Syria conundrum; HK publishers brought to book; Fishy business in South China Sea; GOP gunning for an Ohio showdown By Hamish McDonald.

Pakistan army ploys come back to haunt

Grief-stricken Pakistani Christians attend a funeral for one of the victims of the Lahore fun park bombing.
Grief-stricken Pakistani Christians attend a funeral for one of the victims of the Lahore fun park bombing.
Credit: ARIF ALI / AFP

We can’t see many signs saying Mera Lahore hai (I am Lahore), and Sunday’s suicide bombing atrocity at a children’s fun park in the Pakistani city, with 72 dead, has dropped out of the news cycle much faster than the bombings in Brussels the previous week, which have resulted in 35 deaths so far.

These days not many of us are likely to imagine ourselves travelling to Pakistan, even to see the splendid Mughal-era buildings and gardens of Lahore. As harrowing as the images of the grieving families were, it’s much harder for us to engage emotionally with a country where powerful interests at the core of the state have encouraged and unleashed the forces that carry out such atrocities as a standard activity.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif says he will go after the perpetrators, a faction of the Pakistan Taliban. But he said that after the Taliban shot up a school in the army cantonment in Peshawar in December 2014, killing 141, mostly children. Pakistan’s army and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) wing are reaping what they sowed by fostering Islamist terror groups to undermine Indian rule in Kashmir and create a strategic backyard in Afghanistan.

We may find the Lahore bombing leading back through a skein of events to a squabble between women picking berries in June 2009. Some of them objected to a Christian woman named Aasiya Noreen drinking from the same container. Heated words resulted, and Noreen ended up sentenced to death the next year for blasphemy. Punjab’s then governor Salman Taseer, a liberal cosmopolitan type, spoke out against the sentence. One of his police commando bodyguards, Mumtaz Qadri, gunned him down in 2011. Qadri was hanged on February 29. His numerous supporters ended a mourning period just before the Lahore attack: on Sunday about 25,000 gathered in protest in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, and demanded the execution of Noreen, who remains in jail pending appeal. When will it stop?

1 . Syria conundrum

The televised dynamiting of the ancient Buddha carvings of Bamiyan brought home to the world the benighted mindset of Afghanistan’s Taliban, part of the genie let loose by Pakistan’s ISI. More recently, Daesh’s capture and vandalism of the Syrian city of Palmyra had the same impact.

This week the Syrian army recaptured Palmyra, with the help of Iranian and Lebanese militias and intense Russian air strikes, and the Western world is uncertain whether to cheer or not. Saving the remaining Roman ruins is one thing. If Palmyra becomes the first stage of a campaign to expel Daesh from its eastern Syrian strongholds then the Assad regime’s hand in the tenuous Geneva peace talks is greatly strengthened. Conversely, Daesh would then put even more effort into its terrorism networks elsewhere.

Barack Obama will end his presidency in January without shaking off the disaster created by George Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, the consequent diversion of attention from Afghanistan, and his listing of Iran in the Bush “axis of evil”. More and more US special forces and marines are on the ground in Iraq and Syria, helping local forces fight Daesh and the al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra. Elsewhere across the Middle East and Africa, US jets and drones are blasting allied or similar groups, in Yemen, Somalia, Libya.

The US military mission in Afghanistan looks to be extended indefinitely. Yet somehow it’s Obama who gets the blame as the campaigning for his successor proceeds.

2 . HK publishers brought to book

The case of the five Hong Kong book publishers who disappeared over the past few months, then re-emerged in the hands of Chinese police across the border, gets stranger and stranger. Greatly chastened, they are trickling back into Hong Kong.

The latest is Lee Bo, the head of the Mighty Current Media publishing and bookselling company, who returned to Hong Kong on March 24, three months after witnesses saw him being bundled into a van outside his warehouse and driven off. But it was a brief stop. The next day, local journalists saw him leave his apartment, get into a passenger van driven by unidentified men, and travel to a border crossing into China.

Lee gave an interview to Chinese television network Phoenix TV in which he disavowed his previous career pumping out books of scandal about Chinese communist leaders. “These cock-and-bull books, I won’t publish or sell them anymore,” he said. “As I said before, freedom of the press and speech don’t include reckless invention. Hong Kong still has people who do that, but I hope they’ll stop.”

Likewise his British passport doesn’t seem to be something he values much anymore. “I feel the mainland has prospered and the motherland is affluent and powerful,” he said. “As a Chinese, I feel proud. I plan to take my son back to the mainland for medical treatment later. My feeling is, as a Hongkonger, if Hong Kong wants development, it must closely rely on the mainland, the motherland.”

Lee insisted he went into China voluntarily, by an undisclosed route, to assist in police investigations against a colleague who vanished from a holiday apartment in Thailand and then popped up on Chinese television confessing to an old drunk-driving offence. China’s Foreign Ministry naturally denied he was abducted by Beijing agents.

3 . Fishy business in South China Sea

China, meanwhile, continues to stir up more antagonism in South-East Asia, with a clumsy incident at sea bringing Indonesia off the fence about its contentious “nine-dash line” claim to historic ownership of most of the South China Sea.

Two weeks ago, an Indonesian patrol vessel intercepted a Chinese boat allegedly fishing inside the Indonesian exclusive economic zone off the Natuna Islands, took its eight crew on board, and began towing the boat back to its base. A Chinese coastguard ship then arrived, and rammed the fishing boat to break it free of the tow. The Indonesians then left the scene with their captives.

Indonesian foreign minister Retno Marsudi has now rejected the explanation that the boat was fishing in China’s “traditional fishing zone” that came from the Chinese embassy in Jakarta. “We don’t recognise this terminology at all,” she said.

4 . GOP gunning for an Ohio showdown 

As the Republican nomination race gets even more tacky, a glorious bit of lampooning this week raised the possibility of it all ending in the most iconic American fashion − a gunfight on the floor of the party convention in Cleveland, Ohio, to choose the candidate to run for president in the November election.

An online petition is calling on the convention organisers to “recognise our constitutional right to open carry firearms at the Republican National Convention at the Quicken Loans Arena in July 2016.” The author, identified only as “N. A.” said it would be dangerous not to allow guns inside the venue, quoting the National Rifle Association argument that gun-free zones are “the worst and most dangerous of all lies” and pointing out that Cleveland was consistently listed among the 10 most dangerous cities in the US.

By early in the week it got 42,000 signatures. Ohio, whose governor John Kasich is one of the remaining candidates running against Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, does allow firearms to be carried openly.

Alas, The Donald is not going to be anointed or kicked out in a blazing showdown. The US Secret Service is adamant about banning guns on the convention floor, citing its “authority to preclude firearms from entering sites visited by our protectees, including those located in open-carry states”.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 2, 2016 as "Pakistan army ploys come back to haunt ".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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