Assassination feeds Pakistani rivalries

Times Staff Writer

On the day Benazir Bhutto died, Yousef Leghari watched his native Sindh province erupt.

For five days, people vented their rage by firing weapons, and setting fire to vehicles and buildings. Bhutto was Sindh's native daughter, and she had been assassinated. But not just anywhere.

The popular opposition leader had been killed in Punjab province, Pakistan's locus of government and military power, and a source of envy in Sindh and other minority provinces.

Along with the tragedy, Leghari now sees opportunity. He and other local politicians have long wanted Sindh to secede from Pakistan, but separatist talk had gained scant support among voters.

At Bhutto's funeral, thousands of angry mourners took to the streets.

"We hate Pakistan," they chanted. "We don't want to be part of Pakistan!"

Said Leghari, "People are waking up. It's time to act."

Bhutto's death has heightened bitter regional rivalries in this Muslim nation of 165 million. The fragile federation, founded in 1947, encompasses five major ethnic groups now facing growing social and economic divides.

Over the years, successive governments have spent billions of dollars on a strong military to hold the nuclear-armed nation together. Yet dysfunction prevails.

Pakistan's three minority provinces -- Sindh, Baluchistan and North-West Frontier Province -- have long contended that Punjab, the most populous province, dominates the federal bureaucracy and gets a disproportionate share of resources.

Pakistan, or "land of the pure," should be renamed Punjab, for all its bias, Leghari and others believe. They say trouble looms unless other provinces win more power in elections scheduled for Feb. 18.

Punjab, with about as many residents as the rest of Pakistan combined, historically has held a majority of seats in the National Assembly, the lower house of the parliament.

The acrimony is often violent. President Pervez Musharraf moved troops into Sindh to quell unrest after Bhutto's death. His military is already fighting a separatist rebellion in Baluchistan and has lost ground to tribal and religious militants operating in the rugged mountains of North-West Frontier Province and tribal areas near Afghanistan.

In Baluchistan, Pakistan's largest and poorest province, where battles have been waged sporadically for years, fighting erupted again in 2006 when government security forces killed Nawab Akbar Bugti, a 79-year-old nationalist leader who had led the area's struggle for political autonomy.

Demanding a share of the government's gas and mineral wealth, Bugti had ordered attacks on gas pipelines and oil installations.

"We have never felt a part of Pakistan," said Sardar Ataullah Mengal, chief of the Baluchistan National Party. "They're colonizing our land and turning our people into a minority. Pakistan doesn't want our people. It wants our resources."

Ethnic Pashtuns, who mainly inhabit the country's volatile northwest, also demand that Pakistan's political and economic balance be shifted. Many have joined tribesmen on the other side of the border in Afghanistan for a violent insurgency against both governments.

Residents of Sindh, the second-most populous province, say that the central government takes more than it gives.

Dams built upriver in Punjab have transformed the once-mighty Indus River into a mere trickle in Sindh, ruining local farmers, people there say.

The province, rich in natural gas and coal, and with a regional capital, Karachi, that boasts a lucrative port and a stock market, is the largest contributor of federal tax revenue. Still it receives only a 25% return in government services, studies show.

"Sindh can survive on its own," said Leghari, who is also a lawyer and activist. "We've got our own port and enough coal to burn for 5,000 years. Pakistan's civil society is broken. There's no free judiciary or press. Who wants to be a part of that?"

But Bhutto's death was the harshest blow of all. She was expected to look out for Sindhi interests if she was returned to power. Instead, she was the third Pakistani prime minister associated with Sindh to die in the Punjabi city of Rawalpindi.

Pakistan's first premier, Liaquat Ali Khan, was shot to death in 1951, and Bhutto's own father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was hanged in 1979 after his government was toppled in a coup.

"Benazir was killed because she was a Sindhi," Leghari said. "And once again, we have the Punjabis to blame."

Experts here dismiss activists such as Leghari as malcontents, a fringe element that has little chance of seeing its dream become reality. They say the intermixing of minorities through migration strengthens the social fabric, making it less likely the nation could splinter on ethnic grounds.

"The separatists are living in a false paradise if they think their future is anywhere but in Pakistan," said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a political scientist at Lahore University of Management Sciences in Punjab.

In Sindh, Rais said, many separatists are middle-class Pakistanis whose message has failed to resonate among the working poor, who look to the national Pakistan People's Party, or PPP, which Benazir Bhutto headed, to win better representation in Islamabad, the capital.

As a result, resentment of the PPP has flourished among separatists, and some in the party believe they are harassing its candidates.

In a number of places outside the urban areas of Sindh, which is to choose a new administration in the elections, the party's candidates have been intimidated and beaten -- attacks its leaders suspect are the work of separatists.

"What votes do they get? They don't get any," said Taj Haider, a PPP organizer. "As a result our people are being attacked."

But support for the separatist movement is growing among the poor.

"Benazir's death changed everything," said Muslim Soomro, a small man selling fruit on a Karachi street corner.

"We're tired of seeing Bhuttos sent home to Sindh in coffins. It's time to do something about it."

As tensions rise in Sindh and Musharraf's troops patrol the streets, some are even beginning to talk of armed resistance.

At the headquarters of his Sindh Progressive Party in Hyderabad, chairman Qader Magsi posts armed guards as a warning that he means business.

He moves in an armed convoy with guards flaunting their weapons even in the face of soldiers.

"We don't feel safe here in Pakistan," Magsi said of Sindh residents, as he sipped strong Pakistani tea in his well-guarded office, which features a map of the "Kingdom of Sindh," circa AD 642.

"When the soldiers start to kill us, we're not exactly going to present them with a garland of roses."

He scoffed at the idea that separatist ideas do not resonate here, claiming that a referendum about seceding from Pakistan would win overwhelming support if ever presented to voters.

Magsi said he was jailed for six years as a dissident soon after his party was founded in 1991. Since then his ire has grown.

"We don't have tanks and rocket launchers like the military," he said. "But we have the resolve to defend our motherland."

Yet he hopes not to resort to violence, he said.

"When the Soviet Union broke apart, not a single shot was fired," he said. "We ask Musharraf to be a gentleman like Gorbachev. If you are not prepared to redistribute Pakistan's wealth, then call a press conference and give us our freedom."

For now, Leghari bides his time, waiting for the right moment to try to establish a new country.

He insists that the world map is continually being redrawn, so why not for Sindh?

"We are not just Muslims -- we are not just defined by religion," he said. "We're defined by where we live, what we speak and what we eat. Pakistan has never understood that."

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john.glionna@latimes.com

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