Militant Groups in Pakistan Rebrand Themselves as Political Parties

As international pressure is mounting on Islamabad to do more against militant groups operating from its soil, some militant groups are rebranding themselves as political parties.

“The Pakistan military is allowing militant, virulently anti-Indian groups to enter the political process to enable a vocal political voice against any Pakistani civilian warming relations with India,” Thomas Lynch, a research fellow at the National Defense University in Washington, told VOA.

“The aboveground voices of [Hafiz Mohammad] Saeed and [Kashmiri militant leader Fazlur Rehman] Khalil as political figures will meld with their enduring role as leaders of virulently anti-India armed groups in a way that will further constrain Pakistani political leaders from easily undertaking any moves toward rapprochement with India,” Lynch added.

New party

Saeed, the leader of Jamaat-ud-Dawa group (JUD), which has been designated as a terrorist group by the U.S. and is widely considered a front group for Lashkar-e-Taiba terror group, launched a new political party last month.

Saeed was accused of masterminding Mumbai’s 2008 terror attacks that killed 166 people, including six Americans.

The U.S. government has offered a $10 million reward for information leading to his arrest.

JUD’s newly established Milli Muslim League party came in third in a by-election in Punjab last week, securing more votes than Pakistan’s People’s Party contender did.

Lynch said he thought that without the military’s blessings, the militants-turned-political parties cannot thrive.

“Nothing of consequence inside Pakistan security, politics or economics happens without the Pakistan military’s concurrence, either by direct support or indirect acquiescence,” Lynch said.

“This mainstreaming of longtime militant-terrorist groups led by Saeed and Khalil is of consequence [and] therefore must be supported by the Pakistan military,” he added.

Last week’s by-election was also contested by the Tehreek Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah, a party of the followers of Mumtaz Qadri, who was sentenced to death after being convicted of murdering Punjab’s Governor Salman Taseer, the same person he was paid to guard.

Qadri killed the governor in 2011 because he advocated for reforms in the country’s controversial blasphemy laws.

The two parties of militants-turned-politicians reportedly secured 11 percent of the total votes in last week’s election.

Increasing pressure

The politicization of militancy coincides with increasing international pressure on Pakistan to take action against militant safe havens in the county.

Announcing his South Asia strategy, U.S. President Donald Trump last month put Pakistan on notice to stop harboring militant groups that use Pakistani soil to plan and launch attacks against Afghan and U.S.-NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Leaders of BRICS, an economic bloc composed of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, also expressed concerns this month about Pakistan-based militant groups and cited them as a problem for regional security.

Pakistan has long denied that militants enjoy safe havens in the country and has proclaimed itself as a victim of terrorism.

The country’s Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif, however, this week admitted that Hafiz Saeed and Lashkar-e-Taiba were liabilities for his country.

 “Saeed, LeT, they are a liability, I accept it, but give us time to get rid of them,” Asif said at an Asia Society event in New York on Tuesday.

Optimism

Some analysts, however, see the new trend of pushing militants to mainstream politics as a good development.

“Unless these parties and individuals are allowed to be a part of the political system, they might never change their way and will go underground, which will be much more dangerous,” said Zubair Iqbal, an analyst at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

The question is: Can violent extremism and politics co-exist? Pakistani-based political analyst Khadim Hussain has his doubts.

“The ‘mainstreamed’ extremist organizations have not publicly revoked their ideology. They have not yet dismantled their militaristic, welfare and ideological infrastructure. This seems to be legitimizing extremist violence in Pakistan,” Hussain said.

Hussain added that ” ‘mainstreaming ‘ and ‘integration’ seem to be a tactic to divert the U.S., BRICS and other regional and international stakeholders’ attention from the core issues of policymaking in Pakistan.”

Lynch of NDU echoed Hussain’s analysis and said it was unlikely that the move would help curb extremism.

“I do not see this move helping to curb extremism in Pakistan over the short term,” Lynch said.

As Pakistan is holding national and provincial elections in 2018, analysts fear that militant groups will attempt to use the new platform to influence legislation.

“These groups will inject xenophobia and extremist views in the body politic if given free hand in politics,” Pakistani activist Marvi Sirmed wrote in an op-ed in Lahore’s Daily Times, urging the state to halt any kind of support to these groups.

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After Attack on Westerners, Cambodia’s Foreign Minister Softens Tone

Cambodia’s foreign minister has launched a scathing attack on Western democracies, labeling them hypocritical and interested in promoting human rights and democracy only when it’s in their own interest.

Foreign Minister Prak Sokhon told the U.N. General Assembly last week that human rights and democracy issues were raised only “when the specific interests of certain major powers are at stake.”

“Otherwise, it is sheer silence, and often a conspiracy of silence,” he added.

The comments came amid a surge in anti-American rhetoric from the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen, which has jailed the leader of the country’s opposition on allegations he conspired with the United states to unseat the long-term premier.

‘One-sided’ presentation

In an exclusive interview with VOA Cambodia, Sokhon softened his tone, saying Cambodia wants to “normalize relations” with the United States, “at least back to the original level.”

But Sokhon lashed out at the international media’s portrayal of the crackdown on dissent in Cambodia.

He told VOA, following the General Assembly meeting, that the international media had given a “one-sided” presentation of recent events in Cambodia.

He said that the closures of the National Democratic Institute in Cambodia, the American-owned Cambodia Daily newspaper and numerous radio stations broadcasting U.S.-funded radio programs were “being done in accordance with the law.”

The government has come under heavy criticism from Washington  and American allies, while China has lent Phnom Penh explicit support for its crackdown on dissent.

As Sokhon was giving his speech at the General Assembly last week, Cambodian-American protesters gathered at the U.N. headquarters to oppose the government line.

Steven Reach, a New York City resident, said he was unhappy with the “unreasonable” treason charges against Kem Sokha, the Cambodia National Rescue Party leader. He added that he hoped the U.N. could exert some influence over Hun Sen’s government.

Annie Van, a Cambodian-American from Massachusetts, said: “I and my colleagues came here to ask Prime Minister Hun Sen to free Kem Sokha … as well as free the other political prisoners of the opposition party.”

China pivot

In the interview with VOA, Sokhon said Cambodia’s pivot toward China and away from the West was “for the benefit of the Cambodian people … only because the relationship with China is based on mutual respect and mutual benefit.”

“We have received Chinese aid, Chinese cooperation, Chinese investment,” he added, pointing to China’s huge investment in key economic sectors, such as hydropower.

“The relationship is considered in the interest of Cambodia, but it does not mean that Cambodia has become a satellite state of China,” he said.

Cambodia had proved its independence during the recent diplomatic tensions with North Korea, he added..

Cambodia has historically had a close relationship with North Korea, which it has repeatedly attempted to use as leverage in its bid to act as a mediator in military de-escalation talks. However, following recent missile tests by North Korea, Cambodia has publicly taken a stronger line against Pyongyang.

“Although Cambodia has a good and special relationship with North Korea, Cambodia issued two separate statements last year and two more statements this year regarding the missile launches and underground nuclear test. So we had clearly stated to North Korea that if you want to maintain the friendship, you need to comply with the U.N. Security Council and comply with the resolution of the U.N. member states,” Sokhon told VOA.

“We ask [all parties] to consider the proposal of China and Russia” to halt nuclear and missile tests and military exercises, because U.S. and South Korean exercises are “a spark of fire, and that irritates North Korea.”

This report appeared originally on VOA Cambodia.

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Protesters March Through Washington Streets for Racial Justice

Activists with the March for Racial Justice and the March for Black Women took to the streets Saturday in Washington to protest what they called “racist policing practices” in America.

The two groups held individual rallies in the nation’s capital and then converged before marching together to the Justice Department building and the National Mall.

Videos of the march posted on social media showed the protest group marching down Pennsylvania Avenue, past the Capitol, while chanting, “No justice, no peace” and “If we don’t get it, shut it down.”

The protest march spanned several blocks as activists moved through the city before reaching their final destination on the mall.

Organizers of the two marches planned the events on September 30 to mark the anniversary of the Elaine Massacre of 1919, in which 200 black people were killed by law enforcement officers and citizens in Arkansas.

Farah Tanis, who planned the March for Black Women, told The Washington Post she came up with the idea because she felt black women weren’t properly celebrated during the large Women’s March on Washington following President Donald Trump’s inauguration.

“I said to myself that there will not be another March for Racial Injustice that does not truly center on black women and their issues,” she told the newspaper.

On its website, the March for Racial Justice said its mission was to “harness the national unrest and dissatisfaction with racial injustice into a national mobilization” aimed at promoting racial equity.

WATCH: Marchers in DC Seek Racial Justice

“Over the past few years, the movement against racist policing tactics and police killings has transformed the U.S. political terrain and brought much-needed attention to police brutality that is endemic in the U.S.,” the group said in a statement.

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Turkey Opens Largest Foreign Military Base in Mogadishu

Turkey’s largest foreign military base in the world opened Saturday in Mogadishu, in a ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by Somali leaders, top Turkish military officials and diplomats.

Somali Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khaire and the head of the Turkish military, General Hulusi Akar have jointly inaugurated the 4 square kilometer (1.54 square mile) facility, which holds three military residential complexes, training venues, and sports courts. It had been under construction for the last two years.

General Akar said the base is the biggest sign of how Turkey wants to help Somalia.

“We are committed to help [the] Somali government, and this base will cover the need for building strong Somali National Army. And it is biggest sign showing our relationship.”

Speaking at the inauguration ceremony, Prime Minister Khaire highlighted the significance of the training base for his country.

“Today our country goes to the right direction toward development and the re-establishment of Somali Army, capable and ready for the defense of their nations,” said Khaire “This base is part of that on ongoing effort.”

More than 200 Turkish military personnel will train some 1,500 Somali troops at a time, according to Somalia’s defense Ministry. The Somali prime minister said it will manufacture an inclusive united Somali Army.

“This training base has a unique significance for us because it is a concrete step taken toward building an inclusive and integrated Somali National Army,” said Khaire. “My government and our Somali people will not forget this huge help by our Turkish brothers. This academy will help us train more troops.”

The inauguration ceremony was held amid tight security around the base located in the Jaziira coastal area in southern tip of the capital.

Hulusi Akar, the Turkish Army chief said, “the Turkish government would continue to support our Somali brothers until their country becomes militarily stronger.”

Other diplomats who attended the event said the training is part of an international effort to strengthen the Somali National Army to a point where it can take over security responsibilities from African Union troops currently fighting al-Shabab militants. The African Union has said it wants to begin withdrawing troops from Somalia next year.

Prime Minister Khaire said the base also will help to defeat the extremism and the ideology that drives young Somali men into violence and terrorism.

“To defeat terrorism and fight against the poverty, we have keep in mind that building our national security and eliminating corruption is the key,” he said.

Somalia has a significant number of military personal, but they are ill-trained and poorly equipped. Last week, the government repeated its plea for world leaders to lift an international arms embargo.

The U.S. already had deployed dozens of American soldiers to Mogadishu, and their presence marked the first American military forces in Somalia, except for a small unit of counterterrorism advisers, since March 1994.

The United Arab Emirates also has a military facility where they train the Somali Army, which many politicians condemn for taking orders directly from UAE commanders.

“The good news is not only the opening of this training base but also …that when Turkey trains our troops it will also equip them,” said Somali Military Chief, Ahmed Mohamed Jimale.

Al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab is attempting to overthrow the Somali government and install a strict form of Islamic law throughout the country. On Friday, 30 people were killed when al-Shabab militants stormed a Somali military army base in the town of Barire, 47 kilometers southwest of Mogadishu.

 

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Spaniards Divided Over Catalonian Independence Vote

Thousands of demonstrators have gathered in Barcelona to oppose Sunday’s referendum on Catalonian independence from Spain.

Waving Spanish flags, the protesters filled the square in front of Barcelona’s regional government buildings Saturday.

Madrid has declared the vote illegal, and authorities in Spain began sealing off polling stations and confiscating ballots. While the Spanish national government said there would be no Catalonian independence vote, Catalonia’s regional government continued preparations for it.

Hundreds of people supporting the referendum camped out in schools in an attempt to keep them open for Sunday’s vote.

Enric Millo, the highest-ranking Spanish security official in the northeastern region, said Saturday that police had already blockaded half of the more than 2,300 polling stations designated for the referendum vote.

He said Spanish authorities also had dismantled the technology Catalan officials planned on using for voting and counting ballots, which he said would make the referendum “absolutely impossible.”

The president of the Catalan National Assembly appealed directly to the “conscience” of police officers deployed to the polling stations while speaking to reporters Saturday.

“I am aware they have a job to do, that they have their orders and have to carry them out. We are aware of that. But we also know that they have feelings, conscience,” he said.

“So tomorrow, when they carry out their orders they will undoubtedly receive, I hope they keep in mind — during the situations they find themselves in — that these could be their children, their mothers or their nephews, members of their family who just want to be able to  express themselves in freedom.”

Spanish Culture Minister Inigo Mendez de Vigo said Friday that the independence vote would violate Spanish law and that the government would not accept the results.

“We are open to dialogue within the framework of the law. As you would understand, nobody can ask us … to engage in dialogue outside the framework of the law. It’s impossible,” he said. “No European political leader can even consider dealing with an issue that is not in [Spanish] government hands.”

Catalan authorities said they would declare independence from Spain within 48 hours of the vote if residents there chose to secede.

On Friday, Catalan farmers rode tractors through the streets of Barcelona, driving slowly and waving pro-independence flags and banners. The tractors eventually stopped, converging on the regional government building.

At the same time, European Union officials said they would not mediate the dispute between Spain and Catalonia, calling it a matter of Spanish law.

“[It is] a Spanish problem in which we can do little. It’s a problem of respecting Spanish laws that Spaniards have to resolve,” said European Parliament President Antonio Tajani.

European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans called on Europeans to respect the constitution and rule of law in their countries. He said people in the EU need to organize themselves “in accordance with the constitution of that member state.”

“That is the rule of law — you abide by the law and the constitution even if you don’t like it,” he said.

Catalan authorities previously had appealed to the EU for help, saying the Spanish government undermined their democratic values.

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Plague Spreading Rapidly in Madagascar

The World Health Organization warns a highly infectious, deadly form of pneumonic plague is spreading rapidly in Madagascar and quick action is needed to stop it. 

Pneumonic plague, which is transmitted from person to person, has been detected in several cities in Madagascar.  This worries the World Health Organization as the disease is highly contagious and quickly causes death without treatment.

Plague is endemic to Madagascar resulting in around 400 cases annually.  Most are cases of bubonic plague, which is spread by the fleas of rats and other small rodents.  The disease is usually confined to rural areas, but this year it has spread to large urban areas and port cities.

WHO spokesman, Tarik Jasarevic, says cases of bubonic, as well as the human transmissible pneumonic plague have been found in the capital Antananarivo and the port cities of Majunga and Toamasina.

“So far, 104 cases of plague were reported since the first case has been identified that was dating from the 23rd of August,” said Jasarevic. “So, from the 23rd of August to 28th September, 104 cases that have been reported, including 20 deaths.”

Jasarevic notes the fatality rate is more than 19 percent.  He tells VOA this outbreak is very dangerous and must be brought under control quickly.

“The plague epidemic season usually runs from September to April, so we really are at the beginning of the epidemic season of plague,” said Jasarevic. “And, we have already from the 23rd of August until yesterday—so that is like five-weeks-time—we had 104 cases and again half of those cases were pneumonic plague.”

WHO says urgent public health response in terms of surveillance and treatment is required.  The health agency has released $250,000 from its emergency fund to get immediate action underway.  It plans to appeal for $1.5 million to fully respond to the needs.

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