A day after Bangladesh suffered its worst cyclone in at least 10 years, and two weeks into General Pervez Musharraf's declaration of emergency rule in neighboring Pakistan, senior diplomats from both countries spoke in Durham at a lively forum on "the explosive situation in South Asia."
Muhammad Aslam Khan, deputy chief of mission at the Pakistani embassy in Washington, D.C., and M. Humayun Kabir, the Bangladeshi ambassador to the United States, were the keynote speakers at the all-day conference, held in makeshift quarters in N.C. Central University's education library.
Seated at low-lying desks and surrounded by children's books, South Asian experts from NCCU, N.C. State and other universities gave a fascinating, if exhaustive, overview of the region. However, organizers didn't publicize well the diplomats' appearance, and most participants and audience members left before their speeches, which began around 7:30 p.m.
During his remarks, Khan insisted that Pakistan was democratic and free—at least in "spirit"—and disagreed with much of the academics' critiques of the country's governance.
"At the end of the first moderated discussion on Crisis in Democracy, what I felt most acutely was that the students were going back with only, very frankly, a flawed, partial, archaic and at best imperfect knowledge of the reality related to democracy, governance, religion and economy, et cetera of South Asia—despite the fact that the panelists and participants, on their part, did the best that could be expected of them," Khan said, in a tone that reflected a profound, though congenial, divide between academics and diplomats.
The Pakistani military has governed the country through much of its 60-year history, including the presidency of Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup. Musharraf declared a state of emergency earlier this month—suspending the Constitution, removing Supreme Court justices and silencing opposition leaders and the media—in anticipation of legal challenges to his re-election.
"Yes, there have been disruptions," Khan said of democracy in Pakistan, which he contends remains in effect despite emergency rule. "Yes, there have been military interventions, but invariably, the country has been brought back to democracy by the same military rulers."
Wake Forest University professor Charles Kennedy said the Pakistani military has retained its power for so long, despite its platitudes about democracy, because "they would say the civil process is poisoned."
Khan also refuted studies by Freedom House, a nonprofit organization that advocates for global democracy, and The Economist magazine identifying Pakistan as authoritarian and "not free."
"The spirit of democracy comes from things very fundamental: political culture, historical heritage, social traditions and the fundamental values of society," Khan said. "As long as these fundamentals are in place, I for one would not write off any society—even if it may sound lacking in some aspects of democracy, in form."
Penn State professor Stanley Kochanek, one of the few panelists who stayed for the diplomats' speeches, noted in a later interview with the Indy that the Economist and Freedom House have legitimate criticisms of Pakistan's purported democracy.
"You can't just ignore them and claim that regardless of what the critics may say, somehow if the spirit is there, it's true," said Kochanek.
Although he didn't fault Khan for presenting the official party line, he did note several instances of the diplomat's exaggeration. For example, Khan claimed that the Indian-Pakistani conflict over Kashmir is "the root cause for all the problems we have in South Asia."
"He represents the Pakistani government," Kochanek said. "The government representatives will always bring up Kashmir. That's their primary concern. You can't fault him; that's his job. But I think in this case it was somewhat of a stretch."
Khan's invocation of Kashmir erupted into an intense debate between Khan and Asim Chakrabarty, an Indian correspondent for Voice of America, the international wire service of the U.S. government. Chakrabarty dominated much of the day's question-and-answer sessions and also sat on a panel.
One audience member, who said he was born in Pakistan and who left before he could be identified, interrupted the two government spokesmen to say, "Unfortunately, we have seen the doctrine that the military will rule our life."
"Your Honor, based on your argument, you were born in that doctrine as well, and could not graduate," he told Khan. "For this kind of session, instead of taking the old doctrine, I think Pakistan should evolve and take a new doctrine."
Kabir, the Bangladeshi ambassador, said the day's occasionally prickly encounters among government, academia and the public were a "good learning opportunity."
"[The academics] have analyzed things from a larger perspective, and that gives us some insight to understand the issues," he said. "Interacting with them enriches us, and we believe in this world where academic and civil society are increasingly playing an important role in influencing policy, it is important to remain engaged with them."