Celebrating nuclear tests amid crackdown on civil rights

by Beena Sarwar

LAHORE (IPS): When Pakistan stepped out of the nuclear closet last May, it
did so ''reluctantly'' and only because of national security considerations,
said Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, justifying the step to the international
community which was urging him to refrain from 'retaliating' to the Indian
nuclear tests at Pokhran.

Yet a year later, his government is planning to mark the anniversary of its
nuclear tests on May 28 with all the pomp, ceremony and media support it can
muster. And while his government can do nothing about the international
community's open disapproval of the celebrations, it has managed to block
out the voices of peaceniks and anti-nuclear activists of the region from
the media.

"It is certainly not our view that this is something to celebrate," said a
White House spokesman at a briefing in Washington on May 19. "It is a step
in the wrong direction, a step away from an escalating an arms race."

For a couple of weeks, Dawn was the only national English language newspaper
carrying letters from readers denouncing the celebrations. But as the hype
has escalated in official quarters, such protests have disappeared
altogether in its letters column, while other papers have simply not carried
any at all.

Letters sent from Pakistani activists as well as from England, Argentina and
the USA to another newspaper have been simply ignored, an editorial
assistant told IPS. ''We've been given a written directive by the Chief
Editor to be very careful in what we print regarding the nuclear
celebrations,'' she said, ''And if we print anything, it should be slanted
more in favour of the celebrations than against.''

Although a few cautious comments have appeared in op-ed pages of a couple of
English language papers, the general policy from the beleagured press
appears to be extreme caution, given the government's zeal in marking what
its official announcements on the state-controlled television term as the
''most historic day since Pakistan was born''.

The event is being marked with ten days of national celebrations,
culminating in a national holiday on May 28, a 21-gun salute and special
prayers of thanks at mosques all over the country.

Public participation has been invited through an official competition to
'name the day', announced daily on national television, with a prize of PKR.
100,000 (hundred thousand) (about USD 2,000 - two thousand) for the winner.
The state controlled Pakistan Television regularly runs nationalistic songs
with clips showing the new missiles, Ghauri and Shaheen, being paraded and
launched.

On May 28 the nation is expected to stand for a one minute silence while the
national anthem is played at 3:17 pm, the time when Pakistan detonated its
nuclear weapons. The Pakistan flag will be raised on state buildings,
provincial capitals and local government offices. The prime minister will
address a public rally at the mausoleum of Quaid-e-Azam ('the great leader')
Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, and preside at an award
ceremony to honour Pakistan's nuclear weapons scientists.

All branches of government are involved. The Ministry of Sports and Culture
has arranged sports and cultural events across the country, while the
Pakistan National Council of the Arts (PNCA) has arranged a national art
competition to commemorate the tests. Even the Ministry of Youth Affairs is
organising events, while the Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (PTCD)
has announced special holiday packages for that weekend.

''The reasons for this nuclear circus are obvious,'' says Pakistani
physicist and activist Dr Zia Mian, currently teaching at Princeton
University. ''It is meant to both broaden and deepen support within Pakistan
for nuclear weapons. It is this support that the
government will subsequently point to in international discussions and
say it cannot agree to arms control, never mind disarmament.''

While the official media is fully supporting these activities, there is a
virtual blackout of the voices of dissent. Most belong to various
non-government organisations working in the field of human rights and
development, and are facing a new crisis brought on by the government's
onslaught on their work. Last week the government banned almost two thousand
NGOs in Punjab and over two hundred in Sindh.

A new law is now on the anvil to regulate NGOs and their sources of funding.
The Punjab Minister for Social Welfare Pir Binyamin Rizvi has publicly
accused several NGOs for ''misusing funds'' and ''misleading the people,
especially women'' according to a ''western agenda''.

Although not yet banned, these organisations, including the Human Rights
Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), Shirkat Gah, Aurat Foundation and Applied
Socio-Economic Research (ASR), are the real target, believe activists.
Ominously, their names have been cropping up at a television talk show
during morning transmission as 'enemies of the nation' - the same talk show
that vilified Friday Times Editor Najam Sethi prior to his detention.

The de-registration of the 1947 NGOs is a ''mere camouflage'', says Aziz
Siddiqui, a prominent journalist and joint director of the HRCP. The
problem, he says, ''have been the few genuine organisations that raise
hurdles in the way of the government's designs or cause it frequent
embarrassment.''

One of the biggest thorns in the government's side is the HRCP, set up
outspoken lawyer Asma Jahangir. ''Pakistan tested not because of its own
initiative but under duress, according to the government's own admission. So
what are we celebrating?'' she asks.

The HRCP is a member of the Joint Action Committee for Peoples Rights (JAC),
an umbrella organisation of some 30 NGOs, which shared last year's
UNESCO-Madanjeet Singh Prize for Peace and Tolerance with India's Narayan
Desai, for its anti-nuclear stand.

Besides JAC, other NGO coalitions and peace groups also face threats. In
Abottabad, Omar Asghar Khan, one of the main spokespersons of the peace
movement and a member of the Pakistan Peace Coalition an umbrella group of
the country's anti-nuclear groups, has been accused of anti-Islamic
activities.

''The fledgling peace movement in Pakistan is working in an extraordinarily
difficult and hostile atmosphere,'' observes Dr Zia Mian who has called for
the international peace movement to join with activists in Pakistan in
publicly demonstrating ''complete and utter revulsion at the government of
Pakistan's plans to celebrate nuclear weapons and its cynical attempt to
manufacture public support for its nuclear ambitions.''




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