Sorry seems to be the hardest word

Gulf News, January 5, 2005

Professional soldiers are usually proud of their military uniform. Coup makers, however, cease to be proud soldiers. They are reduced to the status of second rate politicians using the might and credibility of the military as a substitute for popular support in their quest to maintain power. The military uniform for coup makers is a source of power and no longer a source of soldierly pride. Perhaps that is the reason why General Pervez Musharraf did not wear his general’s uniform while announcing to the Pakistani nation his decision to stay in uniform while continuing as Pakistan’s unelected president.
Musharraf’s decision was a breach of promise on his part. To secure parliament’s approval for his arbitrary constitutional amendments, he had promised to give up his military uniform by December 31, 2004.

Pakistan’s military rulers have never fulfilled their promises of turning the reins of power over to civilians and Musharraf clearly did not want to depart from that tradition.

The general’s arguments for breaking his promise were also familiar. He considers himself indispensable for the country. His becoming a “mere” civilian president would somehow weaken the process of normalisation of relations with India and undermine Pakistan’s fight against terrorism and religious extremism.

Before going back on his promise, he and his civilian apologists tried to mend fences with opposition political parties with gestures such as the release of Pakistan People’s Party leader Benazir Bhutto’s husband, Asif Ali Zardari. This process of undoing injustices towards the opposition was officially described as an attempt at national reconciliation.

Restoring certain citizens’ rights can hardly be considered a concession to the opposition. The real concessions that Musharraf needs to make are in the political arena. As long as he holds the somewhat arrogant belief that he is indispensable for the country, Musharraf is unlikely to make any substantive political concessions.

Given its turbulent political history, Pakistan definitely needs a period of healing national divisions. Polarisation between political forces has already diminished considerably as most politicians have realised the need to approach politics with the ethic of sport rather than the attitude of war.

National reconciliation in Pakistan cannot take place until the country’s military-intelligence establishment also ends its “war” against popular politicians. In any case, there can be no reconciliation until Pakistan’s generals consider it their right to give the nation its marching orders.

Admit mistakes

National reconciliation requires admission of mistakes by the establishment as much as recognition of the errors of politicians. Unless Pakistan’s establishment is prepared to acknowledge the errors of its own self-righteous ways, it should not expect the stability that comes from reconciliation.

Several nations with a history of political intervention by permanent institutions of state have adopted the path of national reconciliation in recent years. In each case, the state apparatus the military or the intelligence services admitted to their violations of individual liberties and constitutional arrangements before the nation could march in a new direction.

Consider the example of Chile, where General Augusto Pinochet and the military intervened in 1973 and rewrote the constitution to provide for “democracy” guided by the military.

Chile’s Congress is in the process of implementing a constitutional reform plan that will expand civilian authority and reduce the military’s ability to interfere in governing the country.

Among other items, the package restores the elected president’s power to fire military commanders and eliminates appointive senate seats for former military commanders.

The Chilean constitutional plan is the result of an agreement between the socialist-led coalition now in office and the right-wing opposition, both of whom were bitter enemies in the past.

While the two major political forces reconciled to each other, the Chilean military, too, acknowledged that it had inflicted pain on the nation’s body politic. An official commission was set up to hear the testimonies of 35,000 political detainees from the era of military rule.

The commission concluded that torture was a habitual practice of the armed forces and police throughout the period of military rule.

Current military officers were frustrated by having to face blame for events that happened under a different leadership. But the Chilean armed forces accepted institutional responsibility.

General Juan Emilio Cheyre, the army commander, admitted the army’s responsibility for “morally unacceptable” practices followed by similar statements by the Chilean police and air force. Last October, Zambia apologised to its founding president Kenneth Kaunda for detaining him in 1997 on what were acknowledged to be trumped-up treason charges. Kaunda had been detained for six months in 1997 on charges that he had conspired with 69 army officers and soldiers to topple ex-ruler Frederick Chiluba who ousted Kaunda in Zambia’s 1991 multi-party elections.

Take a leaf from Zambia

Reuters quoted Zambia’s solicitor-general as saying: “The state has conveyed its sincere and unreserved apology to the first president of Zambia, Dr Kaunda, on his arrest and detention by servants or agents of the state on allegations of treason.”

The solicitor-general maintained that Kaunda was subjected to “inhuman treatment without a fair trial”.

The head of Zambia’s human rights commission said the state apology was a “befitting gesture to Kaunda for the injustice he suffered”.

Kaunda reportedly accepted the apology to pave the way for national reconciliation.

To set the process of national reconciliation in motion, the Pakistani state needs to offer apologies to every politician, journalist and citizen it has periodically arrested for political reasons, sometimes on trumped up or exaggerated charges. Then the past can be buried with the same ceremonial honours the Pakistani military has conferred on each of its generals, including those whose conduct was far from honourable.