15 January 2008

"Democracy is the best revenge" was coined by murdered Pakistani leader Benazir Bhutto. The Oxford Harvard graduate may have targeted a mainly Western liberal audience with these words. However, the thrust of it is true. If a neighbour with a larger and similarly-oriented population like India could have a successful democracy -- in fact the largest democracy in the world -- why not Pakistan.

"Fine, but not now," some would say. With the turmoil, anger, tribal violence with extremist militants and Al-Qaeda in nearby Waziristan, it would be suicidal to assume that Islamabad is a suburb of Stockholm.

The answer is that Democracy should be a national habit not an imported accommodation. And the first step will be to have an open transparent comprehensive investigation in the murder of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Obviously that could not be accomplished by President Musharraf who publicly announced on American television that the culprit was none other than the victim! "She was to blame for her own death," he repeatedly confirmed to Leslie Stahl on 60 Minutes. Why did she raise her head? She -- like all Pakistanis -- should have remained within the limits of his prescribed security instructions.

Many theories were launched after her brutal murder. The professional execution by someone who was able to hit her within only 10 seconds of popping her head from the car strengthened the accusation of a well-trained assassin. An initial theory forwarded by a heavily sweating general about death by an explosive sound bite was embarrassingly withdrawn. Although some army elements were suspected by a frustrated population, it is very unlikely that the new Armed Forces Commander General Kayani, a former military aide to Ms. Bhutto, would have tolerated such a crime. Al-Qaeda ally Sheikh Mahsud, whose message was singularly intercepted by President Musharraf's spokesman is too powerful to arrest and too easy to accuse. A brief visit by a Scotland Yard team did little to calm a growing suspicion. A similar visit after the murder of an early former Prime Minister, Liaquat Khan, in the same area produced no results.

The longer questions remain unanswered, the wider the implications. And they would certainly extend beyond the border. "Shiia News" a website by an Islamic institute in Qum, the Iranian religious centre, suddenly came out with an intriguing claim that Benazir Bhutto was of Iranian origin, and that she was actually a Shiite. It claimed that about 17% to 27% of Pakistanis are Shiites who had to hide their true sect to preserve their life through "Taqiyyah" -- a practice that allows a "white lie" in the interest of self-preservation. Pointing out to the fact that her mother Begum Nusrat is Iranian, from Isfahan, the site added that her father's name, Zulfaqar, was a prominent Shiia name (it refers to the sword of the Blessed Imam Ali), and that, in turn, his father had lived in Iran. The family origins were claimed to be from the "Hezara" Shiite region of Afghanistan. When she visited Iraq as Prime Minister, Ms. Bhutto made a point of visiting the gracious tomb of the Eighth Shia Iman Al-Reza in the city of Meshad. She had maintained excellent relations with the Iranian government of Hashemi Rafsanjani and was expected upon her return home to play a pivotal role in strengthening those relations, now that Mr. Rafsanjani has returned to power. There was also a hint about a back channel role with certain elements within the United States power structure.

That Iranian dimension build-up by the Qum site was a prelude to accuse anti-Shiite Wahhabi elements of killing her to prevent her landslide parliamentary victory.

There is also a different angle in Afghanistan, a close neighbour with common tribal and ethnic concerns, in addition to the security challenges of confronting Taliban, Al-Qaeda and their allies in their mountainous strongholds. Other countries in the region, let alone countries contributing troops are caught in a risky guessing competition. One positive step in dealing with such an inflammable set-up will be to take specific steps which would: 1) restore the judiciary system and a credible rule of law; 2) ensure an internationally vetted investigation in the criminal murder of Ms. Bhutto to eliminate any doubts about its authentic process; 3) include real popular representatives in the process; 4) form a national unity government with credible representation from key areas like Sindh and Punjab; and 5) conduct free and fair elections to be witnessed internationally.

More important, action should be SEEN AND BELIEVED to be taking place not only by key media in important countries but BY THE PEOPLE OF PAKISTAN. After all, it's their life, their future that's at stake.