In Pakistan, Protests are Encouraged – When They’re Convenient

Earlier this week, Muhammad Ibrahim Arman Luni was pronounced dead in a Balochistan hospital, allegedly the victim of extreme police brutality in the wake of a peaceful sit-in protest organized by Pakistan’s Pashtun Protection Movement (PTM). A year into the the group’s rise to prominence, this has been the first death in spite of accusations of treason on the part of the government leading to a massive crackdown. But as the movement pushes onwards, Pakistan’s notoriously lively media has fallen silent on the issue. In what appears to be a campaign to will the movement out of existence, the media and government have decided to cover other protests that portray Pakistan in a more positive light.

The PTM seeks to give a voice to the Pashtun people who have suffered for decades from war in the border regions between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Tensions ignited in 2003 as Taliban militants and their allies established a foothold in tribal territories. Tribal leaders were in no position to defy the militants themselves, and the government officials ignored their reports as communities were destroyed. Many were imprisoned due to Frontier Crime Regulations which stated that the entire population of a tribe would be held responsible for the crimes of one as their families were systematically assassinated by the Taliban to leave the communities reliant on their support. Today, tribal communities remain victims without a voice in the government, their roads filled with both Taliban and government checkpoints and prominent members of their communities disappearing without a trace. After the displacement of nearly three million people, theories have arose that Pakistan is more than happy to allow the Taliban to retain its power in those border areas to destabilize Afghanistan and prevent the nation from becoming a powerful ally of India, with whom Pakistan has been in conflict with since both gained independence from British control. Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, is a Pashtun, and has personally spoken out against the crimes committed in the region, but his ability to seriously respond is hampered by a resurgent Taliban controlling large swathes of Afghanistan and waning American support.

What is perhaps most notable about the PTM is the coverage surrounding it – or lack thereof. While media coverage, which focused on the movement’s utilization of peaceful protest and democratic means of protest, flourished initially, military pressure saw columnists dropped by even the most bold newspapers in the nations for daring to discuss the plight of the Pashtun. The average citizen of Pakistan will not see stories on the PTM flash across their TV for even a second as the government cracks down more and more upon their protests. Stories like the death of Muhammad Ibrahim Arman Luni have spread primarily through social media. The PTM’s leader, Manzoor Pashteen, was once freed from arrest by the government because the resulting social media storm translated into a number of real-life protests. Silence by the Pakistani media on PTM became even more telling during the Islamabad National Press Cup, where reporters and news stations leaped over each other to cover student protests against the activities of Indian security forces in the disputed Kashmir region. Outside of the event, Pakistani police arrested suspected members of the PTM and prevented their rally from even occurring. Reporters turned to video the arrests, but none of the film made it onto national news stations, perhaps signalling a downwards turn in Pakistan’s quest for democracy. The motivations are clear – the government is willing to allow protest when it falls in line with their own propaganda, but cannot handle ideas that would undermine their rule.

Yet another troubling trend has been the sudden silence by top Pakistani politicians on the issue. While the PTM initially found a wide spectrum of support in the nation’s government, even managing to bring the nation’s current Prime Minister to their first rally, most of the nation’s leaders now refuse to speak on the issue. What remains clear is that this is not an issue that will go away – Pakistan cannot erase the Pashtun, and censoring social media would only garner more sympathy for their cause. But as long as Pakistan is at conflict with India, they will likely continue to consider keeping Afghanistan destabilized a much more pressing topic than domestic strife. Simultaneously, undermining democratic processes in their own nation may garner them less sympathy from the international community in the dispute over Kashmir. As the legacy of colonialism continues to show itself in territorial divides, it is now up to Pakistan to drop the facade of democracy and make real steps towards garnering support for their claims against India and China.

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