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Express Tribune Editorials – 11th May 2016

Another welcome homecoming

Almost three years to the day that he was kidnapped, Ali Haider Gilani, son of former prime minster Yousaf Raza Gilani, has been recovered from his captors in Afghanistan. This highly welcome news was confirmed by the Afghan National Security Adviser who further stated that Ali Haider Gilani was recovered in an operation jointly carried out by the Afghan and US forces. It has been announced that he is in good health and is expected to be repatriated to Pakistan soon. The news was conveyed by the Afghan ambassador to the Gilani family, who are ecstatic as is expected. The news is being celebrated by top PPP leadership as well as the party’s workers. The government, too, has been swift to welcome this development and Yousaf Raza Gilani has been congratulated both by the prime minister and the army chief.

It should be recalled that Ali Haider Gilani was abducted in his hometown of Multan by armed individuals during an incident which left him injured and his two companions dead just days before the 2013 elections. Witnesses at the scene stated that he had been hit by a bullet and was bleeding as he was dragged to the captors’ vehicle. At the time of his kidnapping, he was preparing to contest the election for a seat in the Punjab Assembly. Few details ever became available about his whereabouts or health in the subsequent years. A top government official had stated in the past that a ransom sum of considerable amount had been demanded for his release, however, there has been no mention of ransom payments being made to his captors who are said to be an “al Qaeda affiliated group”. Doubtless, more details will emerge regarding the exact nature of this rescue operation in the coming days as the scant information currently available leaves several questions unanswered. Meanwhile, Ali Haider Gilani’s supporters can rejoice in his release, which has come close at the heels of Shahbaz Taseer’s recovery from his captors. Kidnappings and abductions have been a part of the modus operandi of militant organisations, which use them both for gathering funds and as bargaining chips. It is hoped that these recent recoveries signify a turning of the tide in the fight against militancy.

The Panama go-round

With the second tranche of the Panama Papers released on May 9, the offshore assets of 259 more Pakistanis have now come to light. The Panama Papers have brought something new to the political battleground in Pakistan — undeniability. They cannot be dismissed as a ‘conspiracy’ hatched to undermine political figures. They are made up of rock-solid documentary evidence that stretches back decades coming from an unimpeachable source and therein lies their potency. They will not fade with time and until the questions they raise are answered satisfactorily, they are not going to be allowed to drop off the radar.

It is the undeniability that is potentially the undoing of all who are named in the Panama Papers — not that they have necessarily done anything illegal, but that it was done at all, a commitment to opacity, a lack of transparency that inevitably feeds through to a lack of trust. It is the trust deficit that is being mined by the opposition parties (some of whose members appear in the Panama Papers themselves) and is an issue around which it is possible to unite without compromising the differences that each party has in other respects. The opposition is now demanding that the prime minister come to parliament to explain his and his family’s position regarding their acquisition of offshore holdings. The prime minister is unlikely to want to be publicly examined over the matter. The opposition says that they will boycott proceedings until he shows up. With the opposition united in common cause and with the undeniability of the Panama Papers themselves, the prime minister looks increasingly vulnerable. The longer he stays away from parliament, the more strident will be the calls for his presence, and even were he to appear in the House and be willing to answer the questions posed to him, even then the opposition is unlikely to be satisfied no matter how transparently he presents himself. Undeniability has powerful leverage — but is it a real game changer? Maybe.

An intractable dispute

A boundary dispute between Gilgit-Baltistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa is threatening to once again deteriorate into violence. The dispute has been active for years and concerns a piece of land that is 8-km long (or 2.8km according to government sources) and is between the Harban tribe of Kohistan and the Thor tribe of Diamer. Both sides claim ownership and repeated attempts at arbitration — there have been four jirgas in an attempt to resolve the matter — have failed. The site of the dispute is also the site of the Diamer-Bhasha dam, one of the components of the future power infrastructure of the country.

People gathered on the Karakoram Highway on May 8 threatening to block the road completely if their demands were not met and elders of the Thor tribe staged a sit-in outside the deputy commissioner’s office in Chilas. Threats and counter-threats flew back and forth; travellers on the Karakoram Highway were threatened by armed men and there seems little prospect of an early resolution. This dispute is one of several that have dogged the Diamer-Bhasha dam from the outset. These range from the macro in that the location of the dam is in territory claimed by India since Partition as well as the type of dam to be built, whether it be for storage as well as generation or for generation only. The micro are the types of dispute of which the Thor/Harban conflict is emblematic and points to poor planning by successive governments that failed to do the detailed small-print work before going ahead with the project. A boundary commission report has been completed but the government is sitting on its release. The protesters have said that they will not accept the report if they do not find it in their favour and are saying that May 15 is the cut-off point, and if the matter is not resolved by then, armed clashes are a possibility. Yet another jirga is to be convened and we hope there is a resolution of the dispute soon. The devil, as ever, is in the detail.

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