Wednesday, April 24, 2024 | Daily Newspaper published by GPPC Doha, Qatar.
 Kamran Rehmat
Kamran Rehmat
Kamran Rehmat is the Op-ed and Features Editor at Gulf Times. He has edited newspapers and magazines, and writes on a range of subjects from politics and sports to showbiz and culture. Widely read and travelled, he has a rich background in both print and electronic media.
Insecurity and inability to match the Chinese juggernaut appears to be at the heart of Trump administrationu2019s decision to impose sanctions.
Whose 5G technology!

Even though the world is locked in an intense struggle to contain the coronavirus pandemic, the global crisis has presented a new opportunity to benefit from technology in ways that perhaps, would have taken some time to embrace but has over the past few weeks and months emphatically underscored the need for gainful investment. What we are witnessing is a major technological revolution driven by 5G connectivity and new artificial intelligence applications. Countries across the world, but also closer home in the Middle East, are beginning to recognise digital transformation as a key enabler of national development. This has resulted in a surge of powerful digital networks and more intelligent, real-time applications — particularly in the healthcare and education sectors following the coronavirus outbreak. The deployment of 5G connectivity has now moved beyond the interests of techno giants and into the geostrategic interests of governments across the world. As the latest ICT technology, 5G is raising the bar of international competition due to its key advantages to all industries in the new digital era. It is the pivot supporting unprecedented opportunities for digital transformation.  This explains why the development and deployment of 5G have become hot-button issues for many politicians, and a centrepiece of the wider trade deliberations between two of the world’s greatest economies — the United States and China. Being at the forefront of 5G connectivity provides a strong competitive edge to nations. The fact is — its possession can greatly influence the international balance of power.  The US reaction to the technology juggernaut coming from China betrays a sense of insecurity. It has led to sanctions imposed on the Chinese technology giant Huawei, which has since become one of the most important issues in the world of technology. Private Chinese companies have emerged over the past decade as global leaders in the ICT field, challenging the West’s historical technological leadership. Huawei, in particular, is one of the largest representations of innovation coming out from China.  The rapid spread of Huawei’s solutions and products into more than 170 countries around the world, culminating in its ability to both pioneer and then lead the world in 5G technologies, raised a level of interest bordering on astonishment. All this has predictably drawn negative attention as well, making the entity a target for countries with an interest in propping up their own national tech companies. The coronavirus pandemic has thrown its own dynamic in this battle of attrition. In what is turning out to be a testing year for US President Donald Trump, whose enormous failure to contain the pandemic — with 2.9 million confirmed cases and 132,000 plus deaths, US leads the world count — has left him with his toughest challenge to retain office in this year’s presidential election.  In a studied gambit, Trump has chosen to deflect attention and in classic political brinkmanship blamed much of the ills on China, which made a remarkable turnaround to contain the outbreak. He also withdrew finances to the World Health Organization when it badly needed more to reinforce efforts to fight the pandemic.  Continuing in the same vein, the Trump Administration has further escalated the issue by imposing sanctions against Huawei last year. The administration’s campaign against the techno giant has become a historical landmark in the technology world as well as a hot topic for global discussion.  The Trump administration included the tech giant in a list of entities that American companies were prohibited from dealing with, citing concerns over national security last year. It has since ratcheted up the pressure by recently placing a ban on foreign companies’ sales of chips to Huawei if American equipment or software is involved. But is this really about “security concerns” per se or protectionism resulting from falling abysmally in the technology race? Many pundits suggest that the policies of the Trump administration are actually driven by a desire to prevent private Chinese companies from breaking Western influence, especially in the realm of 5G. The intended campaign has not actually shown evidence of the allegations about threats to cybersecurity regulation or any clear cybersecurity breaches.   Interestingly, US Attorney General William Barr appeared to be more introspective in finding fault with private US businesses for not doing enough to maintain American strength in the wider tech industry.  Bloomberg reported Barr as portraying parts of the US business community as ingrates because “they’re willing — ultimately, many of them — to sacrifice the long-term viability of their companies for short-term profit, so they can get their stock options and move into the golf resort.” The attorney general advocated for cracking down on Chinese researchers “who are sent over to get involved in our key technological programs”, advocating to work instead with Western companies such as the Finland-based Nokia and Sweden’s Ericsson when it comes to 5G. “We’ve been the technological leader of the world. In the last decade or so, China has been putting on a great push to supplant us explicitly,” Barr pointed out. He would go on to advise how the Western world “has to pick” a Huawei competitor to invest in; perhaps its only strategy to stay technologically competitive. A deader giveaway, lay in what US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo had to say on the issue. On Fox News’ Sunday Morning Futures programme recently, he categorically asserted said that Europe “needs to get” Huawei “out of their system” as part of ensuring “that the next century remains a Western one.” But what makes this argument — at least at this point in time — untenable is that the US is not leading the next technological era. To be sure, there is no American company competing real time in 5G technology. In contrast, the Chinese companies are championing that future with aplomb and at a time when the world is desperate for 5G connectivity that can meet the challenges of supporting massive surges in network traffic in a post-Covid-19 world.  The significance of 5G connectivity is apparent and explains why and how the Middle East, in general, and Qatar, in particular, have prioritised superfast technology for digitisation that helps boost national economic transformation plans that it can facilitate.  While this unhelpful drama plays out, it is important to draw the correct lessons and consider these beyond geostrategic gamesmanship. Obstacles to technology supply chains, 5G innovation and sanctions are counterproductive. It is instructive that governments and private companies come together from whichever part of the world — bereft of pride and prejudice — to bring advanced technologies for the greater good of humankind.

Tariq Aziz, Pakistani icon of television, who ran one of the longest game shows in history, walks into the sunset.
His age, his stage

Dekhti Aankhon, Sunte kaano'n Aap ko Tariq Aziz ka Salaam pohanchay (To all the eyes that see, the ears that listen,  May greetings from Tariq Aziz reach you) These were the famous opening lines of a game show — Neelam Ghar (Auction House) — that Tariq Aziz made all his own when he began hosting it in 1974 and, which ran for four decades. It remains one of the longest game shows in history and certainly, the longest in Asia — later christened the Tariq Aziz Show and Bazm-e-Tariq Aziz.  It is unlikely that the 84-year-old veteran compere, actor, poet and a politician, who walked into the sunset yesterday after protracted illness in Lahore — fittingly, Pakistan’s cultural capital — would ever be forgotten. Just like you never forget your firstborn! There’s no dearth of game show hosts who have made a name for themselves in television history, but Aziz was unique for several reasons, not in the least for eye-catching milestones. He was the first man to appear on state-run Pakistan Television when it began broadcasting in 1964 and also its maiden broadcaster, who made that epoch-making opening announcement.  But what made Aziz stand out was the incredible popularity he enjoyed for decades in a country where fame however fickle was largely associated with sport and film stars, and a few demagogues like the irrepressible Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the first popularly elected prime minister, whose party, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Aziz later joined in his first foray into politics. No matter what caste, creed, colour or hearth you belonged to, you were drawn to Aziz taking the stage and delivering the goods in his trademark deep-set voice.  Long after he put the mike down — and reluctantly, picked up again in later years but with little heart — many game show hosts have made the mare go. Some — like the belligerent Aamir Liaquat — have created records that have ensured gravitas for their ilk. But, none, could hold a torch to the grandeur of the original one.  While Aziz had a solo flight in his time — helped in part by the fact that there was only one TV channel — he captured the hearts of Pakistanis like no-one else did. His show was aired through the decades in which the country endured long spells of authoritarian rule with little of entertainment value for the teeming millions. And so, the streets would empty in anticipation of yet another episode of Neelam Ghar.  It is a measure of his celebrityhood that in those barren times even the prize of a “water cooler” for a question put to the audience attained the kind of fame — becoming a virtual adage — that even fancied cars and millions in prize money have not been able to muster decades later.  Aziz also featured in a clutch of films, mostly playing character roles, including Insaniyat (Humanity), Haar Gaya Insan (Humanity has lost), Qasam Us Waqt Ki (That Time be My Witness), Katari (Knife) and the 1969-made Saalgira (Birthday) which incidentally became more famous for the debut of child star Asif Zardari, who later became president and is currently, the co-chairman of PPP — and son-in-law of Bhutto, whom Aziz had joined in the Sixties as a firebrand socialist. Aziz parted ways with the PPP and much later joined former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N on whose ticket he won his sole seat of the National Assembly — lower house of Pakistan’s bicameral legislature — in 1997. And the rival he got the better of was none other than Imran Khan — the current prime minister. Khan Wednesday condoled Aziz’s demise and termed him “an icon in his time and a pioneer of our TV game shows”. The one major blot on his erratic political career was his involvement in the attack on the Supreme Court building in 1997 during a hearing where his party feared an adverse decision.  Aziz also compromised with military ruler General Ziaul Haq after Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s execution on a disputed conviction for abetment to murder of a political opponent by realigning the show to include religious content, which is why Benazir, Bhutto’s daughter and the Muslim world’s first head of government, took the show off  air when she assumed power in 1988 following Zia’s death in a plane crash.   The veteran last tried his luck with the PML-Q, the king’s party during General Parvez Musharraf’s rule but was eventually sidelined, putting an end to an unspectacular political career. He made a last ditch effort to regain old glory in the entertainment arena where he first made a name for himself by returning to the PTV but the bid fizzled out. In 1992, he received the coveted Pride of Performance award — that the president confers in recognition of people who have made an especially meritorious contribution to the field of literature, arts, sports, medicine and science.  Aziz also indulged poetry and authored a collection entitled Hamzaad da Dukh ( Pain of Alter Ego) and had a massive collection of books at his home. He once famously said that a house with no books “was the worst place to live”.  He married late and had no children. Declaring that to be Allah’s Will, he had directed in his will to have all his assets deposited with the national treasury.  Pakistanis in Qatar, like compatriots back home and fellow expats elsewhere in the world, reacted with sadness over the demise of the legend.  Talking to Community, Muhammad Atiq, Chairman of the Majlis-e-Farogh-e-Urdu Adab Qatar, paid rich tributes to the icon, saying the loss was colossal. “Tariq Aziz was a multidimensional artiste with few peers. He had his own unique style. But more than a giant of his trade, he was a great human being. He was highly respected and admired in the whole country. He will be missed by all for all times to come.’’ Riyaz Bakali, Director of The Next Generation schools, said Aziz was always the benchmark. “The naturally flamboyant Tariq Aziz with his gravel voice and tons of confidence set the gold standard for the rest to follow. And then, one can only imagine living the life he lived!” Bakali also noted that apart from his legendary status, Aziz had bequeathed a sartorial elegance that even political leaders followed. “Even in his death, he has left behind a fan base that would be the envy of those who followed him.”  Mohsin Mujtaba, Director Product and Market Development at Qatar Stock Exchange, and a culture and arts aficionado, was no less melancholic.  “Growing up as an expat back in the 80s and 90s there were very few things that meant Pakistan to me. Tariq Aziz and his Neelam Ghar was an integral part of the PTV and Pakistan where I spent my summer vacations every year. When I go down memory lane, there are many houses that have a special place in my heart. Neelam Ghar and its inhabitant Tariq Aziz stand out,” he averred. “Today, he is no more and the many memories that were stored in that house will become antique, but even more valuable. I pray that I hold them dear for the rest of my life and never mistakenly auction them for anything ordinary. For, we as a nation, are forever indebted for his services on television,” he concluded. 

Gulf Times
‘Shared destiny’ at heart of We Are One global pitch

Critically acclaimed Pakistani music producer Kashan Admani, who has worked alongside Pakistan’s top music talent, has produced a musical ensemble, comprising international and Pakistani musicians, among them Grammy award winning artists.  The song, which carries anthemic undertones, and seeks to inspire and renew hope in face of the challenges facing the world in the year 2020, is appropriately called We Are One — a global musical collaboration that immediately reminds the listeners of We are the world.   Talking to Community, Kashan said, “Covid-19 has changed the way we used to live our lives. Millions of people are getting hopeless due to the economic crisis and social isolation. The only thing that can keep their spirits uplifted is music.  We Are One/Aae Khuda is for all of us — the global population affected by the pandemic. It is about giving hope to people and giving them a message that we are all in it together and we shall come out of it sooner or later.”  He added: “It was a wonderful experience working on this project because musicians from all over the world joined in and all of them have a completely different sound. Using them all together was a challenge but a memorable experience. This is one-of-a-kind project initiated in Pakistan and I’m glad we’ve been able to pull it off.”  The song entitled Ae Khuda — We Are One is a joint collaboration among international and Pakistani artists from 40 countries across the world. It features Grammy Award-winning American violinist Charlie Bisharat, who has earlier played for the soundtracks of countless Hollywood movies including Titanic and Transformers; Grammy nominee Simon Philips; bass virtuoso Stu Hamm; and percussionist Gumbi Ortiz from the US; multiple award winning Russian guitarist Roman Miroshnichenko; and Dr Palash Sen, the lead vocalist of Indian pop/rock band Euphoria and Taylor Simpson, American drummer for Junoon, to name a few. The song also features famous Pakistani artists Najam Sheraz, Faakhir, Farhad Humayun, Maha Ali Kazmi, Bilal Ali (Kashmir The Band) and Farooq Ahmed (Aaroh). Talking to Community, Maha Ali Kazmi described her experience as “a dream come true”. “To have worked alongside such highly acclaimed musicians from all over the world is something very special and close to my heart,” she said, adding, “the song instills a sense of hope, bringing so many musicians from such diverse backgrounds and geographical locations, to reinforce the message that, while we seek God’s blessings, we must unite in our efforts, as one human family, to face our challenges. This is our shared destiny”.

NEED OF THE HOUR: In these crucial times, we must optimise technological capabilities through a unified, co-operative approach. The technology sector embodies innovation and is filled with the resources and tools to tackle our upcoming challenges.
How technology will help bring life back to normal

The spread of Covid-19 has undoubtedly altered all of our lives, habits, and behaviour. It has challenged several of our social norms while turning the business and financial world upside down. This is happening as schools and companies are closed across the world, events are being cancelled, people are quarantined in their homes, and there’s a possibility that millions of people may lose their jobs.  Today the world’s scientists, doctors, and policy experts are looking for a lifeboat. In fact, we’re all looking for news that will bring hope to solving this pandemic.  Despite all the challenges, the swift embrace of advanced technology is giving many of us hope to set a new normal in our lives. Through the use of 5G connectivity, artificial intelligence, cloud computing, and big data analysis, nations and industries are finding new ways to safeguard social and economic development. They are finding new ways to shape a world more suitable to our current needs in which we are sharing information, collaborating, and learning in decentralised environments. Most importantly, these technologies are also being used to protect public health and safety.  These capabilities have, of course, only been possible on the back of incredible technological progress and innovation — especially in 2019. It was the year the commercial launch of 5G technology took place globally, with several countries in the Middle East being early pioneers. This was supported by national initiatives to foster applications in AI, cloud computing, and related sectors. International companies have also committed to bringing new solutions to local governments and industry, offering the tools that are now connecting our societies in light of Covid-19. In particular, the impact of 5G technology cannot be overstated. It is not limited to simply downloading HD movies, but includes much more robust capabilities in connecting humans to humans, humans to machines, and machines to machines.  This has opened new opportunities for industries to develop the quality of their services in a better way, and deal with disruptions like Covid-19 faster. Remote studying, emergency response, digital medicine, remote patient diagnosis, and more are all examples of how technologies like 5G and AI are now being combined for the betterment of our society. At the same time, there’s an urgent need to strengthen the capabilities of telecom networks to deal with the pressures they are facing with the increased demand for data traffic, in some cases increasing by more than 100%.  In these crucial times, we must optimise these technological capabilities through a unified, co-operative approach. The technology sector embodies innovation and is filled with the resources and tools to tackle our upcoming challenges. It is not the time to put up walls, but rather, to build bridges.  In the technology world, this co-operation is under threat by a trade war between the United States and China. While those discussions may be far from over, it is simply no longer the time to entertain falsehoods and rumours. No single company or country should be restricted from participating in solutions right now. For example, there appears to be little benefit from the US administration continuing to ban a global 5G technology leader for geopolitical accusations. Politics do not speak on behalf of technology, and these companies have a lot to offer the world through strong research and development capabilities. We are in a time where we need the most advanced technologies to help reduce the risks of Covid-19 regardless of a company’s origins or trade competition. This is ultimately a time to prevent the Covid-19 situation from getting out of control. Qatar has been vigilant in its response to combat the spread of Covid-19 within the country, taking measures that will ultimately reduce the number of new cases reported. The government has acted quickly and successfully by reinforcing strict social distancing guidelines and regular inspections and sanitisation.  Partnerships with companies in the private sector are more essential now than ever. By allowing private companies to fulfil their own social responsibility role, and activating communication channels between the private and public sectors, we can all take advantage of emerging technologies to bring things back to normal, faster.  * The writer is Features Editor

PEACE MISSION: u201cNot only did we build a peace team but we also played our role in ensuring that the negotiations were successful,u201d Pakistanu2019s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said this week.
To make peace plan work, it must be Afghan-owned

Come Saturday and the world’s eyes will be riveted to Doha where the US and Taliban are slated to sign what would be a historic peace deal between two of the fiercest rivals in recent war history. Qatar is playing a gracious host — as it has on a number of occasions in the past — and has invited Pakistan, too, which has played a central role in trying to make this happen against all odds. While understandably, there was a great sense of relief at the simultaneous announcement last week by the US and Taliban of an impending peace deal and the subsequent week-long ceasefire that is conditioned to it (mercifully, holding at the time of writing this), the stakes are high, especially given the complexities of the undertaking and uncertainty that has always engulfed war-torn Afghanistan. Any peace process therefore, can only be looked at from the prism of cautious optimism at best. There is however, no doubt that all parties to the conflict are heartily tired of war. The Americans want out, having lost more than 2,400 personnel and trillions of dollars that were consumed in keeping the US war machine running for nearly two decades. In fact, President Donald Trump is so desperate to have the maximum number of troops return home before he seeks re-election this year that his administration flipped open a moribund relationship with Pakistan last year to seek its help to bring the Taliban to the negotiation table.  As a first step, President Trump wrote an official letter in this regard to Prime Minister Imran Khan, reinforcing the long-held stance of the Pakistani leader, who has been a vocal proponent of talks with the militia since his early days in politics, and which earned him the wrath of many who thought it was a preposterous idea. Nearly two decades of a draining war later, the Americans have themselves come around and been seriously engaged in dialogue with the Taliban for more than a year now. Earlier this week, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi recalled in a statement how it all sprang from the lowest ebb in ties with Washington. “(US Secretary of State Mike) Pompeo told me that the pathway to fixing relations between Pakistan and US came through Kabul. Now, I would like to remind him that we have fulfilled all our promises. Not only did we build a peace team but we also played our role in ensuring that the negotiations were successful,” he said. The first signs of a deal were apparent last year when President Trump said he was readying to invite key Taliban figures to a secret meeting in Camp David, Maryland with Afghan president, but summarily cancelled it when a US sergeant was killed in a suicide attack in Kabul last September. Despite the setback, Islamabad had to bring all its experience, energy and power of persuasion to get the two parties back to the negotiating table. “The world knows that the two sides have been fighting for over 19 years. After US President Donald Trump cancelled the peace process in a single tweet after a death (of a US soldier), it was Pakistan who convinced the US to restart negotiations,” Qureshi noted. Even though the Taliban were equally belligerent when Trump called the talks “dead” and vowed to inflict more damage, it is perhaps, not very hard to imagine that there is, over all, very little enthusiasm for a meandering existence in the theatre of a war with seemingly no end.  Sirajuddin Haqqani, the deputy Taliban leader and head of the Haqqani network — a US-designated terrorist group fighting US-led Nato and Afghan forces in Afghanistan — could not have been more forthcoming on the hour of reckoning. In a surprise oped piece for The New York Times entitled What Taliban Want earlier this week, he spoke categorically of his militia’s commitment to keep the deal.  Admitting he is “convinced the killing and maiming must stop”, Haqqani wrote: “We are about to sign an agreement with the United States and we are fully committed to carrying out its every single provision, in letter and spirit”. Removed from the militia’s oppressive rule in the past, he appeared to offer a new social contract that would allow for “a new, inclusive political system in which the voice of every Afghan is reflected and where no Afghan feels excluded”.  That being said, the reality is that it would take a great deal to make the proposed peace deal work in the long term even if it survives the pangs of birth. The intra-Afghan political reconciliation is a virtual maze and it will require more than just a leap of faith from one or two partners to find a way out. The country — and its vulnerable government — is still coming to terms with a disputed presidential election last September and solving it is key to future settlements because in the next phase of the process, the Afghan government and Taliban will be on the negotiating table. For this to effectively materialise, President Ashraf Ghani who has been declared winner, and his rival contestant Abdullah Abdullah, who rejected the results and simultaneously claimed victory, will have to reconcile — by no means an easy proposition. With Ghani insisting on leading the talks, but other Afghan parties seeking more inclusive representation, it will test the resolve of the Americans, the main interlocutors on behalf of Kabul. Contrast this with the united Taliban who may find other power groups and warlords willing to form alliances in a widening turf, which would hardly bring the government in Kabul any solace.  It is interesting to note that the Taliban have shown no proclivity yet towards a permanent ceasefire and this may stem from the uncertainty surrounding the rather complex nature of the Afghan power chessboard. Under the proposed agreement, approximately, 5,000 Taliban prisoners held by the American and Afghan authorities will be released, which would reinforce the militia. For now, the Taliban leadership is holding their cards close to their chests.  Mindful of these realities, Islamabad has repeatedly underscored the need for Afghans to take charge of their affairs and ensure the transition is in line with the aspirations of the Afghan people who yearn for peace and stability. Ultimately, lasting peace would require the process to be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned.   The writer is Features Editor. He tweets @kaamyabi

STORY OF COMPASSION: UN Secretary-General Ant?nio Guterres, left; Prime Minister Imran Khan, centre; and Afghan second vice president Sarwar Danish at the conference on Afghan refugees, in Islamabad early this week. He hailed Pakistanu2019s solidarity and compassion against all odds. (AFP)
Islamabad reaping fine harvest of perseverance

When the prestigious luxury travel magazine Condé Nast declared Pakistan to be the world’s number one holiday destination for 2020, little would the authors have known that the most representative global figure by virtue of his office — the UN secretary-general — would come to endorse the view with a high profile visit even if it was, strictly speaking, more oriented to the business end of things.  António Guterres left with resounding notes of gratitude and even managed to say at a presser with Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi in Islamabad that one of the main purposes of his visit was “to spotlight the real Pakistan — with all its possibility and potential”. It was quite the pitch Condé Nast raised in its coveted choice! Indeed, the live pictures of the UN secretary-general meeting with Prime Minister Imran Khan (himself an author of a travelogue); opening his heart in admiration for Pakistan being an open-door country for its compassion and generosity in a world of closed doors at a conference marking 40 years of Afghan refugees in the country; sharing a meal at the world’s largest Gurdwara Sahib at Kartarpur with the country’s Muslim religious affairs minister and Sikh custodian of the shrine; addressing the youth at a university, meeting the country’s showbiz queen Mahira Khan (a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador) and enjoying a musical evening in the cultural capital Lahore — all symbolised the transformation of a confident, changed Pakistan that the world is now keenly embracing. But even before he landed, Prime Minister Khan had just capped a fortnight of impressive personal diplomatic engagements that have reinforced Pakistan’s status as perhaps, the most important Muslim power in the world with its ability to take along all other states in spite of their often disparate nature of regional and global interests. Only three months ago, Pakistan had taken the difficult and painful decision to pull out of a summit of Islamic countries in Kuala Lumpur to allay concerns of division in the ranks of the Muslim world. This led Doubting Thomases to cast aspersions on Islamabad’s direction with some analysts jumping to the conclusion that it would now be at the mercy of one dictating country.  Prime Minister Khan resoundingly put to rest all such conspiracy theories by undertaking an official visit to Kuala Lumpur earlier this month where his counterpart Mahathir Mohamed received him as warmly as ever. The personal chemistry underlined the ‘business as usual’ spectrum with a slew of agreements. He courageously regretted missing out and promised to be at the summit next year. A week later, Khan hosted Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with not a trace of weariness as he personally, drove him to the PM House in Islamabad. In hindsight, it was just a warm-up for the events over two days which saw both the countries sign 13 MoUs after Erdogan addressed the joint session of Pakistan’s parliament for a record fourth time. The two leaders also presided over the 6th High Level Strategic Co-operation Council meeting.  In his parliamentary address, Erdogan, who has been placed by the Gallup International’s annual index as the most popular Muslim leader in the world, was unequivocal in his support of Pakistan’s stand on Kashmir and also pledged to back the country to have it removed from the grey list at the ongoing Financial Action Task Force meeting in Paris. China, which is the current chair, Malaysia and Turkey have all steadfastly supported Pakistan’s bid to fend off attempts by a rival camp to have it blacklisted. Turkey and Pakistan also agreed to begin negotiations in April to finalise a Free Trade Agreement. Later, Prime Minister Khan and President Erdogan addressed a forum attended by more than 100 Turkish and Pakistani businessmen and investors. They converged on the idea to lift the current volume of trade from $804 million to $1 billion in the short term and eventually, to $5 billion.  The reinforcement of ties with Malaysia and Turkey is manifest in Islamabad’s bold foreign policy reset that is premised in uniting the Muslim world and expanding its reach across the globe.     But to return to the visit of the week, unlike a few of his stiff-upper lip predecessors, the 67-year-old Portuguese chief of the world body, did not shy away from addressing fundamental issues, including seeking de-escalation of tensions in the region, Kashmir for which he offered his offices for mediation “should parties to the dispute ask”, and Afghanistan during his four-day visit.  He paid a visit to Gurdwara Sahib Kartarpur — the last resting place of Baba Guru Nanak Dev, founder of Sikhism — opened recently by Pakistan to facilitate members of the faith whose largest concentration is in next-door India. Moved by the experience, the UN chief hailed the peace initiative and said it was “a practical proof of Pakistan’s desire for peace and interfaith harmony”.  Guterres also paid tribute to the country for its unreserved support to the UN missions with one of the largest and most consistent contribution of peacekeeping forces across the world over a long period of time.  The UN chief reserved his best at the Islamabad conference co-hosted by the UNHCR entitled ‘40 Years of Afghan Refugees’ Presence in Pakistan: A New Partnership for Solidarity’. Apart from the UN chief and Prime Minister Khan, it was attended by Afghan second vice-president, top US officials and delegates from 20 countries. Said he: “The story of Pakistan and Afghan refugees is a story of compassion to be celebrated for many reasons, one of which is that such compassion is missing from much of the world. For 40 years, the people of Afghanistan have faced many crises, for 40 years, the people of Pakistan have responded with solidarity. This generosity now spans across decades and generations and this is the world’s largest protracted refugee situation in recorded history. On every visit here, I have been struck by (Pakistani) resilience, exceptional generosity and compassion. The generous spirit is in line with the best description for refugee protection in Surah Al Tawbah of the Holy Qur’an and I quote: “And if anyone seeks your protection then grant him protection so therein he can hear the words of God. Then escort him where he can be secure”. The writer is Features Editor. He tweets @kaamyabi

THE NEW NORMAL: PML-Q leader Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi speaks to the media after successful talks with the ruling PTI in Lahore.
Coalition blues bite but all’s well that ends well

Even before he could take on the external challenges of governance, it was always going to be a test of nerve and character for Imran Khan to deal with partners in his own coalition government. And it was never going to be easy — not just because coalitions anywhere and everywhere are notoriously demanding but because the incumbent prime minister has a completely contrasting background as a high profile unbending leader not given to blackmail and someone who takes pride in being his own man. Ever since realising his ambition of leading Pakistan, Prime Minister Khan has had a tough ride that has oscillated between luck and pluck: luck because the opposition is too divided with the supremos of the two biggest political parties both out in the cold for health reasons and corruption baggage, and pluck because Khan is not one to throw in the towel regardless of the odds.  But keeping the coalition in business has obviously involved compromises that he loathes, but when the choice is between taking the path less trodden to somehow get to the destination or losing the plot on a self-righteous whim, there really is not much of a choice unless you accept defeat and go home with a whimper — well-nigh inconceivable given his public track record of the last four-and-a-half decade.    Benjamin Disraeli, a 19th century two-time British prime minister, had this to say about what is really standard in coalition politics: “There is no act of treachery or meanness of which a political party is not capable; for in politics there is no honour”. Khan may have had a fair idea of this as a firebrand opposition leader but of course, it is a completely different kettle of fish when you have to deal with it in government and that, too, one holding a razor thin majority in parliament.  In terms of arithmetic, Khan’s ruling Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) would be hard-pressed to survive if any of its key coalition partners walked out. Earlier this week, after weeks of uncertainty hanging over its fate, the PTI finally managed to bring the Pakistan Muslim League - Quaid (PML-Q) – or simply Q League as it is known — around after conceding to its longstanding demands of effective power-sharing in both the Punjab province and at the Centre.  The Q League was not the only party venting its spleen; more or less the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), Grand Democratic Alliance (GDA) and Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) also used the opportunity to push for a greater pie with both Q League and MQM even threatening to part ways. Typical of how such coalition blues play out and are managed, the PTI leader set up a ruling party committee which held a number of meetings but whose composition was changed recently to the chagrin of Q League, which felt more comfortable with the earlier government team.  Notably, the prime minister dropped Jahangir Tareen, his quintessential negotiator, from the team. This rattled the Q League, which had hoped to get more out of him if the talks had proceeded. The new team was led by Punjab Governor Chaudhry Sarwar (with whom the Q League has had cold ties), Chief Minister Usman Buzdar and Education Minister Shafqat Mehmood. The Q League is led by the Chaudhry cousins of Gujrat, the country’s 20th largest city in the Punjab province, of whom Pervaiz Elahi is currently, the speaker of the provincial assembly. Elahi was also a successful chief minister of the province after the two manoeuvred a split with ex-prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) in the Nineties to curry favour with military strongman General Pervez Musharraf after he overthrew Sharif in a coup. After becoming what was then called the ‘king’s party’, the Q League gradually declined as a political force following the return of both Benazir Bhutto, a two-time prime minister and chairperson of the Pakistan People’s Party, and Sharif from exile. However, they have managed to retain enough political space to be able to derive considerable mileage.  The two cousins are crafty politicians whose match is not easy to find in the rough and tumble of Pakistani politics. Perhaps, only Jamiat Ulema Islam chief Fazlur Rehman comes close, but for the first time, the cleric failed to find truck with the party in government when the PTI took power following the 2018 general elections.  The Q League, however, has historically managed to curry favour with all major political parties and players as well as the powerful security establishment, save for Sharif’s PML-N, but there too, lady luck recently brought the cousins some space as PML-N is, reportedly, no longer averse to the idea of hatching a coalition of its own with their support, if an opportunity presents itself.  However, the Q League has only used it as a bargaining chip with the PTI and they would prefer to keep the marriage of convenience with the sitting government for less than compromise heavily with the PML-N. After the agreement with the PTI this week, Pervaiz Elahi dropped hints about that being the understanding. Talking to the media, Elahi, who had been upping the ante in recent weeks with predictable fanfare given the ruling party’s difficulties, was strikingly reconciliatory. Said he, “There has been a lot of talk on where the bottlenecks are and how they can be resolved. But one thing is very clear, we do not have any doubts about the leadership, intentions, and struggle of Imran Khan”. He even cemented the rapprochement by suggesting that the Q League was committed to taking the relationship right till the end of the present government’s tenure. “We want our union (with the PTI) to continue till the next elections so that we can stand before the people after offering solutions to their problems”. And pray how is that going to happen? The Q League had been demanding empowerment of its ministers — two in Punjab government and one at the Centre — as well as a share in administrative powers in three districts and three tehsils (administrative units). These are areas where it claims to have winning MPs.  On a broader canvas, the development will bring relief to both the parties since Punjab is key in Pakistan’s power matrix without which no government at the Centre can effectively function. The writer is Features Editor. He tweets @kaamyabi

WARM AS EVER: Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan shakes hands with Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in Putrajaya, south of Kuala Lumpur, on Tuesday. AFP
Pak PM’s healing touch bolsters unity of purpose

Japanese philosopher, educator, author, and nuclear disarmament advocate Daisaku Ikeda says something very profound about the need for communication in international relations that has withstood the test of time. Avers the 92-year-old, “Whether in our local communities or in international relations, the skilful use of our communicative capacities to negotiate and resolve differences is the first evidence of human wisdom.” In this very space a fortnight ago, one had reasoned that Pakistan’s decision to pull out of the Kuala Lumpur Summit last December, where Prime Minister Imran Khan was one of the top three leaders hogging the pre-summit limelight and slated to be the opening keynote speaker, was forced by circumstance but still likely in the best interests of the Islamic world.   Predictably, the late withdrawal raised eyebrows and armchair critics were quick to see it as a form of an imposed decision coming from the lopsided prism of a one-state relationship. However unfortunate it seemed, the fact is Islamabad did calibrate it within the context of its foreign policy imperatives with caution being the rider.  To his credit, even if barely concealed disappointment, the Pakistani prime minister admitted as much as he first called up his Malaysian counterpart Mahathir Mohamad to explain the decision back in December and then made a bold decision to visit the veteran leader in Kuala Lumpur on Monday. The general perception was that Khan’s two-day official visit was primed to placate Kuala Lumpur, but that is once again, a restricted view from which to gauge the relationship. For starters, Mahathir had not only understood the context and situation back then but also graciously, accepted Islamabad’s decision. He showed the same warmth and courtesy he had extended to the Pakistani leader on his first visit to Malaysia in 2018 upon assuming office.  True to form, Prime Minister Khan — who is not a great fan of semantics anyway — was extremely forthcoming in acknowledging that fears advanced by a few members of the Organisation of Islamic Conference about the Kuala Lumpur Summit being a ruse to divide the Islamic unity and replace it — and which Pakistan factored in its decision to skip the summit — were unfounded.  “Unfortunately, our friends, who are very close to Pakistan as well, felt that somehow the conference was going to divide the Ummah (Islamic world). It was clearly, a misconception because that was not the purpose of the conference as evident from when the conference took place. I want to say how sad I was that I couldn’t attend the conference in Kuala Lumpur,” the PM admitted.  It is possible that a similar decision with comparable stakes such as the one the Kuala Lumpur summit raised would have ruptured a relationship with accompanying consequences elsewhere, but there is more at play here than mere semantics of bilaterals. And it is to do with the deep personal chemistry that Khan and Mahathir enjoy.  Imran Khan remains a global celebrity for his exploits as a former World Cup-winning cricket captain, one of the game’s greatest all-rounders as well as a renowned philanthropist who founded a world class state-of-the-art cancer hospital and a university for students with humble origins before he shot to power in 2018 after a 22-year political struggle, but he also is a self-proclaimed admirer of Mahathir Mohamed.  As an opposition leader, he would often recount Mahathir’s sterling leadership in turning around Malaysia’s fate — going back to 2006, when he invited the Malaysian prime minister to a conference in Islamabad entitled “A Clash of Civilizations or A Clash of Interest?”  Mahathir surprised many in accepting the invitation and later visiting Khan’s residence even though back then, he was still trying to find his feet in the rough and tumble of Pakistani politics.  In the intervening years, Khan would regularly invoke Mahathir’s leadership, which helped turn a largely rubber-dependent country divided along ethnic lines into a well-oiled machine and high-tech Asian tiger, with self-belief and single-minded dedication. In 2012, in an interview with the British broadsheet The Guardian, Khan named him alongside the-then Turkish prime minister and current president Recep Tayyip Erdogan; former Brazilian president Lula Da Silva; and the-then Singaporean prime minister Lee Kuan Yew as leaders he admired most.  Khan and Mahathir struck an immediate rapport once the latter surprised the pundits in winning back power in Malaysia after coming out of retirement at the age of 92 in May 2018. Two months later, the former, at 66, also won power in Pakistan, for the first time.  In the last 15 months, the Pakistani PM has visited Malaysia twice and his counterpart was the chief guest at Pakistan’s National Day parade in March last year. The two also met on the sidelines of the UNGA session in New York the same year, where they, along with Erdogan, agreed to launch a united front to fight Islamophobia and work collectively to promote a holistic understanding of Islam globally with electronic media as the pivot.  In Kuala Lumpur, the two sides signed on three agreements with Islamabad also pledging to buy more palm oil to compensate for the restrictions placed on its bilateral trade by New Delhi following Malaysia’s stand over Kashmir. The presence of Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi; Federal Minister for Planning, Development and Special Initiatives Asad Umar; and Adviser to the PM on Commerce, Textile, Industry and Production Abdul Razzak Dawood underlined the significance attached to the visit.  To show that he means business, and to underline Islamabad’s sovereign and independent course, Prime Minister Khan promised to attend the Kuala Lumpur Summit the next year. “Of course, I would because now, it is evident that the Kuala Lumpur Summit was not to divide the Ummah. If anything, it was to unite the Ummah, so of course, I would love to come.” Next, Turkish President Erdogan is also due in Pakistan this month, which lays to rest the rumour mill in the wake of Islamabad’s Kuala Lumpur ‘no-show’ that it would drive a wedge in the trilateral relationship. Far from it, Islamabad has reasons to look up with the testy winter soon giving way to a spring of hope.    The writer is Features Editor. He tweets @kaamyabi

RESONANT PITCH: Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan making a point during his speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos last week.  Reuters
Khan’s hour: Substance and style at WEF Davos

Imran Khan has appeared on the cover of TIME magazine before when he was still aspiring to the country’s highest office, but the form is slightly more interesting this time.  His first outing in Davos as prime minister last week — he has been to the famous ski resort in the Swiss Alps as a distinguished WEF guest a few times before as well — made a splash in the US publication with respected global leaders for company. The Famous Five riding a chairlift, included Khan, World Economic Forum (WEF) Executive Chairman Klaus Schwab, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Microsoft founder Bill Gates and European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde.  Khan, of course is not new to the spotlight having first tasted fame in the Sydney Test of 1976 as a genuine fast bowler, who would send the pulse racing in a magnificent career as one of cricket’s greatest ever all-rounders and captain, but slowly and surely, the Pakistani leader is now again becoming the international media’s poster boy in a different avatar.  There are some parallels to his past career though. He picked up a team of mostly disparate cricketers and turned it into a world beating force, culminating in that fairytale 1992 Oceania triumph. His star dust in the new avatar again comes in the backdrop of a struggling economy where the country appeared in dire straits when he assumed power.  He is now gaining global attention as a profound peacemaker, battling Islamophobia with a clarion call for better understanding of Islam in the West, and raising a resonant pitch for the world powers to assume climate change responsibility.  The trouble is he has too much on his plate and it shows — while Khan is in demand wherever he trots on the globe, he has considerable challenges at home where he is up against an old order, long used to milking the nation’s resources for personal benefit. The opposition is in a bit of a disarray with its top leaders either convicted of corruption or facing the law for alleged abuse of power, but still capable of putting a spoke in the wheels of change that Khan is defiantly trying to steer. The peculiar ways of power politics in the sub-continent means despite having coalition governments in three of the four provinces, including one with a thin majority in Punjab — the key to holding power in the Centre as well — allows Khan little wiggle room. Yet, upon his return from Davos, the PM sacked three of his relatively close aides and ministers in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province because they were threatening to bring down the chief minister in intra-party jockeying for greater spoils.  The media — also used to flirting with the party in power — is now at the receiving end of a government unwilling to bend. An unhappy media — the electronic is pretty large and a vibrant, if loud, one — continue to ‘scrutinise’ him and his party like never before in the country’s history. All of these pressures and pulls make governance even more pronouncedly, difficult. But reminiscent of his heydays in cricket — coming to the party when the chips were down —  Khan is dead-batting the crisis, manfully. Likely, the form comes from his prowess in Davos where he spoke passionately about good governance being the cornerstone of his ambition to change Pakistan’s direction for the better.  Not shy of admitting reversals, he noted: “Sadly, our governance deteriorated in the last 30 years. That is one of the biggest reasons we have not been able to fulfil our potential as a country. We had the biggest fiscal deficit when my party came into power one-and-a-half years ago. From now on, my biggest challenge is how we can improve our state institutions so we can improve our governance —so we can tap our potential.”  On the state of economy, he had a few healthy percentages to draw the card. “Mercifully, the rupee has gained, the stock market has gone up, the current fiscal deficit has reduced by 75% and foreign investment jumped by 200% in the last year alone. We still have a lot of work to do, but we are (headed) in the right direction.”  But the Pakistani leader began his Davos rendezvous, which marked the 50th anniversary of the WEF, by reinforcing the strong message on climate change. Khan said his government intended to plant 10bn trees over the next four years. He observed that the forestation was crucial not only because Pakistan was vulnerable to the effects of global warming but also because pollution had a become a “silent killer” across cities. As he spoke on the need to protect environment, the PM reminded the world of his country’s natural beauty. “What I loved about Pakistan was its wilderness, its mountains. With age, I saw this wilderness disappear. I always resolved that I would make sure that we preserve the God-given beauty of this country”. He was also bullish about attracting a large number of tourists this year with some of the leading entities — luxury travel magazine Conde Nast, for instance — declaring Pakistan as the No.1 tourist destination for 2020.  Khan also pushed for peace with India by urging world powers, including the US, and UN to play its role in preventing conflict. On the sidelines of the WEF, the Pakistani leader met US President Donald Trump — the third time he had met him in seven months since his first White House outing in July last year — to raise the Kashmir issue, build on Islamabad’s engagement with Washington for peace in Afghanistan and prevent escalation of US-Iran tensions. Khan and Trump had a media interaction before going into a detailed meeting. The PM also made an important reiteration of Pakistan’s future foreign policy goals. Admitting that involvement in the war-on-terror, even if on the world’s behalf, was a mistake for the colossal damage it wrought on Pakistan’s economy, Khan underlined the paradigm shift by saying Islamabad would no longer get involved in any conflict.  “From now onwards, Pakistan will only partner another country in peace. We would not become part of any other conflict,” the PM said, before adding that recently, Islamabad had played its part in helping defuse tensions between the US and Iran as well as Saudi Arabia and Iran.  The PM was also sanguine about the potential of trade once ties with India were normalised. “The moment Pakistan-India relationship becomes normal and trade starts between the two countries, immense opportunities for growth will emerge”.  The writer is Features Editor. He tweets @kaamyabi

The Grand Palace.   Photo by Kamran Rehmat
Thailand: Reflective bits aside the majestic landscape

Thailand — that Land of Smiles — is amongst a handful of countries that probably can afford to do even without any roadshow to promote its touristy avatar. Why, it already counts as one of the world’s premier destinations. But, of course that has never stopped it from always looking out to improve and make the tourist at home with all the wonders of vacation. There is however, so much more to the country than just those exotic resorts and azure waters that take your breath away — some distance removed from the urban heat. My latest visit came as part of a media tour recently, where we travelled northwards after the familiar Bangkok round. A round-up of what was in store is in order. Space constraints mean this piece, for all its pull, may still be restrictive in some ways. But you get the drift. Should be enough to push you to explore in ways similar or better!  The Grand Palace  No visit to Bangkok is complete without a visit to The Grand Palace. In fact, be prepared to be intimidated! There’s a rich vein of history at every turn and with grandeur to boot. Stunning structures of great artistry will simply blow you away. It’s all so well preserved that it’s hard to fathom that the complex was established way back in 1782 — made up of royal and throne halls, government offices and the renowned Temple of the Emerald Buddha. It covers an area of 218,000 square metres and is surrounded by four walls, totaling 1,900 metres in length. The palace was built after the accession of King Rama I. Prior to this, the royal palace and centre of administration had been located in Thonburi, on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River. The new monarch decided to establish a new capital on the opposite side of the river. By his royal command, a palace was built to serve not only as his residence but also as the site of administrative offices. The royal compound has been known since then as The Grand Palace. The robes on the Buddha are changed with the seasons by the king — an important ritual in the Buddhist calendar. Thai kings stopped living in the palace around the turn of the 20th century, but the palace complex is still used to mark all kinds of other ceremonial and auspicious events. Chakrapong Mosque Chakrapong Mosque is a historic mosque located in Bang Lamphu, Phra Nakhon district of Bangkok. It was built by locals who migrated from the southern province of Pattani due to the war in the reign of King Rama I in the Rattanakosin period. Originally, the mosque had a one-storey wooden house used for religious teaching and ceremony, and a minaret used for calling prayers. After renovation, the mosque became a two-storey concrete building with mixed Arabic and Persian décor, which is simple but was renamed to coincide with the Chakrabongse road, where it was located. The building’s components  such as the stencil of wooden windows and the minbar (place where the imam sits) — are made of teak and assembled together without nails, showing the craftsmanship and expertise of the old generations. There are two large clocks that have been installed since the first year that these were introduced into Thailand. The mosque also houses a Thai translation of the Quran initiated by His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej The Great.  Metro Forest  A man-made forest in eastern Bangkok, The Metro-Forest — or simply ‘A Forest in the City’, it is a relatively new eco-tourism spot which inspires you to new heights. The project aims to help visitors of all ages recognise the importance of urban forests and motivate them to plant trees in their homes. One of the most impressive features is the skywalk and the 23-metre high observation tower. The tower not only offers a unique vantage point to admire all the green space, but also protects the 279 native plant species in the forest below. The site constitutes 75% natural forests, 10% water resources and the rest houses a multipurpose area and exhibition venue. The buildings here are designed to be in line with ecology, enriching the area and connecting humanity with nature. A true inspiration to the inner green activist in you, be sure to see the natural forest, rammed earth wall, seed wall, exhibition room, mini theatre that even opens into the green expanse after you’ve watched a helpful documentary, roof garden, sky walk, observation tower and a PV cell.    Phyathai 2 Hospital Thailand is a choice destination for medical tourism. There are a number of medical facilities offering specialised treatment, relaxed stay and post-op procedures — all at an affordable cost. One such facility is the Phyathai 2 Hospital in Bangkok. For more than three decades, it has been a leading source of satisfactory services with its state-of-the-art technology coupled with the signature Thai hospitality. Consisting of two buildings joined by a walkway, the hospital provides healthcare under the avowed mission to deliver the best possible care.  Our team was able to visit a wide spectrum of these facilities with a detailed presentation given by its management and panel of expert doctors and surgeons. While the exceptional level of service was evident, what stands out is its excellent green credentials.   Each year, thousands of patients from all over the world come to 550-bed Phyathai 2 Hospital, seeking consultation, a second opinion and medical treatment in a world class environment — right from the provision of convenient communication channels in their language of choice to the end of last treatment. The average number of outpatients is 50,000 per month and in-patients 1,600 per month. It was the first hospital to receive accreditation for high-quality assurance and customer satisfaction and a plethora of awards such as the most trusted hospital in Thailand in 2007, Thailand Energy Award 2010, ASEAN Energy Award 2011, ISO 14001(Environmental Management), ISO 50001(Energy Management), etc. Mae Fah Luang Foundation under Royal Patronage The not-for-profit organisation was inspired by Princess Srinagarindra — also known as the Princess Mother with happiness, sustainability and stability at its core. The foundation fosters stainable development — economically, socially, culturally and environmentally by implementing development projects; integrating and collaborating with strategic partners; providing consultation and imparting training.  The foundation has a 3S Model development framework divided into three phases: survival, sufficiency and sustainability to ‘help the people help themselves. In 1988, the foundation undertook the Doi Tung Development Project, which has become the recognised sustainable development model in Thailand and the world.   Doi Tung Development Project It’s hard not to be impressed by the dedication and commitment of the Thai Royal Family and the unreserved love of their people, especially those at the bottom rung of the ladder. One towering figure was Princess Srinagarindra, the Princess Mother of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej The Great, who established the Doi Tung Development Project, one of the flagship projects of the Mae Fah Luang Foundation, in 1988 on Doi Tung, a high mountain in the northernmost province of Chiang Rai.  The project area covers approximately 15,000 hectares, benefiting approximately 11,000 people from 29 villages.  Doi Tung was once a secluded area in the heart of the Golden Triangle — a hub of illicit opium production. The problems of Doi Tung were complex. The watershed area was denuded by slash and burn cultivation, and further accelerated by opium growing.  The residents were of six ethnic groups without Thai citizenship. They struggled to survive without infrastructure or government support. Armed groups occupied parts of the area, which made it even more difficult for government officials to provide any assistance to the local residents. The Princess Mother decided to improve the conditions of Doi Tung, socially, economically, and environmentally, commitment by building her home in Doi Tung, giving hope to the ethnic minorities and providing opportunities for all people regardless of race, religion, or nationality. Her vision was to allow people and nature to coexist in harmony, by aligning the people’s interests with the preservation of the natural environment and providing opportunities for all, regardless of race or religion. The Hall of Inspiration  This is a stunning mixed-media exhibition that compiles the history of the Mahidol royal family, the parenting principles of the Princess Mother, who raised two sons and a daughter to be loved by the people — owed no doubt to a phenomenal 4,000 plus royally initiated projects of King Rama IX — the last monarch. The exhibition is a worthy tribute to those services.  The Colours of Doi Tung Festival If natural colours were to decide the outlook of a tourist country, you could look no further than perhaps, the Mae Fah Luang Garden, resplendent as it is with a sea of colourful flowers, plants and trees. But like elsewhere, natural beauty is not the only thing that catches your eye. Also competing for your attention are sideway stalls selling food of the indigenous variety — including seeds — and ethnic wear stalls with plenty of cultural vistas all around. We were lucky in that we stepped into the last two days of a two-month long annual Family-Friendly Festival! The Hall of Opium How many countries can boast of success as sweeping as Thailand in eliminating the menace of drug trade that made the Golden Triangle — a border area surrounding the country and neighbouring Laos and Myanmar — quite the global hub of poppy fields, drug smugglers and opium warlords throughout the Sixties to the early Nineties? The Princess Mother also expressed her desire to educate people on the background of opium, and the Hall of Opium was created as a result.  The Hall of Opium is one impressive entity and it beggars belief not to bet on coming out a changed person: the sheer scale of history, genesis of the trade and more significantly, the pitfalls of indulgence with more relatable figures of modern history affected by it leave you plenty of room for reflection.  While intended for people of all ages and all nationalities, the target audience of the Hall of Opium is teens and young adults, the most susceptible to the lure of illegal drugs, to show them how opium addiction became a world-wide problem, and how drug abuse affects individuals, their families, neighbourhoods, and even country.  Covering an area of 5,600 square meters, the exhibition in the Hall of Opium is the result of almost a decade of research. Here visitors learn about the 5,000-year history of opium: how it was a drug to treat illnesses, how its use spread throughout the world, how imperialist expansion used opium in the economic colonisation and control of China, and how it eventually came to dominate the Golden Triangle as well as other parts of the world such as Afghanistan. Visitors also learn about current issues of addiction and illegal drugs, efforts to control drugs, and the impacts of drug abuse and addiction.  Prince Chakrabandh Pensiri Center This was easily one of the highlights of the trip. The plantation had a picturesque setting — long rows of green plantation contrasting the blue yonder. The staff duly explained the key project that aims to improve and develop plant varieties and produce high quality seed that can resist diseases and pests. The centre sprang from Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn’s decision to designate the Chaipattana Foundation in commemoration of the 100th birthday anniversary of His Highness Prince Chakrabandh Pensiri, who was an extinguished scholar. The plant varieties are adequately developed and selected so they can generate fine quality of produce for local households. Apart from serving as a centre for plant development, it offers visitors a place to relax and enjoy the majestic scenery. Rows and rows of fresh organic fruits and vegetables are enough to tempt the inner foodie in you. Just as well that we had a taste of Nature’s gifts at the nearby Jun Ka Pak restaurant serving Thai and fusion cuisine.  Chiang Rai Night Bazaar The experience was like a calling to live in the spirit of the moment. For some time, we almost forgot it was a bazaar with plenty to enthuse the average Joe: from the sheer variety of street food to made-to-order souvenirs to regular wear. A large assembly of people — of all ages, some past their primes — were dancing and singing to the beat of a group belting out numbers onstage not far from the stalls. It was the perfect setting past the sunset after a busy day. For the discerning traveler, there’s a range of hill-tribe craft such as knitted scarves, embroidered bags, silver jewellery, bed spreads, wallets and fashion accessories along with tees, sneakers as well as sculptural art and handicraft. Karen Long Neck Village There are various village locations between Chiang Mai and the Golden Triangle, and our group was able to visit one on the last day of the visit where the famous hill tribespeople were busy selling wide-ranging ethnic articles. The outstanding feature, which they are known for, of course, are the brass rings that girls and women wear. At first look, you might wonder how this can at all be conceived as an idea of beauty — long necks — let alone worn for an entire life, but there it is. They seemed at peace with it, even female children. The idea is to start before puberty so that the body gets used to it.  My takeaway from the Long Neck Karen Village? Hard working people, in the throes of life’s struggles like elsewhere, but doing so with a smile. When I slipped into a de rigueur impulse to seek a discount for a souvenir, the seller politely declined, then argued that she had spent hours making it. It felt good to honour the labour of love.

CELEBRATIONS: Fireworks erupt over downtown Bangkok during New Yearu2019s celebrations on January 1, 2020.   AFP
Welcome to a ‘new’ Thailand

By Kamran Rehmat There are multiple engaging areas and aspects to a familiarisation trip such as one to Thailand, but each time you realise one is not enough. ‘The Land of Smiles’ — as it is popularly known — immediately strikes you as (why it is) one of the world’s premier tourist destinations even if you have not been here before.  But if you have, chances are you just take it for granted. Because somehow they have managed to whittle it down to a simple enough equation: smile = happy tourist.  The figures speak for themselves: 2020 marks the 60th anniversary of the Tourism Authority of Thailand and Thai Airways International — the pillars of Thai tourism. Today, the kingdom enjoys 40 million arrivals and 3 trillion bhats in income according to Imtiaz Muqbil, Executive Editor of Travel Impact Newswire, Thailand’s second longest serving travel trade journalist, and author of The Greatest Story in Global Tourism History. That being said, just pigeonholing it in one (admittedly, massive) area would be a tad one-dimensional — even unfair — given how rich the tapestry is. But let’s start with the smiles anyway. In moments of solitude, one has often wondered how Thais manage to keep that emoticon-like spread regardless of how tough life is — and it always is, in some part of this cinder of a planet!  The standard outsider explanation, of course, redounds to “laughing all the way to the bank”. But that, in my considered opinion, is a rather lazy inference with a pronounced business rider. It does not take into account what lies beneath that effusive smile. Could this simply be a natural byproduct of religion, culture, values? I had this engaging casual conversation with a senior Thai official, who, agreed with me on those derivatives as well as the calm and serenity one had experienced in another predominantly Buddhist nation — Sri Lanka — as an expat resident. But he told me how it was also viewed as a “weakness” by a few, who deduced that the Thais were “too soft” — as a people and country. At the end of this conversation, one just opined how the world would be a much better place if there were similarly other “soft” nations.   Consider. Thailand is now exporting ‘Sufficiency Economy Philosophy (SEP)’ in a conscientious endeavour to help other nations achieve sustainable development goals! At a Ministry of Foreign Affairs press briefing in Bangkok, its finer details were shared with our media group from the Middle East. In fact, Saowalak Pornwilassiri, of the Department of South Asia, African and Middle East Affairs, disclosed that Thai diplomatic missions abroad had a new mandate vis-à-vis SEP.  Fresh from leading the Asean with panache as its chair last year, Thailand is swearing by the uncanny scruples of taking every willing partner along on a journey for collective rewards. When this scribe asked about the ‘novelty factor’ in passing the ingredients of success to other nations with the possibility that they may go on to rise as similar powers or even better, she reasoned that ultimately, it benefited humanity and that was the only motivating goal for Bangkok in proactively helping other capitals. If nothing else, it surely is a recipe for winning friends and perhaps influencing people (Dale Carnegie, anyone?) swiftly! Natapanu Nopakun, Deputy Director General, Department of Information, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said the tour was part of a studied endeavour to familiarise media professionals with the diversity of Thailand. In this regard, he highlighted the economic vistas and tourism (including medical tourism, which also makes the country a choice destination), but with a greater emphasis on ‘sustainable development’, which he drove home was entirely homegrown in Thailand’s case.  It was a recurring theme throughout the tour and Assistant Professor Dr Molraudee Saratun of the Sustainable Development and Sufficiency Economy, Studies Center, National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA), painstakingly explained the philosophy that has enabled Thailand to become the success story it is today and how it was trying to fashion the same elsewhere with a profound commitment. In a frank exchange where a figure of $63 billion turnover was trotted out for the last year, Nopakun said that while tourism had been pivotal in making Thailand a hub, the country believed in — and practised — responsibility to ecology.  “We believe in maintaining a fine balance; we offer value for money, but money on its own is not our goal. (Hence) our tourism is not only for the rich indulging in luxury, but it caters to all tiers where the prime goal is to maintain environment-friendly tourism. We don’t aspire for too many just to make more money. It is important to maintain eco-friendly tourism and sustain all good practices,” he pointed out.  Perhaps, the spirit was encapsulated none better than by this inscription on a signpost one saw: “We are supposed to plant a tree in the people’s heart and those people will plant tree in the land”— King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX)   Over the years, Thailand has developed indigenous marketing schemes to promote tourism and it has also been creative in using tourism as a bridge to enhance diplomatic relations. However, late King Bhumibol inspired the development of sustainable tourism by empowering local communities as well as preserving the environment and natural resources (in the round-up that follows on the select few sites this scribe visited, this is a central theme of Thailand’s green outlook).  Islam in Thailand: A look at history  and the burgeoning Halal industry Thailand, a predominantly Buddhist nation, has been for some time now, a go-to destination for even people of other faiths particularly, Muslims, from the Middle East, and closer home, the GCC. In fact, it is already the top ranked destination in Asia for Muslims. The reason is not hard to understand. It has also evolved into a dedicated tourism industry catering to the Islamic faith: from running halal hotels and food to the many places of worship that enable Muslims to have a relaxed vacation.  Similarly, patients coming from the Middle East and GCC have been benefiting from medical tourism in completely safe and secure environs with dedicated help right from native language communication tools to treatment and post- treatment stay in the country, and resultant follow-ups.  Associate Professor Dr Pakorn Priyakorn, Chairman of the International Task Force, Office of the Sheikhul Islam of Thailand, was at hand to give the media a detailed presentation on his behalf and answer questions related to various issues falling under the subject.  Going back in time, he said, historically, politically and culturally, Muslims have been an integral part of the social and economic development of Thailand for nearly five centuries. Islam is the second biggest religion in the kingdom and enjoys royal and official patronage. Muslims number approximately 5.9 million. He felt that part of the Thai success story was owed to peaceful coexistence by intent. The Sheikhul Islam was first established and appointed by King Songtham in 1602 AD. Islam is the dominant religion in four southernmost provinces. He disclosed that there were nearly 4,000 mosques in the country, and 185 of these were in Bangkok alone.  But none of this backgrounder would be complete with a word on halal food. Coined as ‘Kitchen of The World’ since 2000, Thailand is one of the world’s top 10 Halal food exporting countries and all this is owed to an elaborate paraphernalia manned and overseen by Muslim researchers and food inspectors in a detailed set-up.  Dr Priyakorn, who is also Director, The Halal Standards Institute of Thailand, ran a documentary on the subject to enlighten the visitors on how — and what — Thailand manages to dutifully respond to the need for Muslims to lead their lives in conjunction with Islam where halal food is concerned.  Thailand’s status in the Muslim world is also embellished by the fact that it also enjoys Observer Status in the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Co-operation. 

FRESH AIR? Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, back to the camera, with brother Shahbaz, their sons, and kin in a London restaurant this week.
Sharif dine-out reignites debate over illness level

A picture of Nawaz Sharif dining out at a London restaurant with his brother Shahbaz, their sons, and other kin, including the absconding ex-finance minister Ishaq Dar, this week went viral and has once again brought into sharp focus the ailing former prime minister’s apparent “critical” health. The image has given the media, especially electronic, the fodder to reignite the debate over its merit. This wasn’t the first such huddle, but is destined to gather traction given the proclaimed severity of his condition and terms of release — eight weeks off — from prison allowed by the court on health grounds have now run their course. It has already drawn plenty of sarcasm, especially from those members of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s cabinet who were opposed to letting off Sharif in the first place. Consider this tweet from the outspoken Fawad Chaudhry, the Federal Minister for Science and Technology, whose propensity for speaking his mind is matched by only a few amongst his colleagues. “Scenes of a meeting in the intensive care unit of a London hospital, the treatment for binge-eating is underway with sheer concentration, all patients are feeling better,” Chaudhry tweeted. Sharif, 70, who has a history of cardiac issues, and now reportedly, an immune system disorder, was serving a sentence in the so-called Al-Azizia Steel Mills graft case when his condition deteriorated last October to the extent that an intervention was petitioned by his medical team with the Islamabad High Court and granted. The Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf government, which conducted its own medical investigation and appeared willing to relent after the alarming findings, sought a security guarantee worth the amount Sharif was convicted for, but was overruled by the court with only a simple guarantee of return submitted by Sharif’s brother Shahbaz. The verdict created quite a ripple when subsequent pictures of Sharif boarding a special flight to London and an inflight image emerged on the social media, where the ex-PM did not quite look the part of a “patient”. It caused consternation in the ruling circles and a perturbed Prime Minister Imran Khan appeared to reflect those at a public event post-verdict where he appealed to the chief justice (who has since retired) and his successor to help “restore the confidence of the people in the courts” by removing the perception of discrimination between the powerful and the weak with an equal application of law. The chief justice however, appeared to snub the chief executive’s assertion, suggesting the release was the government’s call, and that while the judiciary was “not perfect”, it was ringing “a silent revolution”. It would be interesting to see how much of a “revolution” is in the works, especially after the Lahore High Court allowed relief to Sharif last November but not before notifying the government’s writ to make a call on any further medical reports. With little update coming out of London on Sharif in the interim — in complete contrast to the windmills churning furiously on diving platelets before his flight — there was wide speculation that he would seek an extended stay amid rumours of a ‘political’ deal. Expectedly — some may be wont to suggest, true to form — Sharif has, indeed, applied for an extension, but a wary PTI government is unwilling to buy the updated report, and has even rejected it. A case of once bitten, twice shy, perhaps, but also because it has lost a bit of political capital having promised never to compromise on corruption by giving the “plunderers of national wealth” — which is how it has always seen Sharif — any relief. Sharif is now counting on the Royal Brompton Hospital’s three reports: Rubidium Cardiac PET-CT scan; Holter Analysis; and Echocardiogram for succour. Cardiothoracic Surgeon David Lawrence has issued a medical summary based on reports by the Royal Brompton and Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospitals. The reports disclose that Sharif has significant areas of compromised perfusion and there is an element of impaired cardiac function as well with the heart at risk of another adverse cardiac event. The Royal Brompton and Lawrence have recommended urgent heart intervention but suggest that Sharif cannot undergo the invasive procedure unless cleared by the haematologists given his platelet counts are variable and unstable. Lawrence’s summary adds: “The impression is of compromised heart blood supply and functionality particularly in the circumflex territory. I recommend that Mr Sharif undergo coronary angiography at the earliest as there is a significant part of his heart at risk. I would strongly recommend urgent coronary intervention. Failure to do this could compromise his myocardium, his cardiac health, and his well-being.” “The Guy’s and St Thomas’ haematology experts are managing his unstable platelet count to make him safe for an invasive procedure including lymph node biopsy. The significant carotid artery disease further makes the issue complex and is managed simultaneously on aggressive medical therapy pending an intervention,” he concluded. This hasn’t impressed Dr Yasmin Rashid, the health minister of ruling PTI’s Punjab province, who was also involved in the medical investigation and reporting on Sharif prior to the approval granted by Prime Minister Khan’s government. Following the appearance of Sharif’s apparently, steady looking pictures, media reports emerged of a certain dismay within the party ranks at how an experienced medical professional like Rashid allegedly “fell for the (Sharif’s adverse) reports”! Earlier this week, she called up Dr Adnan Khan, Sharif’s personal physician, who led the ‘battle cry’ for seeking his client’s urgent treatment abroad, to furnish the latest update. After receiving one, she declared it “unsatisfactory”. “The report does not mention anything new related to the treatment being accorded to Nawaz Sharif,” she told reporters in Lahore,” adding she had talked to the physician twice and told him that the bail given to his patient had been on humanitarian and health grounds. She also had something to say about the viral post. “Everyone has seen the viral photos of Nawaz Sharif on social media. We have asked Dr Adnan to tell us whether the excursions of the former premier have anything to do with his health condition.” Rashid wouldn’t buy into the explanation tweeted by his son about seeking “a breath of fresh air” when the photos were taken, saying that “sick people do not go out to dine at restaurants for fresh air, unless the air at the restaurant has some special oxygen.” * The writer is Features Editor and tweets @kaamyabi.

STANDING TALL: Malala Yousafzai standing in front of the Teen Vogue cover board.
Teenager Malala radiates aura of a ‘stateswoman’

“When you educate girls, it adds up to $30 trillion to the world economy. It creates more jobs. It helps us protect our climate. It reduces poverty; it reduces the likelihood of wars in developing countries. So when you look at those advantages, then you say, “We have to invest in girls’ education.”’ — Malala Yousafzai, to Teen Vogue From becoming ‘The Bravest Girl in The World’— to borrow the cover description of Newsweek magazine — in 2012 and pinned as one of the World’s Most Influential People by the Time Magazine with one cover dedication in 2013 to being declared last week as the ‘Most Famous Teenager in The World’ in the second decade of the 21st century by the United Nations in its ‘Decade in Review’, Malala Yousafzai picks up awards and accolades as if she has a birthright on these. And yet, the UN pronouncement may just be an understatement: Malala arguably, is already the most famous teenager known to modern history, if not its entirety. No sooner had this latest and very predictable proclamation been made, the US Department of State swiftly joined the chorus with an emphatic declaration of its own: that the 22-year-old Pakistani education rights activist was “one of the most significant people of the decade”. “As we approach the end of 2019, we join UN in looking back on most significant people and events of the decade, including Malala, who received the 2014 Nobel Prize in recognition of her struggle against oppression of young people and for the right of all children to education,” Alice Wells, the principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, noted. The UN ‘Decade in Review’ noted: “From a young age, Pakistani student Malala Yousafzai was known for speaking out in favour of the educating girls and highlighting the atrocities of the Taliban. Malala’s activism and profile have only grown since the assassination attempt. She won several high-profile awards, including the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize and became a UN Messenger of Peace in 2017, with a special focus on girls’ education.” Chances are you’re only going to exhaust superlatives in trying to describe what mettle Malala is made of — and to think she is probably only getting warmed up given that she’s still only on the fringes of completing her university degree means the world has, by all intents and purposes, yet to see her best!  I first floated the idea of a global Malala Fund in 2012 during a conversation with Sheikh Waqqas Akram, Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Education, during the time I edited Pique, a news and current affairs magazine, owned by him. To his credit, he carried it to Asif Ali Zardari, the-then president. In a matter of days, the idea blossomed into a landmark MoU between the Government of Pakistan and Unesco, with Islamabad providing the seed money of $10 million for ‘The Malala Fund for Girl’s Right to Education’ globally. It was signed by Akram and Unesco Director General Irina Bokova at the UN’s headquarters in Paris in December that year. The event was held in connection with ‘Stand Up for Malala — Stand Up for Girls’ Right to Education’ conference in the French capital where the president made a symbolic reference to the braveheart’s fight for the cause. “Two months ago... a young determined daughter of my country was attacked by the forces of darkness. Malala stood for the right to education, not just for herself but for a bright, progressive future of Pakistan.” The Malala Fund is now a fully-fledged entity headed by the world’s youngest Nobel laureate herself. A mission related passage from the Fund quotes her as saying thus: “Now, I am studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics at the University of Oxford. And every day I fight to ensure all girls receive 12 years of free, safe, quality education. “I travel to many countries to meet girls fighting poverty, wars, child marriage and gender discrimination to go to school. Malala Fund is working so that their stories, like mine, can be heard around the world. “We invest in developing country educators and activists, like my father, through Malala Fund’s Gulmakai Network. And we hold leaders accountable for their promises to girls. “With more than 130 million girls out of school today, there is more work to be done. I hope you will join my fight for education and equality. Together, we can create a world where all girls can learn and lead”. Two years ago, whilst speaking at the Canadian parliament following Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s welcoming speech after being bestowed the honorary citizenship of the country, Malala took the opportunity to remind the world of what was possible with an action plan for girls’ education whose core points still resonate: l If all girls went to school for 12 years, low and middle income countries could add $92bn a year to their economies ($30 trillion over all, according to World Bank). l Educated girls are less likely to marry young or contract HIV — and more likely to have healthy, educated children. l The Brookings Institution calls secondary schooling for girls the most cost-effective and best investment against climate change. l When a country gives all its children secondary education, they cut their risk of war in half. The world is clearly better off with Malala leading the cause. Her ‘stateswoman’ like stature is evident in the latest Teen Vogue interview, where she talks on a whole gamut of current issues, especially with regard to youth activism on a global scale, which she argues, is now assuming a game-changing proportion. The US publication chose her to be on the cover of its last issue of the decade and disclosed that it had decided to “reflect” the last 10 years with the education activist. “Saying her life has been incredible feels understated; there is a quality to her that is beyond what words can describe, a profile in courage unmatched. As we put together our final package for the decade rooted in the brilliant, world-changing demands of teens across the world, we knew there was no better person to sit down and reflect on this wild decade with,” Teen Vogue suggested — in stating the obvious. * The writer is Features Editor. He tweets @kaamyabi

YEAR-ENDER: Clockwise, Prime Minister Imran Khan addressing the UN General Assembly session; Sikh pilgrims throng the last resting place of Baba Guru Nanak in Pakistan following the inauguration of the Kartarpur Corridor; General (retired) Pervez Musharraf, who was awarded capital punishment; and the victorious Pakistan cricket team during the Test match against Sri Lanka in Karachi, which marked the first time in a decade that a Test was played at home.
A tumultuous year but hope rises in Pakistan

With just a few days left for the advent of the New Year, it’s time to look back at what has been a tumultuous year by all counts for Pakistan and its relatively new government led by Imran Khan.  It has been marked by two major areas: foreign policy and domestic politics. Given the demanding situation, it was no surprise to see the Khan government struggling to balance the scales. In the first major challenge of the year, a suicide attack on February 14 in Pulwama district of Jammu & Kashmir on a convoy of Indian security personnel just weeks ahead of the Indian general elections, saw the already fragile bilaterals nosedive. New Delhi quickly blamed it on Islamabad, which condemned the attack, denied it had anything to do with it, and offered swift action if Delhi provided credible evidence. The attack however, snowballed into a major crisis. Amid a cacophony of war drums, Indian fighter jets crossed the Line of Control 12 days later and claimed to have conducted a “surgical strike” in Balakot area and demolished a terrorist camp with 300-350 casualties. Pakistan denied the claim — saying neither was there any camp nor any casualty. Independent reports, including high resolution satellite images reviewed by Reuters, contradicted the claims of any damage. The very next day however, Pakistan Air Force jets also crossed Indian territory, in a symbolic reprisal, but whilst returning its fighter jets were engaged by Indian Air Force jets. In the ensuing dogfight, an Indian MiG-21 was shot down on the Pakistani side of the border and its pilot captured. In a goodwill gesture, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan returned the pilot four days later. However, ties remain in cold storage throughout the year. In keeping with their longstanding dispute over Kashmir, the revocation of Article 370 in August by New Delhi startled Islamabad, which launched a campaign to highlight the issue, resulting in that resonating speech by Prime Minister Imran Khan at the UN General Assembly. Khan warned that if the world did not intervene, he feared the two nuclear-armed countries could easily be drawn into a dangerous confrontation with catastrophic outcome. He also used the opportunity to raise a clarion call against Islamophobia and exhorted the West to try to understand the sentiment of Muslims, especially when it comes to acts of deliberate sacrilege of their beloved Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). But the major foreign policy success was the return to normality in ties with Washington. Evidently, the Trump Administration had little choice but to re-engage with Islamabad to seek its leverage on peace in Afghanistan after exhausting all options. The comeback trail was pronounced with Prime Minister Khan twice holding widely followed talks with Donald Trump at the White House and on the sidelines of the UNGA session. But his shiniest hour was the much celebrated inauguration of the Kartarpur Corridor in November to facilitate Sikh pilgrims from all over the world, including India, to visit the last resting place of Baba Guru Nanak Dev, the founder of Sikhism. It drew global attention amid scenes of emotional reunion that had eluded his followers for decades.  On the domestic front, Khan’s government had its hands full. Islamabad eventually opted for an IMF bailout, which did not win Khan, who had vociferously opposed it as an opposition leader, any favours. However, at year end, Pakistan’s economy is showing signs of a recovery with the Moody’s returning Islamabad to “stable” status. The country also jumped 28 spots to 108 in World Bank’s Doing Business 2020 Study which made it among the world’s 10 top business climate improvers. Far more contentious was the white noise over tax reforms. The government relaxed the terms of engagement but defied strong-arm tactics from the usual suspects — the traders — to put the absentees on notice. As a result, there was a considerable surge in tax filers. Prime Minister Khan also found out in the course of his first year in power that governance was no cricket field where he enjoyed iconic status. All year through, he faced the brunt of an opposition that simply did not allow his government any breathing space. The highlight was a Long March led by Fazlur Rehman, a firebrand cleric and leader of his faction of Jamiat Ulema Islam, who is still smarting from losing his contested seats in the 2018 general elections. Rehman led a sit-in in Islamabad and vowed not to leave without seeking the PM’s resignation. But he announced a sudden exit only 16 days later with a largely empty rhetoric of having achieved his ‘objectives’. The government was also under pressure to let convicted and jailed former prime minister Nawaz Sharif leave for the UK on medical grounds after a court released him conditionally. But while Sharif’s flight hogged the newsbeat for a while before being relegated to the sidelines, Khan was soon faced with the rigmarole that the extension in service he signed for the army chief and taken for granted assumed a life of its own at the Supreme Court when a petitioner challenged its bona fides. Long story short, the apex court decided to hand in the benefit of doubt with a six-month timeline for the government to legislate the decision. But the death sentence awarded to ex-army chief General (retired) Pervez Musharraf in a case of high treason appeared to set the cat among the pigeons with the army publicly questioning the verdict — a first on both counts. The government is slightly under the weather after declaring it would challenge the ruling in what is seen as an appeasement. The biggest draw for Pakistanis however, was in the realm of what is their biggest uniter: cricket. The return to Test cricket at home after Sri Lanka defied the odds to play the first such series in Pakistan in a decade lifted the national spirit. Winning it handsomely almost paled in comparison to the significance of the development as hope began to find newer grounds. Sri Lankan captain Dimuth Karunaratne, who had only three months earlier pulled out of a much shorter trip, declared Pakistan “200 per cent” safe for cricket. As if a stamp of approval was needed on the ease of business, Condé Nast, the world’s premier luxury travel magazine, ramped up the volume and declared Pakistan the No.1 destination in the world for the year 2020! * The writer is Features Editor. He tweets @kaamyabi

Day that shook the world

There is always that one life-turning incident that haunts you. For many, it could be for life. December 16 this year marked the fifth anniversary of what remains one of the most gruesome tragedies of all time and certainly, the most horrific one where schoolchildren are concerned. Nothing comes close to the hell that was unleashed on unguarded schoolchildren and staff of Peshawar’s Army Public School (APS) that day in 2014. I have vivid memories of the day, waking up from a nightmare, turning on the television on impulse, and spending the next few days, weeks and months wallowing in unspeakable grief. The reason? It didn’t take much to relate to it. As a parent, it’s your worst nightmare: your children going to school and not coming back. It may happen in other parts of the world; indeed, it has several times even in far more secure First World countries like the United States with its history of random shootings (mostly with a deranged gunman at work), but nothing quite like what happened in Peshawar.  In the capital of Pakistan’s northwest Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, half a dozen militants stormed the school and butchered students, teachers and staff indiscriminately, emptying several rounds on even the already dying or dead before setting the valiant principal of the school, who tried to save as many students as she could, ablaze in a targeted operation whose sheer depravity left the South Asian nation reeling from a trauma whose scale knew no bounds. TV anchors broke down during bulletins and live beepers, and programmes had to be halted every now and then because the emotional current simply spiralled out of control. Many of the medical staff at the hospitals in Peshawar themselves collapsed at the sight of what they saw in emergencies. Just to get a gist of the human side of the tragedy, sample this from a post one compiled after the first day: n A grief-stricken mother who went to school every single day for three months with her son’s school bag, only to be brought back home each time by her distraught husband. She’s now bed ridden. n A mother who regrets she didn’t give her son 25 rupees (less than 25 cents) to nibble junk food that day. n A mother wallows in guilt for cajoling her son — reluctant to go to school that day — so that he could chill. Now, there’s a chill down her spine. n A father despairs he admonished his son to go to school after he twice demurred. So near, yet so far! n Hiding from a militant, he lied to his mother on phone that he was fine when, in fact, he already had a bullet in his chest. n He (15-year-old Dawood) overslept (skipped school) and survived: all his classmates of Grade 9 didn’t and have gone to sleep forever. Then, there was the case of a father, who, a year after the tragedy disclosed that the family hadn’t cooked food at home since they lost their son. Another said he couldn’t bring himself to eat the foods his son savoured. I remember writing this first post at the turn of events, which is still fresh in memory: “Today was the kind of day, when your perspective on — and about — life changes. I looked at my children differently, if you know what I mean. I’m sure many of you would have, too. And felt somehow relieved they were not where hell was raised this morning.  But wait a minute. The children who died today could just have been ours — HOW difficult is that to surmise. Ah, that changes the equation completely: terribly, strenuously, painstakingly unimaginable, right? Well, then, try even imagining how the grieving parents would have felt in Peshawar tonight. Life will never be the same again for them; it will be a forever, achingly haunting pain they will have to deal with for the rest of their lives. So what are we going to do about it? Will we dishonour their memories of their children and our memories of their children by sitting on our haunches and resigning ourselves to fate and move on like we mostly have until now or rise and FORCE the stakeholders to change and eliminate the last militant and their like on the land without discrimination? Short of this we all will be just waiting for the bell to toll.” To their credit, the government, the opposition and the political parties united with the armed forces to agree on a National Action Plan, which led to a decisive military operation against terrorists across Pakistan. But even braver were the schoolkids, who, rejoined the school a month later with even greater resolve and vigour. Having said that even though the students, their teachers, principal and the staff are remembered every year with an outpouring of rich tributes, it is hard to get past the bare knuckle reality of what happened that day — the day that shook the world. Five years on, Pakistanis of all shades and opinion are still wont to get emotional about the tragedy. Community reached out to a few expatriate Pakistanis for their opinion.  Riyaz Bakali, Director of The Next Generation School in Doha, tried to make sense of the horrific episode. “Education is one of the building blocks of nations. I feel it was a soft target for terrorists. However, targeting such young kids was an extreme step by even this yardstick”. Away from the emotional trauma, Bakali thinks their martyrdom is what paved the way for Pakistan to attain peace. “The graves of our youth became the steppingstone to reach the hideouts of these cowards. History will always remember these brave children as game changers,” he concluded in reference to the decisive cleanup operation that Pakistan’s armed forces launched after the APS tragedy to break the back of terrorism. Mohsin Mujtaba Rizvi, chairman of Pakistan Professionals Forum Qatar, felt it was like humanity that failed on the day. “When I first heard the news, the event was still unfolding. I was shocked, it was horrible. It felt as if humanity had failed. As a Pakistani I was annoyed, enraged and ashamed at the same time. We had failed our children. We paid a very high price for extremism that had turned into a Frankenstein of terrorism. Verses of (poet, author) Faiz Ahmad Faiz were echoing inside me: Tujh ko kitnoñ ka lahu chahiye ai arz-e-vatan  jo tere ariz-e-be-rañg ko gulnar kareñ  Kitni aahoñ se kaleja tera thanda hoga  Kitne aañsu tere sahraoñ ko gulzar kareñ (O Motherland, the blood of how many do you need? That blood which will impart a rosy hue to your pale cheeks How many sighs will soothe your heart? How many tears will cause your deserts to bloom?)  Shehar Bano Rizvi, writer, speaker, photographer, but above all a mother, encapsulated the horror like only a mother can. “A massacre in a school? Six gunmen opening fire at innocent kids? Why? How can any human being have the heart to pull that trigger on children?”  A longtime resident of Doha, she recalled how the APS tragedy left her utterly speechless and heartbroken.  “Partly, my faith in humanity died that day along with those innocent children. A horror unheard of for any parent! When we send our kids to school, no-one in their wildest imagination can think of them being subjected to such barbarism,” Shehar Bano said. “My heart as a mother, a human still bleeds for the families of the victims and the survivors who witnessed such an act of horror. My prayers are with them”. The tragedy still disturbs the deep recesses of the mind of many. Omer Azad, who is in the construction business, and has spent a better part of his life in Doha, says, “A shiver runs down my spine whenever I think of that moment. Without a shadow of doubt it remains the darkest hour of our country, if not the modern world. Never had I conceived that humans would do such barbaric things. They were all kids with shining dreams. They were all like angels. To think that they went to school and their bags, shoes and  uniform dipped in blood returned to their homes; their parents and loved ones — it still gives me chills thinking about that moment.”  Rida Omer, a housewife, looked askance — even five years later. “They had goals to achieve. They had dreams to conquer and a future they could not see. Their hands were to make paper planes yet they left behind history. They had a life to cherish, a life that was meant to be, but they sacrificed it for generations to come and generations to see.”  “Today, I pay tribute to all those flowers that withered in the gaze of another bloom. May their souls rest in peace,” she said with melancholy. 

YESTERDAY ONCE MORE: Current Pakistan captain Azhar Ali and Sri Lankan skipper Dimuth Karunaratne holding the trophy with Bandula Warnapura, left, and Javed Miandad, right, before the start of the first Test in a decade which began at the Rawalpindi Cricket Stadium yesterday. Warnapura and Miandad led their respective sides in the first ever Test between the two countries in 1982.
River of goodwill runs deep in Test return

Cricket is seriously pursued only in a handful of countries; indeed, the full members of the International Cricket Council number only 12. Pakistan is one, but the game in this cricket-mad country is only second to religion. To be dead honest, that is how the nation and Pakistan cricket were woven for a long time. In the last decade that interest has waned a wee bit, but not waned enough to lose its status of the ultimate uniter. Yes, Pakistanis may bicker over anything under the sun, but when its cricketing fortunes are on an upswing, life can be ridiculously calm! The decline in fortunes thanks to a lack of nurseries is owed massively to Pakistan losing hosting rights after the visiting Sri Lankan team came under a terrorist attack on March 3, 2009 as they headed for an ongoing Test match in Lahore, Pakistan’s cultural capital and cricket headquarters. The shocking episode in which eight people died and left a few Sri Lankan cricketers injured as their bus was fired upon by gunmen, effectively robbed Pakistan of international cricket at home, depriving fans of watching their heroes in action — some of whom never featured at home before their international careers ended! What led to the unfortunate incident is well documented, including the heroic rearguard action by the Pakistani bus driver, whose presence of mind and gumption in speeding the bus out of a hail of gunfire prevented the worst possible. He later visited Sri Lanka on a special invitation and was hailed as a hero. But it was obviously not enough to save international cricket at home! The irony of the matter is that Pakistan was fronting the global war-on-terror and that included countries which were both part of the war theatre as well as the ICC. Pakistan meanwhile was the biggest victim of this war’s fallout in terms of human and economic losses. Yet, no member country of the ICC was willing to consider treading the beaten path for all the sacrifices rendered despite offers of state-level security. In Pakistan, during this time, fans felt embittered. Allowing for the failure to prevent the unfortunate attack in Lahore at the time of a politically charged atmosphere, they have long contended how terrorist attacks in other countries could similarly neither be prevented nor did these deprive them of hosting rights. The attacks in England, India, Sri Lanka and New Zealand are cited as examples. Wednesday, December 11, 2019, therefore, will etch itself in history. Pakistanis are unlikely to forget who the tourists are, once again. Just months after they returned to feature in a limited overs series against Pakistan at the very venue (Lahore’s Gaddafi Stadium), which led to all this heartburn, Sri Lanka became the first international team to feature in a Test match on Pakistan soil after more than a decade — 3,935 days to be precise — yesterday. Perhaps, the fans can be allowed the liberty to see it as poetic justice. The venue this time is Rawalpindi Cricket Stadium. The stadium itself holds some significance: the first international played here was also against Sri Lanka. It was also the first ever international covered by this scribe, and the frenzied interest of the fans meant that a seating capacity of about, 28,000 fell abysmally short and led to overcrowding with the result that one was left trying to save young female fans caught in the melee than focus on the action out in the middle. Later, a reward and certificate for ‘hardship’ reporting was probably consolation enough! This encounter in 1992 also turned out to be Imran Khan’s last international on home soil before he went on to lead Pakistan to a fairytale triumph a few weeks later in Australia. Incidentally, Khan is now the country’s prime minister, and it is fair to assume that he would have more than a passing interest in the game. While the long-suffering Pakistani public’s emotional attachment to the resumption of Test cricket at home is understandable, it is important to get to the dénouement in the context of history. The uninitiated can be forgiven for thinking why has Sri Lanka chosen to tide over widely circulated apprehensions surrounding the “security” situation in Pakistan — even when the country has come a long way after successfully fighting the menace of terrorism on its soil. The bilaterals play a significant role here and are evident in the strong political and defence ties as well as the ‘first love’ that binds the nations, historically: cricket. Pakistan’s steadfast and active support helped Sri Lanka overcome challenging situations in the region and, talking specifically of cricket, Pakistan manoeuvred to get the island nation full membership of the ICC by rallying other Asian nations in 1981. In subsequent years, Pakistan stood by Sri Lanka, and in a particular episode when Australia refused to play a fixture of the 1996 World Cup there, teams from Pakistan and India travelled to Sri Lanka to show solidarity. Pakistani fans openly backed the Sri Lankan team in the final against Australia in that edition in Lahore — an act of generosity that the World Cup-winning Sri Lankan captain Arjuna Ranatunga never forgot and has since consistently, supported the return of international cricket to Pakistan. Two months ago, when Sri Lanka’s key players pulled out of the limited overs series and the visiting board president complained about being “fed up of security”, Ranatunga blasted him and exhorted his board to take a history lesson. “People running the game at present perhaps, do not know how much Pakistan helped us during our early days,” he said. Regardless of the on-field results, what is certain is that a full strength Sri Lankan team for this tour has signalled Colombo’s intention to play its part in reviving the good old times in a country with whom its river of goodwill runs deep. * The writer is Features Editor. He tweets @kaamyabi

MAKING A STATEMENT: A student rallies fellow participants as they march in the federal capital Islamabad to demand the reinstatement of student unions last Friday.
Pakistan student march eyes revival for survival

There’s never a dull moment in Pakistan. After last week’s pulsating conclusion to the case surrounding the army chief’s extension in Supreme Court, another issue of considerable interest — the restoration of student unions — is generating momentum. Given the recent uneasy sail, it would seem we’re on the heels of another storm, but it needn’t be so. There is a tendency to view every movement as a sort of threat to national security, if not outright challenge to the status quo. The vibrant youth making themselves heard, in a decidedly democratic expression of their rightful demands in a peaceful way only strengthens the foundation of a just society, not burn the house down. If anything, it only reinforces the ideals of an alive and kicking polity. The Student Solidarity March, led by the Student Action Committee, came out last Friday in 50 cities across Pakistan to present a charter of demands for the restoration of student unions and better educational facilities. They were joined by teachers, rights activists and members of the civil society, who thronged to the venues to lend support. Many of these mixed marches saw young female students in the vanguard, raising slogans, holding placards and reciting azad nazm (free verse) of legendary poet and author Faiz Ahmed Faiz, to the beat of drums. There was plenty of festive air to the whole campaign — a pleasing sight when compared to the often rough, ultra-political, life-disturbing yet much tolerated sit-ins in the federal capital. In stark contrast, all participants of the student march dispersed peacefully after a few hours and made light of the exaggerated predictions of a showdown spun by the detractors. Perhaps, a show of nerves was evident because it has been a long, long time since students made their presence felt. Military ruler General Ziaul Haq, who overthrew the elected government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in a bloodless coup in 1977, left a lasting legacy of disenfranchisement and radicalism, one of which was to place a ban on student unions on the pretext of violence on campuses in 1984.  Practically speaking, it has been 35 years since the student unions were in business — barring the brief period when Benazir Bhutto lifted the ban upon assuming charge as Pakistan’s youngest — and Muslim world’s first female — elected prime minister in 1988. She was herself shy of 36 at the time. Poignantly, the next year was the last time elections were held in colleges and universities. Benazir was ousted from power on corruption charges by a hostile president in 1990. In 1993, the year she returned to power, the Supreme Court prohibited the formation of student unions and called for a proper mechanism for their revival. Unfortunately, successive governments deemed it safe to live in the long shadows of the verdict, treating it little more than a fait accompli. Bhutto’s own Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) did not live up to the promise of reviving the unions after returning to power yet again in 2008, riding a sympathy wave following her assassination days before the general elections. A fresh attempt was made in 2017 to address the issue following a motion tabled by PPP senator Rubina Khalid to this effect and taken up by Raza Rabbani, the chairman of the upper house of Pakistan’s bicameral legislature, who, then gave a ruling, calling for their immediate revival. But the PPP was no longer in power, and despite noises in unison, the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz government was too busy fighting for survival after losing its prime minister to a court conviction. Fast forward to the present. The days and weeks of burning midnight oil in corner meetings by office-bearers of the Student Action Committee and solidified with a resonant march last Friday, seem to have paid off with Prime Minister Imran Khan hinting at the possibility of reviving the student unions. Despite the assurance coming by way of only a tweet, it reflects positively on both the parties — the youth, who felt dejected by this long dark night of denial, and the PM, who, it must be emphasised, owes majorly to the dynamic young voter base which helped him and his party reach the corridors of power. However, it would be erroneous to presume — from a political standpoint — that the revival would benefit only the party in power. At the same time, it is important to understand the distinction between a student union and a student organisation (or wing of a political/religious party). By its very nature, a union is a more rounded, inclusive entity fighting for and upholding the rights of its members (students, in this case) — for better education, facilities, an environment free of coercion on the campuses (that has been one of the demands placed on record) and harassment issues, to name a few. Talking of student wings, it is common knowledge that despite the official ban some religious outfits have long had a stranglehold in many college and university campuses through them in trying to drive other students to a certain way of life. So an average student has to contend with both this menace and the challenge itself of attaining his or her education goals for a rewarding career. A revival will hopefully, not only create a more enabling environment but also give way to plurality of views and perhaps, alternative political discourses. A body of opinion exists, which remains wary of the idea of what it calls “politicising” students, but that may be a rather cynical inference. A society is already ‘political’ if it is alive to its rights, knows how to attain these in a peaceful realm, and responsibilities. The PM is on message when underlines the need for a code of conduct to groom the youth as future leaders. “We will establish a comprehensive and enforceable code of conduct, learning from the best practices in internationally renowned universities, so that we can restore and enable student unions to play their part in positively grooming our youth as future leaders of the country,” he tweeted. Time now, for some action. * The writer is Features Editor. He tweets @kaamyabi

CRITIQUE: US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Alice Wells made an unusually specific critique of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project at the Wilson Center in Washington DC earlier this week.   (File photo)
Pakistan, China dismiss US clamour over CPEC

When a $62bn project, rich in economic and infrastructural dividends, with a 3,000km network of railways, oil and gas pipelines, and renewable energy schemes connects two countries, some attention is only inevitable. On the flip side, it will invite the envy of those who will be hard-pressed to match it and therefore, unable to stomach it. Early this week, it was evident in the unusually specific speech that Alice Wells, US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, delivered on the subject at the Wilson Centre, a Washington think-tank before a host of diplomats, scholars and media persons where she basically warned that Pakistan was unwittingly priming to be at the receiving end of a Chinese juggernaut. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor — or CPEC as it is simply referred to — is the jewel in the crown of China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that involves partnering with dozens of countries around the world through trade and infrastructure projects such as shipping lanes, railroads and airports. A project as grandiose as BRI is not without its share of detractors and given the undercurrents of China’s rapidly expanding global reach and power was always bound to create unease for its rivals in the region and across the globe. The top American diplomat for South Asia isn’t, of course, the first one to draw the red line on CPEC nor would likely be the last. However, her rather public and calibrated presentation is interesting for both its timing and a clear sense of desperation in Washington over its own considerably shrinking influence across the globe. The timing is significant because a chastened US is attempting to revive ties with Pakistan after a long period of distrust and what is evidently the latest retreat to a historically transactional relationship. The Trump administration initially, disparaged Islamabad whilst vainly trying to secure a face-saving exit from Afghanistan after an 18-year-old draining war. It has since returned to siding with pragmatism, and only last week Trump called Prime Minister Imran Khan, with whom he has since built an equation, to thank him for the role Islamabad played in securing the release of two Western hostages, including an American, held by Taliban since 2016.   This is not to suggest that Wells did not raise pertinent posers, which would be par for the course in any project of this scale and, fundamentally speaking, economic sense. Two top ministers of Prime Minister Khan’s cabinet — Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and newly installed Minister for Planning and Development Asad Umar — quickly rebutted Wells’ argument that Islamabad was getting a raw deal from CPEC, which she claimed would push it to the edge in terms of a stifling debt and foster corruption whilst repatriating jobs and profits to China. While Qureshi simply chose to reject Washington’s concerns as unfounded in a decidedly diplomatic mien, Umar held a presser to pointedly address the questions raised by the American diplomat whilst candidly agreeing that the questions were valid in certain respects but incorrectly posited for lack of intent or information. He spelt out, with facts and figures, how and why these fell short of passing muster.   Asserting that Islamabad would never back out of CPEC given its time-tested relationship with Beijing that had defied the odds since its inception, Umar said the country would never again become a “collateral damage” in a conflict between two major powers. While agreeing with Wells that the external debt had considerably impacted the economic progress over time, he dismissed the suggestion it was contrived by China. “Our total public debt right now is $74bn, out of which the CPEC debt is $4.9bn — not even 10% of the total debt,” Umar pointed out. He also rejected the notion that it was a one-way street. “Both countries have benefited: Chinese firms got business as their machinery was exported to Pakistan. The lack of infrastructure in Pakistan, especially in the power sector, was where a lot of the country’s needs were met. Besides, CPEC became a source of financing in large amounts which was previously unavailable. So a base was laid out in the first phase and now further developments will take place in the next phase,” the minister explained. Umar disclosed that special economic zones will be in business in about two months. While admitting that the first phase did not generate too many jobs, he explained it was important to understand that when the objective is infrastructural development, it happens. However, he expects once the industrial development takes off, it will line up jobs.  Meanwhile, Chinese ambassador to Pakistan Yao Jing expressed his “shock and surprise” at the US critique of CPEC, saying Washington should not be casting aspersions over something about which it does not have accurate information. At a presser in Islamabad, he also countered why the US had suspended its promised aid to Pakistan (in 2018, the Trump administration suspended $2bn military aid, including what it owed to Islamabad as service charges for on ground assistance in the anti-terror war in Afghanistan) and not invested in its power sector despite knowing about the country’s dire shortfall. “When in 2013, the Chinese companies were establishing power plants, where was the US,” he bristled. “If Pakistan was in need, China would never ask it to repay loans in time,” Ambassador Jing declared. He also dismissed Wells’ accusation of underwhelming Pakistani workforce, saying that 75,000 Pakistanis were employed in CPEC since 2015 — a number that he projected would grow to 2.3 million by 2030. In a parting shot, the envoy said he would be more than happy to see more investment coming from the US to Pakistan. Reinforcing Islamabad’s position on the subject, Umar clarified the deep rooted ties with Beijing were not aimed against anyone. “We wish to have better relations with all countries. I can assure Alice Wells that American companies were welcome, are welcome and will continue to be welcomed to invest in Pakistan”. * The writer is Features Editor. He tweets @kaamyabi