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Strains Intensify in Pakistan's Ethnic Patchwork

Protests and violence occurred throughout Pakistan in the wake of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto's assassination. Bhutto was leading the Pakistan People's Party as it campaigned for the Jan. 8 national elections.

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By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 7, 2008

KARACHI, Pakistan -- To Khaled Chema, an unemployed 32-year-old living in a sprawling slum of this mega-city by the sea, Benazir Bhutto wasn't assassinated because she opposed extremism and advocated democracy. She was killed because, like him, she was a Sindhi.

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And just as her father did before her, Bhutto died a long way from home -- in the back yard of the Punjabi establishment. Her assassination has inflamed long-simmering resentments among ethnic minorities toward the dominant Punjabis.

In Pakistan -- a federation of four provinces, each associated with a different ethnic group -- the issue of ethnic identity has long been troublesome, imperiling the unity of the state.

In Baluchistan, many people are in open revolt. Pashtuns in North-West Frontier Province have joined their clansmen on the Afghan side of the border in a bloody insurgency against both governments.

Now, Bhutto's assassination in Rawalpindi, a key city in Punjab province and the home of the military, has endangered the uneasy balance in which Sindhis suppressed their ethnic-nationalist desires because they knew that one of their own was among the most popular politicians in the country.

At Bhutto's funeral in rural Sindh province last month, there was hardly a Pakistani flag to be seen, and Sindhi mourners chanted, "We don't need Pakistan!" Sindhis also attacked Punjabi targets in the three days of rioting that followed news of her killing.

Meanwhile, some here in Karachi, capital of Sindh province, are threatening to wage war against the Pakistani army unless Sindhis win more power in elections scheduled for next month. Punjabis have long been overrepresented in the army, which is widely blamed here for Bhutto's death, despite the government's insistence that Islamic extremists were responsible.

"The army is unable to work in Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier Province. Sindh is next," said Bashir Ahmal Haleemi, a trucker and longtime Karachi resident. "The people in Sindh hate the Punjabi establishment. Not the common man from Punjab, but the Punjabi factor in the army. Now the hatred is growing."

President Pervez Musharraf has acknowledged the backlash, appealing for calm in a nationwide address Wednesday and reaching out "especially to my Sindhi brothers and sisters."

Pakistan was cobbled together more than 60 years ago as a homeland for Muslims of the Indian subcontinent. While religion was a common bond, the country's multilingual and multiethnic nature has never been successfully addressed by any of its leaders. The ethnic strife peaked in 1971, when Bengalis revolted and Pakistan split in half with the creation of Bangladesh.

Few believe the country is in imminent danger of fracturing again. But Bhutto's death has exacerbated ethnic tension in at least two ways: It has angered non-Punjabis because of her status as a member of a minority, and it has eliminated one of the few Pakistani politicians whose reputation transcended ethnicity.

At a time of constant upheaval in Pakistan, when religion, education levels and party affiliation are all sources of conflict, ethnic identity is just one more layer of division.


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