|Asia News Digest
Pakistani President Under Great Stress
Islamabad was virtually shut down on March 16, as the "opposition" to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf planned a rally in support of the recently sacked Chief Justice Iftikar Muhammad Chaudhary. Musharraf dismissed the Chief Justice on March 10 following the Chaudhary's findings that the privatization of Pakistan Steel was laced with corruption and bribery. When Musharraf's "opposition" reacted to the sacking, a Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) was set up, with five Justices to hear the Chief Justice's views and complaints.
Prior to the hearing, Musharraf ordered Pakistani police to arrest the Jamaat-e-Islami chief and head of the six-party alliance of Islamic parties, MMA, Qazi Hussain Ahmed. The Pakistani government claimed Qazi was planning to hold the Friday prayer meeting in front of the Supreme Court where the hearing was scheduled. Police also broke into the GEO-TV, a private television station with links to the United States, and ransacked the place. GEO-TV was planning to air the hearing.
In addition, Islamabad police set up roadblocks to prevent entry of outsiders in large numbers into Islamabad. According to available reports March 16, telecommunication connections to the capital were inoperative at the time.
While these developments are not likely a part of a coup, there exist other elements which make the situation more dangerous. Thousands of armed orthodox Islamists are inside Islamabad in defiance of President Musharraf. The Dawn reported that riot police clashed with protestors, firing rubber bullets at supporters of Qazi Hussain Ahmed, who surrounded him as police tried to arrest him. (For more on the Pakistani situation, see Indepth: "Pakistan Plans To Bury NATO in Afghanistan," by Ramtanu Maitra.)
Is U.S Behind Unrest in Islamabad?
The order of events in recent weeks indicates the Bush Administration has little or no interest in coming to the aid of the besieged Pakistani President. Washington has made it clear that it is not siding with Musharraf on the issue of his sacking of Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikar Muahammad Chaudhary. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Richard Boucher, while in Islamabad on March 15, described the current judicial crisis in Pakistan as "sensitive," and said "it needed to be handled carefully." On the same day in Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told news reporters: "It is a matter of deep concern, and we believe that the resolution of the matter should take place in a way that is completely transparent and strictly in accordance with Pakistan's laws."
But the U.S. pressure on Musharraf has been building for months. On Feb. 28, when Vice President Dick Cheney visited Islamabad, it became apparent that the Bush Administration was giving Musharraf an ultimatum. On that occasion, Washington reportedly demanded military access to Pakistan's tribal areas bordering Afghanistan in order to annihilate the al-Qaeda and Taliban militia allegedly assembled there. Musharraf, for obvious reasons, did not allow the U.S. military to be unleashed against his countrymen. On March 14, the U.S. called off its strategic discussions with Pakistan, saying the U.S. representative, Assistant Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns, will not be able to travel to Islamabad because of his other assignments.
On March 11, the New York Times, quoting former associate director of operations Robert Richer, named a couple of Pakistani generals who would be perfectly acceptable to Washington in case "something happened to Musharraf tomorrow...."
Native American Trackers Deployed Along Afghan-Pak Border
The Shadow Wolves, an Native American law enforcement tracking unit in Arizona, which tracks down illegal immigrants and drug traffickers for the Department of Homeland Security, has a new assignment: to track down Osama bin Laden and his gang along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, The Australian reported March 12. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last month: "If I were Osama bin Laden, I'd keep looking over my shoulder."
The Shadow Wolves were recruited from several tribes, including the Navajo, Sioux, Lakota, and Apache. The unit is being sent to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to pass on ancestral sign-reading skills to local border units.
However, some in the Pentagon wanted the unit to track down bin Laden and his lieutenant Ayaman al-Zawahiri. According to U.S. intelligence, their trail has not gone cold. Vice Adm. Mike McConnell, the new U.S. Director of National Intelligence, told a Senate Committee that the duo were setting up new training camps in northwestern Pakistan.
Construction of Beijing-Shanghai Railway To Begin
Construction of the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed railway will start some time this year, National Peoples Congress member Lang Guoping said in Beijing March 12. The railway, once completed, is designed to serve for 100 years. Trains will be able to reach 350 km/hour. Over 80% of the trains will be manufactured in China, but China has set up joint ventures with Siemens of Germany, Alsthom of France, Bombardier of Canada, and Kawasaki Machinery Industrial Co. of Japan to produce the trains.
Rising Food Prices Fuel Inflation in China
In February, China's consumer price index was up by 2.7% on food prices, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. Rising food prices have been pushing up inflation since November, and official statistics indicate that food prices were up by 6% over a year ago. China does have a massive grain stockpile, but prices of meat and eggs have been rising much faster than grain prices, up by 15.4% and 30%.
China is also being flooded with even more liquidity and inflation, because its trade surplus nearly hit a monthly record in February of US$23.76 billion, just under the October 2006 record. In addition, bank deposits are at an all-time high, as workers deposit their New Years' earnings. The central bank may have to raise the reserve requirements ratio again, which would be the sixth time in nine months.
Bus Fare Hike Provokes Mass Unrest in Yongzhou
China's official media reported March 14 on the mass unrest in Yongzhou, Hunan Province, provoked by a bus fare increase for the long-distance buses used by rural migrant workers to reach the coastal cities. Hunan is in the impoverished southwest of China.
Villagers in a town near Yongzhou "intercepted" a bus, demanding cuts in the new higher fare, and, although fares were lowered again on government orders, the unrest continued, with peasants setting buses on fire, and stoning the local police station. The Hunan provincial government has sent officials to the scene of the unrest, and shut down Anda Corporation, the bus company which raised prices.