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'A people inspired by democracy ... will turn their back decisively on extremism'
Benazir Bhutto
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December 27, 2007
What Benazir Bhutto [Images] told the Council for Foreign Relations in New York in August before her return to Pakistan.

Ladies and gentlemen, it's a privilege for me to be here this afternoon as the guest of the Council on Foreign Relations. Thank you for inviting me.

And as I come here to have a conversation with you, I find that my country, Pakistan, is once again in a crisis, and it's a crisis that threatens not only my nation and region, but could have repercussions on the entire world.

It's a crisis that has its roots almost half a century ago, when the military in my country first seized power, in 1958. Four military dictatorships -- and most recently those of General Zia-ul Haq in the 1980s and now General Musharraf -- have ruled my nation for the last 30 years, except for a few years of civilian government. And so I believe that democracy has never really been given a chance to grow or nurture in my homeland.

As an example, I was only allowed to govern for five of the 10 years that my people elected me to govern. And now Pakistan has changed dramatically from the days when I left office, in 1996, for now, from areas previously controlled by my government, pro-Taliban forces linked to Al Qaeda [Images] launch regular attacks on NATO troops across the border in Afghanistan.

In the view of my party, military dictatorship, first in the 1980s and now again, under General Musharraf, has fueled the forces of extremism, and military dictatorship puts into place a government that is unaccountable, that is unrepresentative, undemocratic, and disconnected from the ordinary people in the country, disconnected from the aspirations of the people who make up Pakistan.

Moreover, military dictatorship is born from the power of the gun, and so it undermines the concept of the rule of law and gives birth to a culture of might, a culture of weapons, violence and intolerance.

The suppression of democracy in my homeland has had profound institutional consequences. The major infrastructure building blocks of democracy have been weakened, political parties have been marginalised, NGOs are dismantled, judges sacked and civil society undermined. And by undermining the infrastructure of democracy, the regime that is in place to date was a regime put into place by the intelligence agencies after the flawed elections of 2002.

This regime has not allowed the freedom of association, the freedom of movement, the freedom of speech for moderate political forces, and so by default, the mosques and the madrassas have become the only outlet of permitted political expression in the country.

And so just as...we've seen the emergence of the religious parties, we've seen the emergence of the extremist groups, and just as the military dictatorship of the '80s used the so-called Islamic card to promote a military dictatorship while demonising political parties, so too the present military establishment of this century has used the so-called Islamist card to pressurize the international community into supporting military dictatorship once again.

But I am here this afternoon to tell you that as far as we, the Pakistan People's Party, (are) concerned, the choice in Pakistan is not really between military dictatorship and religious parties; the choice for Pakistan is indeed between dictatorship and democracy. And I feel that the real choice that the world also faces today is the choice between dictatorship and democracy, and in the choice that we make between dictatorship and democracy lies the outcome of the battle between extremism and moderation in Pakistan.

The US intelligence's recent threat assessment stated that...'Al Qaeda and the Taliban seem to be fairly well settled into the safe haven spaces of Pakistan. We see more training, we see more money, we see more communications, we see that activity rising.' That's the most recent US national intelligence threat assessment. And so it's often surprising to those of us in Pakistan who see the international community back the present regime. But this backing continues, despite the regime's failure to stop the Taliban and Al Qaeda reorganizing after they were defeated, demoralised and dispersed following the events of 9/11.

This is a regime under which the religious parties have risen, for the first time, to power, and they run two of Pakistan's four federating units -- two most critical states of Pakistan, those that border Afghanistan (the Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal, or the United Council of Action is the ruling group in the Northwest Frontier Province and manages a coalition in Baluchistan). And even while the military dictatorship has allowed the religious parties to govern two of Pakistan's most critical four provinces, it has exiled the moderate leadership of the country, it has weakened internal law enforcement and allowed for a very bloody suppression of people's human rights.

The military operation in Baluchistan is an example of the brutality of the suppression. The killings that took place in Karachi on May 12, where 48 peaceful political activists were gunned down in the streets of Karachi, and not one person has been arrested for those murders that were actually televised, shows the level to which the regime permits the suppression of the political opposition. And most recently, 17 members of my party were killed in Islamabad on July 17 at the hands of a suicide bomber.

The weakness of law enforcement has led to a series of suicide bombings, roadside bombings.

To give you an example, since last July, 300 people have fallen victim to suicide bombers within Pakistan. Disappearances, too, which were unheard of in our country's history, have become the order of the day. And even as I speak to you, a Pak-origin American, Dr (Safdar) Sarki, has disappeared, not because he supports extremists, but because he's a nationalist, and the level of intolerance for differing views is so high that people can disappear simply for supporting nationalism (the government had engineered the disappearance, holding Sarki, a leader of the World Sindhi Congress, for 18 months).

The West's close association with a military dictatorship, in my humble view, is alienating Pakistan's people and is playing into the hands of those hardliners who blame the West for the ills of the region. And it need not be this way. A people inspired by democracy, human rights and economic opportunity will turn their back decisively (on extremism.

There is a silver lining on the clouds. The recent restoration of the chief justice of Pakistan to the supreme court has given hope to people of Pakistan that the unchecked power of the military will now finally come under a degree of scrutiny by the highest judicial institutions in the country. We in the PPP have kept the doors of dialogue open with the military regime to facilitate the transfer of democracy. This hasn't been a popular move, but we've done it because we think the stability of Pakistan is important to our own security as well as to regional security.

However, without progress on the issue of fair elections, this dialogue could founder. And now, as we approach the autumn, time is running out.

Ladies and gentlemen, I plan to return later this year to Pakistan to lead a democratic movement for the restoration of democracy. I seek to lead a democratic Pakistan which is free from the yoke of military dictatorship and that will cease to be a haven, the very petri dish of international terrorism. A democratic Pakistan that would help stabilise Afghanistan, relieving pressure on NATO troops. A democratic Pakistan that would pursue the drug barons and bust up the drug cartel that today is funding terrorism. A Pakistan where the rule of law is established so that no one has the permission to establish, recruit, train and run private armies and private militias. A democratic Pakistan that puts the welfare of its people as the centerpiece of its national policy.

And as I plan to return to Pakistan, I put my faith in the people of my country who have stood by my party and by myself through this long decade -- more than a decade, 11 years since the PPP government was ousted -- because they believe that the PPP can eliminate terrorism and give them security, and security will bring in the economic investment that can help us reverse the tide of rising poverty in the country, and by so doing, it will certainly undermine the forces of militancy and extremism.

Excerpts from a speech Benazir Bhutto gave on August 15 at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, before her return to Pakistan on October 18. For the complete transcript, visit

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