bangladesh Model resulted in the same people in power even in…Bangladesh.

This makes sense, really – a government has to be run by people who know what they’re doing. Bureaucrats are highly trained, specialized careerists. You wouldn’t ask just anyone off the street repair your mobile or your computer, so why would you think that anyone off the street could run a country of 180 million people?

Throwing out everyone and starting from scratch was tried once, and it was a lesson well learned. When the Americans invaded Iraq, they proceeded to undertake a process they called ‘de-Ba’athification’. Anyone who had been a Ba’ath party member under Saddam Hussein’s government was sacked and not allowed to hold a government position.

As a result, the government became dysfunctional because it lacked the skilled bureaucrats necessary to provide adequate services to the people. Additionally, the broad sweep sacked individuals who were competent and good at their jobs. Most government workers are not corrupt, so getting rid of them was eliminating the good with the bad.

Tunisia is not making the same mistake, but that’s not satisfying the unrealistic expectations that always come with these ‘soft revolutions’.

“We do not trust this government because there are the same faces, like Ghannouchi … and particularly Friaa,” said passerby Mohamed Mishrgi. “It’s as if Ben Ali’s system is still there. It’s for that reason that the demonstrations are continuing in Tunis. We want a new state with new people.” Another passerby, Hosni Saidani, added: “It is difficult to trust these people because they participated in Ben Ali’s system but they did not have the courage to say to him, ‘Stop.’ So how can they make a change towards democracy?”

The problem here is similar – instead of looking to ourselves for the solutions, we keep looking to someone else. We keep saying, “let’s get a new government” without realizing that WE are the government. It’s a natural mistake to make after living for so long under the rule of dictators to treat democratic governments the same way – something you can swap out for a new one.

But the only way we’re really going to see the progress in economic development, security, and governance is going to be if we do the hard work required to strengthen the democratic process and the rule of law. We’re making progress on this, but some people are impatient to see faster results. That’s understandable, but we can’t let it threaten to undo the progress that we’ve made so far.

As the people of Tunisia are quickly learning, their is no magic solution in government. It takes time, patience, and the willingness to come together to make things work. We have already done the hardest part by casting off our dictators and taking control of our destiny. Maybe the changes do not happen as fast as we wish, but it’s better than the alternative. Just ask the people of Iraq.