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Dawn Editorial 30 March 2020

IMF rescue package

IT is heartening to hear that the government is in fast-track talks with the International Monetary Fund to accelerate balance-of-payments support for Pakistan as the country gears up for its fight with the coronavirus. The lockdowns that are necessary will exact a terrible toll from industry, and more importantly, from the workforce and the poor, who must be protected, even if extraordinary measures are required. This effort will not only cost money, primarily for ramped-up social protections schemes and investments in healthcare provision, but many of the targets set in the IMF programme are now going to have to be set aside almost entirely. Some examples might be revenues and spending, as well as ceilings on government borrowing. These are extraordinary times and all tools available to the state must be mobilised to build the capacity necessary for success in this fight. There is no alternative to lockdowns to arrest the spread of the virus, and there is little option but to rapidly boost social protection programmes to enable the vulnerable to weather the resultant freeze in their incomes. The only question right now is how to get all this done.
The IMF has hinted in its statement that its support will be focused on health and social protection, which is the right place for the emphasis to be. But money is fungible, as the Fund is no doubt aware, and external assistance should not mean that the government diverts its own resources, meagre as they may be, towards priorities other than securing access to essential items for the poor and vulnerable and ramping up healthcare. There is a large pull on the state’s resources from owners of capital who are speaking about protecting their workers, but in reality are out to protect their own profits. IMF assistance should not provide a cover for resources to be diverted towards this.
For its part, the Fund will need to think about inverting many of the ways in which it has seen the policy framework in Pakistan. Suddenly, it is a good thing that power has been devolved to the provinces since they are today providing the most robust response to the threat. This is a good time to put more resources in the hands of the provinces, perhaps by lowering the provincial surplus targets, to enable them to ramp up their response. And suddenly growth, revenues and debt sustainability are no longer the top priorities for the economic managers. In fact, the Fund now finds itself in the awkward — but essential — position of calling for debt relief for heavily indebted countries like Pakistan so resources can be diverted to the fight against the virus. The quicker the economic managers and their counterparts in the multilateral agencies learn and internalise the new thinking that they now have to demonstrate, the better prepared we will be to wage the fight that has only just begun.


Witch-hunt continues

AT a time when the entire world, including Pakistan, is struggling to cope with the coronavirus epidemic that is playing havoc with the lives of the people, an accountability court has gone ahead and issued non-bailable warrants for former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi’s arrest. These warrants have been issued in a fresh reference filed by the National Accountability Bureau pertaining to the alleged illegal appointment of the managing director and deputy managing director of Pakistan State Oil. The judge of the accountability court has ordered NAB to arrest Mr Abbasi and produce him before the court on April 10.
NAB had originally arrested Mr Abbasi in July last year in the case pertaining to setting up an LNG terminal. Later, former finance minister Miftah Ismail was also arrested in the same case, and both spent the rest of the year behind bars. However, NAB failed to produce any evidence that could implicate Mr Abbasi and Mr Ismail in the case and ultimately the court allowed them bail, saying NAB could come up with no justifiable reason to hold them in custody. Since then, the former prime minister has repeatedly said on record that NAB investigators had very little idea of the case they had built against him, and, in fact, the way that NAB officials questioned him a few times in prison bordered on the infantile — so clueless were the investigators about the technicalities of LNG terminals. Mr Ismail has also expressed similar views about the woeful lack of capacity of NAB investigators to understand the complex dynamics of this sector. The court, too, expressed similar sentiments about the dismal performance of NAB and allowed Mr Abbasi and Mr Ismail their freedom. However, it is a matter of deep concern that despite this severe lack of substantive evidence, NAB has gone ahead and filed another reference against the former prime minister and acquired an arrest warrant for him. What reason is there for Mr Abbasi to be incarcerated yet again, after he has already spent so many months in prison without NAB having anything to show for it? If NAB really wants to pursue this case of appointment of two officials, it can always ask Mr Abbasi to present himself for questioning. However, it appears the dragnet around Mr Abbasi is more of a political nature. NAB continues to hack away at its own credibility through such ill-advised actions.


Sri Lanka pardon

THE Sri Lankan civil war, which pitted the Sinhala-majority state against the Tamil LTTE, was a grinding, bloody affair that lasted almost 26 years and resulted in a high number of casualties on both sides. It finally ended in 2009, after then president Mahinda Rajapaksa led a final assault against the Tamil Tigers. The campaign, though successful, was criticised by many in the international community for the excesses committed by the Sri Lankan military against Tamil civilians, though the LTTE was also responsible for massacres of non-combatants during the civil war. It may be over a decade since the war ended, but the wounds between the ethnic communities have yet to heal. And when the Sri Lankan state is seen as looking the other way when proof of abuse by soldiers emerges, it will do little to bridge the divide. The country’s President Gotabaya Rajapaksa — brother of Mahinda Rajapaksa — has recently pardoned an army officer sentenced to death for the slaughter of civilians, including children, in 2000. The Sri Lankan supreme court had upheld the sentence last year.
Though this paper opposes the death penalty in all instances, those involved in such abuses against non-combatants must be punished for their crimes, through life behind bars. By pardoning a soldier found guilty of such a grisly crime, the Sri Lankan state is sending the wrong message; a leading Tamil party in the country has termed the move “opportunistic”. The fact is that ever since the defeat of the LTTE, Sri Lanka has seen a wave of Sinhala Buddhist majoritarianism where the country’s minorities — chiefly Tamils and Muslims — have seen their position on the national stage shrink. Instead of riding the populist wave, the Sri Lankan state should encourage accountability and reconciliation. If minority communities feel left out of the national narrative it will only alienate them and recreate the situation that led to the civil war. The country’s leadership needs to promote an atmosphere of national harmony, not exclusivism.


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