Asian earthquake disaster: Politics of Relief

Political manoeuvres begin

There has been a vigorous response by working class people in Pakistan and Kashmir to help the victims and those affected by the devastating earthquake in these regions. In many areas, working class people provided relief and attempted to rescue victims long before even the military arrived. Volunteers from all over the country reached the affected areas where the Pakistani army still does not operate at full capacity. Trade unions in Pakistan and Kashmir have donated generously. But still there are many political parties which are using relief effort to make political gains for themselves.

Islamic parties and groups are using relief to get support in local communities. The armed reactionary Islamic groups have not only resurfaced but are also operating in free and open manner, attempting to justify their existence portraying themselves as the best providers of aid. These armed groups have a history of killing and attacking left wing political activists, trade unionists and students. Their open activities in Kashmir and North West Frontier Province (NWFP) will pose a great threat to left wing political workers and students. Banned organisations and groups, like Lashkar-e-Taibah (now Jamat al Dawah, an extreme Wahabi hard-line Islamic group) and Albadar Mujahideen (an armed group linked with Jamat-e-Islami) are trying to get maximum publicity in the media.

The parties of the ruling class of Kashmir and Pakistan are also busy in this attempt to use provision of earthquake aid to buy political support.

What we have seen, and experienced, in the last few days, is a clear indication of a covert election campaign in the earthquake areas. The Musharraf regime in Pakistan wants to improve the fading image of the army, and so the official TV channels and media are busy in a propaganda campaign supporting the President’s wishes in this regard. The Musharraf regime has refused to learn anything from this tragedy and they still continue the same mistaken policies of using army officers at every level in the relief and rehabilitation work. The Federal relief Commissioner is a serving general and now he has appointed another general to prepare a housing plan for the affected areas. Army officers have been put in charge of different affected areas for reconstruction. This, despite the fact, that the army tops failed miserably to respond when the earthquake first happened.

General Musharraf conceded this fact in an address to the nation on 12 October, when he admitted that the army and administration had lost a crucial 72 hours in responding to the disaster.

The Generals want to give the impression that the only honest, reliable and efficient institution in the country is the military, so that every one should trust blindly this institution.

In all likelihood, behind the scenes there is tension between the generals and the ruling elite of Kashmir over who should get the maximum share in the reconstruction process. Tension has already developed between the provincial government of NWFP, led by the alliance of religious Islamic parties (MMA), and the Musharraf administration. The provincial government demands 50% share of the aid. These sorts of tensions can give rise to increased nationalism in Kashmir and NWFP and lead to greater demands for autonomy and independence. The ruling elite in these regions will use this nationalist sentiment, which arises from the oppression and discrimination against the national and ethnic minorities that live in the region.

Elections are due next year in Pakistani Occupied Kashmir and in Pakistan in 2007. So the power and prestige of all the big political parties is at stake. All the big players want to get maximum electoral support for their relief efforts. Jamat-e-Islami in Kashmir and NWFP are clearly involved in these maneuvers. They have already stockpiled a huge amount of aid to be used in coming months to get electoral support. However, these parties pose no alternative to the continuation of capitalism and the grip of the feudal lords. They are concentrating heavily in Bagh, because they previously won a seat in this area, the only one they ever won in Kashmir. The leaders of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in Kashmir are also using the aid sent by working class people from Pakistan to get votes. They have kept back supplies to use later to boost their political popularity.

Opposition to armed groups

Members of the Trade Union Rights Campaign Pakistan and Kashmir have intervened on four occasions to stop dozens of armed men from a religious group who tried to force the loaded aid trucks arriving in Bagh to go to their camp. They wanted to distribute the aid, claiming it was their "aid to the people". These trucks were destined for the rural areas. When TURC members intervened to stop the armed group taking the supplies, local people also gathered and opposed the armed groups. TURC members, with the help of local people, forced armed groups to leave the area.

Many parties and religious groups are not fairly sharing out aid. They are distributing it among their supporters and giving very little to poor peasants and workers. The armed Islamic groups are taking full advantage of the fact that there is no state and government administration in these areas.

A working class alternative is needed to change this system of greed and exploitation. This capitalist system uses destruction and misery to carry out widespread corruption and to make money for the few, at the expense of the many. This earthquake, a “natural disaster”, exposed the horrors of capitalist society. The disaster poses the need to change this rotten system and replace it with socialism.

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October 2005