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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Voice of America

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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Voice of America

Half of Volcano Evacuees on Bali Are Asked to Go Home

Authorities on the Indonesian island of Bali on Saturday asked thousands of people who had evacuated this week because of the threat of a volcanic eruption from Mount Agung to return home.

A statement by the Indonesian National Agency for Disaster Management said 70,000 evacuated residents of the 27 villages within the designated “danger zone” around the long-dormant volcano should stay put, but as many as 73,000 people from 51 villages outside that zone could safely go home.

The agency said the extra people were placing an undue burden on the nearly 500 shelters set up by the government for those whose homes are in the danger zone.

The danger zone is based on damage from Mount Agung’s last major eruption, which killed more than 1,700 people and destroyed about that many homes in 1963.

Seismic activity at that volcano has been detected since August, and the alert level has been raised to 4, the highest level available on the Indonesian scale.

The vast archipelago of Indonesia is located along the Pacific’s Ring of Fire, a seismically active line of faults where earthquakes and volcanoes are common.

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Voice of America

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