Champion of freedom?

January 11, 2008

Nagesh Rao explains that Benazir Bhutto's real history is quite a bit different than the media have been reporting.

BENAZIR BHUTTO was hailed by many in the Western media as Pakistan's last hope for democracy and a crusader against the military dictatorship of Pervez Musharraf. Her assassination, consequently, has been talked about as a blow to Pakistan's hopes for democracy and stability.

The media, predictably enough, was following the U.S. government's lead. Soon after Bhutto's death, George Bush denounced the "murderous extremists who are trying to undermine Pakistan's democracy" and called on Pakistanis to continue "the democratic process for which she so bravely gave her life."

Some Pakistani liberals have joined in. Writing for the Huffington Post, Hussain Haqqani, a Boston University professor and former advisor to Bhutto, referred to her as "the outstanding icon of Pakistan's struggle for democracy" and "the Pakistani establishment's nemesis."

But even a brief look at her life and legacy yields a different story.

BHUTTO WAS born in 1953 in the province of Sindh to an immensely wealthy landholding family, whose property and wealth is legendary.

What else to read

The International Socialist Review has had continuing coverage of the crisis in Pakistan, including David Whitehouse's ISR article "Turning Point in Pakistan", which contains substantial background on the military and the war with the Islamists.

Several Pakistani newspapers published in English are worth reading for daily updates on the current situation. See The Nation and Dawn.

Author and veteran activist Tariq Ali is a native of Pakistan. His article "Daughter of the West," published earlier in December in the London Review of Books, analyzes the significance of Bhutto's return to Pakistan and the declaration of martial law by Musharraf. There is an excellent chapter on Pakistan in Ali's The Clash of Fundamentalisms.

As far back as 1843, the British General Charles Napier, known as the conqueror of Sindh, is said to have marveled at the Bhutto family's wealth--a story that Benazir apparently took some delight in as a child.

The family estate that she grew up on was 12,000 acres--more than 18 square miles. According to The Economist, "After her father's death, she found herself on the ancestral turf, adjudicating over marital disputes among local villagers as if they were her serfs."

This daughter of feudal landowners was brought up by an English governess and schooled at a Christian convent run by Irish nuns in Pakistan. She then went to Harvard for her undergraduate studies and later moved to Oxford University, where she received a second undergraduate degree in 1977. In England, she reportedly drove vintage sports cars and spent the winters vacationing in Switzerland.

In the words of historian William Dalrymple, "Benazir was a feudal princess with the aristocratic sense of entitlement that came with owning great tracts of the country and the Western-leaning tastes that such a background tends to give."

Benazir returned to Pakistan when her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, then president of Pakistan, was overthrown in a military coup led by Gen. Zia-ul-Haq. Zulfikar, himself an Oxford graduate, was the founder of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and a populist with left pretensions. In 1979, Zulfikar was executed by Zia's regime after a sham trial convicted him of murdering a political opponent.

Benazir was imprisoned for nearly five years, spending much of the time in solitary confinement. When she was released, she fled into exile in England and began organizing a campaign against Zia from the London office of the PPP. Riding the prestige of this campaign, Benazir returned to Pakistan in 1986 to a hero's welcome.

Much of her popularity came from nostalgia for the high hopes her father raised in the 1970s. But since that time, the PPP had become, like other Pakistani parties, an undemocratic vehicle for promoting the power of a prominent family.

In 1987, she married Asif Ali Zardari, whom she referred to in her autobiography as "the heir to the chiefdom of the 100,000-strong Zardari tribe." Actually, Zardari's chief claim to fame was that he had operated a disco from his home in Karachi and had a reputation as a playboy.

The military dictatorship fell to pieces in 1988--quite literally when Zia's plane mysteriously fell out of the sky--and Benazir was elected to her first term as prime minister. According to Dalrymple, "during her first 20-month premiership, astonishingly, she failed to pass a single piece of major legislation."

This, writes the well-known activist and author Tariq Ali, a native of Pakistan himself, was because she was "hemmed in by the army on one side and the president, the army's favorite bureaucrat, Ghulam Ishaq Khan, on the other."

Rather than turn to the people who brought her to power (Ali's advice to her) and expose the military officials and the president for undermining democracy, "she did nothing at all apart from provide employment to some of her supporters," wrote Ali. "Being in power, it seemed, was satisfaction enough. She went on state visits, met and liked Mrs. Thatcher, and later, with her new husband in tow, was received politely by the Saudi king."

When her brother, Murtaza Bhutto, who had been elected to parliament from exile in Damascus, returned to challenge Benazir's corruption-ridden administration, he was mysteriously murdered outside his own house in a police ambush. To this day, Benazir's mother and Murtaza's widow blame Benazir and her husband for the murder.

When Benazir arrived at Murtaza's funeral, angry crowds stoned her limousine, forcing her to leave, according to Tariq Ali. Later, witnesses to the killing "disappeared," and at least one was killed.

This was only the highest-profile instance of extra-judicial killings and violence during Bhutto's first term, as her rule became marked by increasing levels of repression. Meanwhile, Zardari's reputation as a corrupt, bribe-taking bureaucrat earned him the nickname "Mister 10 Percent." "Amnesty International accused her government of having one of the world's worst records of custodial deaths, killings and torture," Dalrymple wrote.

In 1990, Bhutto was ousted amid charges of corruption, embezzlement, human rights violations and nepotism. She was re-elected in 1993, only to be kicked out once again in a few years amid similar charges of corruption and human rights abuses.

It was widely known that she and her husband had embezzled nearly $1.5 billion, which they had stashed away in foreign banks. When they fled the country to escape corruption charges, they lived in a mansion in England with nine bedrooms, an indoor swimming pool, a helicopter landing pad and 15 acres of gardens.

SMALL WONDER, then, that Bhutto and Zardari were reviled by many ordinary Pakistanis. So how did she manage to return in 2007 as a "champion of democracy"? The answer to this question lies in Bhutto's almost legendary political savvy and opportunism.

For one thing, she had carefully cultivated political and media contacts since her days at Harvard. According to the New York Times, she "had a more extensive network of powerful friends in the [U.S.] capital's political and media elite than almost any other foreign leader."

The fact that she had twice lost her office because of corruption charges did little to harm her relationship with the U.S. establishment--the Times reports that she visited administration officials and members of Congress "several times a year," as well as "reporters and editors at the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal. Soon, her American Christmas card list, excluding people in government and Congress, was up to 375 names."

The year 2007 saw Musharraf's regime come under pressure from a growing pro-democracy movement. When on March 9, he ousted the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Ifthikar Chaudhry, thousands of lawyers took to the streets, sparking a nationwide movement.

This movement showed the real hope for democracy in Pakistan. But it was a movement that Bhutto had little or nothing to do with--and which the U.S. government feared would topple its reliable ally, Musharraf.

In order to contain this crisis, and ensure a smooth transition to a post-Musharraf regime without rocking the boat, the U.S. had to whitewash Bhutto's past history and present her as a respectable, democratic alternative to the general.

It is this more than anything else that explains Bhutto's image as a crusader for peace and justice. The $250,000 that Bhutto paid to the PR firm Burson-Marsteller in the first six months of 2007 might have helped, too.

Further Reading

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