Following five days of stalled operations at airports across the country due to the ongoing strike by the employees against the privatisation of Pakistan International Airlines (PIA), some PIA offices have reopened after flight operations partially resumed, with eight PIA flights taking off from Islamabad, four from Lahore, and one from Karachi. Several of these were arranged to bring back Umrah pilgrims stranded in Saudi Arabia. PIA spokesperson Daniyal Gillani, while commending the efforts of employees who made these flights possible, stated that operations will properly resume within the coming week. However, this seems unlikely considering questions are already being raised at the standards on which these flights are operating, with the Society of Aircraft Engineers claiming that engineers are being forced to release the aircraft without ensuring the prerequisite regulations are met, posing a serious risk to the aircraft and most importantly the passengers. In keeping with the rigid stance of the government so far, PIA employees also received a warning letter Sunday night, reminding them that any protest would mean imposition of the Essential Services Act, leading to a possible one year’s imprisonment, heavy fine and loss of job. The four PIA employees ‘taken’ by unidentified men were released on the night of February 8 in Karachi, after which the Joint Action Committee (JAC) cancelled its rally to demand the recovery of these missing men. In a press conference, JAC Chairman Captain Suhail Baloch has said that they have been and still are open to negotiations. While initially they had demanded negotiations directly with the prime minister (PM), they have now agreed to talk to any negotiator appointed by the PM, provided he is empowered, suggesting the names of Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar and Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif as possible negotiators.
While JAC appears to be adopting an accommodating approach in hopes of having their genuine concerns addressed by the government, PM Nawaz Sharif remains attached to his hardline stance, not willing to talk unless PIA operations are fully resumed. The government has since the beginning of this contention, adopted an unsympathetic demeanour, in denial of the magnitude of the issue. And it appears to be repeating the same mistake now by adopting ad hoc, hasty measures, relying on makeshift arrangements to sustain flight operations until the dissent fades, endangering the lives of the passengers in the process without considering the possible catastrophic repercussions of such oversight. On the one hand, after withdrawing from the strike, Pakistan Airlines Pilot Association’s president stated that adequate security should be provided to those willing to resume work, claiming they were receiving threats from the protesters and on the other, PIA hostesses claim they are being harassed by policemen with threatening calls and messages. The government needs to realise that these are professionals that deserve a dignified conduct, and unless JAC’s growing apprehensions are addressed, this matter will continue to get worse.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has once again stoked tensions in East Asia. Within weeks of causing great alarm in its neighbourhood by conducting its fourth nuclear test, the pariah state has now sent a satellite into space by deploying a long-range rocket. While the DPRK insists its space programme is peaceful, its statement announcing the successful launch of the satellite hailed it as a boost to the country’s “national defence capability”. This statement is being taken by critics as proof that the DPRK is merely using its satellite programme as a cover for testing ballistic missile technology. As such, the launch is not only being widely deplored as an act of provocation by the Republic of Korea (South Korea), Japan and the United States, all three states with whom the DPRK has antagonistic relationships, but has also drawn the ire of DPRK’s only major ally China, which tried to prevent the launch from happening and has characterised the event as “regrettable”. The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) held an emergency meeting in the aftermath of the launch and has condemned the incident, deeming it to be a serious violation of several UN sanctions against the DPRK, which prohibit it from continuing its missile programme. The enduring fear is that the DPRK can eventually produce a small enough nuclear bomb that can be fitted onto these long-range missiles that have now proved to be functional.
Two such incidents within the space of one month have taken place where the DPRK has been accused of violating sanctions ostensibly meant to prevent it from having nuclear arms capability. They have therefore led to increasing calls for tougher sanctions by the US and DPRK’s neighbours, except of course for China. Despite being perturbed and frustrated by the Pyongyang regime, which has become progressively more confrontational under its young leader Kim Jong-un, China remains steadfast in its conviction that more comprehensive sanctions are not the answer to this quandary. China understands that such tough measures will only destabilise the country further and hurt the people of DPRK, thereby entrenching the paranoia of Pyongyang and giving the regime more justification to continue its projection of military might. China is also worried about the mass displacement of people and economic migration that would likely take place if the DPRK is hit with tougher economic sanctions, which would have a ruinous impact on the region at large. Amidst the bluster elsewhere, China’s position makes the most practical sense as it takes into account the ground realties and the psychological orientation of Pyongyang. The answer to the failure of diplomacy is more vigorous diplomacy. War and sanctions have always only created more problems. The only way to end this decades-old problem is to bring the DPRK back into the international fold and lessen its dangerous sense of isolation and being under siege.
While addressing a large gathering in Dera Murad Jamali, Balochistan, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) Chairman Imran Khan has presented a five-point charter of demands. These demands include a reduction in fuel prices and electricity tariff, withdrawal of new taxes on utilities such as gas and electricity, rehabilitation of national institutions instead of privatising them, payment of salary to the employees of Pakistan Steel Mills (PSM) and other national institutions and bringing back the money stashed abroad. There is no second opinion about the validity of these demands that are reasonable and logical. The people of Pakistan have already suffered a lot because of the high prices of oil in the past. Take the case of the current rates of petrol, oil and lubricants that are nothing short of a burden in the form of exorbitant taxes on the masses despite the steady decline in international oil prices. It was interesting to hear Minister for Petroleum and Natural Resources Shahid Khaqan Abbasi saying that the government was providing fuel to the public at the lowest prices among all the major oil-importing countries. He has said this while being oblivious to the fact that Pakistan has a poor position among other oil-importing countries in terms of purchasing power parity. Moreover, the people have to pay extra amounts in terms of development expenditure for enjoying utilities such as gas and electricity. The third demand of the PTI chief targets the government’s plans to privatise PIA and other national institutions. Why are the PTI and PPP that were once in favour of selling national institutions to private parties, opposing the present privatisation plans? This mistrust is the result of tinted past practices in such matters. In the past, privatisation deals have not yielded the desired results. Mostly these deals were shoddy and aimed at obliging a few favourites or promoting cronyism. That is the reason the opposition has doubts about the process of privatisation of major national organisations. Imran’s claims that billions of dollars of the rulers and many other Pakistanis are stashed abroad is a popular perception. But instead of making claims in the air, solid evidence should be produced to substantiate these assertions.
The PTI chief has once again threatened the government with starting an agitation movement across the country if his five demands are not accepted. The PTI can demonstrate street power only in those areas where it enjoys some support but it cannot launch a countrywide movement. Still, the threat of launching another protest movement is not free from complications for the government. The federal government should not give the cold shoulder to these demands. It cannot continue with its politics of showing its usual indifference to protests by opponents. Efforts must be made to address all the genuine concerns of the opposition parties. The top leadership of the PML-N should come forward and engage the opposition in talks for the peaceful resolution of all issues causing conflict in the polity and society. The government has already faced the wrath of Imran Khan during his 126-day sit-in in Islamabad. If the government shows apathy to Imran’s demands, the new agitation drive can prove more disastrous than the last, particularly since the PPP, which stood by the government during the previous agitation, is today alienated from the ruling PML-N. Without taking the opposition political parties into confidence, the government will find it difficult to go ahead with its plans. On his part, the PTI chief needs to demonstrate some patience and adopt a peaceful way of protest instead of endangering the country’s already fragile security and economy. Any violent protest is not in the interests of the country. Nobody should try to derail the system because the masses become the ultimate suffers of the misadventures of politicians. All political parties should focus on tackling the challenges faced by the country and its people in a rational manner.