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A nonviolent movement challenges Pakistan’s military

Shift in thought

Since January, peaceful protests against military abuses of civilian minorities have emboldened others to challenge the Army’s grip on democracy.

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Manzoor Pashteen, a leader of Pashtun Protection Movement, addresses supporters during an April rally in Lahore, Pakistan. A Pakistani rights group in the country's troubled border region has been protesting police brutality, censorship and disappearances, drawing a police campaign against its members and deepening tensions.

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In countries where military figures still hold the reins of power through fear, such as Egypt or Thailand, public criticism of the regime comes mainly from abroad. In recent days, for example, the United Nations has accused Venezuela’s security forces of hundreds of arbitrary killings. It also demanded Myanmar’s Army be held accountable for mass violence against the minority Rohingya.

In Pakistan, people are so afraid of speaking against the military or its intelligence services that they often use code, such as tapping one’s shoulder to indicate decorative brass or by referring to “the establishment.” While the country has a facade of democracy, the top generals keep a tight hold on politics, the media, and dissent.

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Yet that fear may be starting to break.

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Since January, Pakistan has seen the rapid rise of a group of young people who rely on peaceful tactics to protest military abuses against ethnic minorities, especially the second-largest group, Pashtuns. In the country’s 70-year history, no group has so openly challenged the military’s grip like the Pashtun Protection Movement, known by its Urdu initials, PTM. Its courage, nonviolence, and appeal to constitutional rights have begun to inspire millions of others far beyond Pakistan’s minorities to speak out.

“The impact of the PTM movement is reflected in how it has triggered a wider debate surrounding the role of the military in politics and citizen rights,” according to journalists Sarah Eleazar and Sher Ali Khan in a CNN report.

The PTM’s main demand is for an accounting of thousands of missing persons either held or killed by the military during its 15-year campaign against the Taliban and other military groups in the country’s remote regions. At PTM rallies, mothers hold up pictures of their missing loved ones, a powerful image that may have helped prevent violent repression of the group.

Leading this civil rights movement is Manzoor Pashteen, a 24-year-old tribal leader and trained veterinarian who has witnessed many of the military’s atrocities. He has been likened to a 20th-century pacifist Muslim, Abdul Ghaffar Khan. Widely known as Bacha Khan, Abdul Ghaffar Khan was a close friend of Mohandas Gandhi in the nonviolent struggle for independence from the British Raj.

Mr. Pashteen has been harassed by security forces to keep him from making public appearances or using social media. The suppression only serves to show how worried the top brass is about this movement’s purely peaceful struggle and its appeal to conscience.

As Gandhi himself said of the use of moral action against abusive power: “We should meet abuse by forbearance. Human nature is so constituted that if we take absolutely no notice of anger or abuse, the person indulging in it will soon weary of it and stop.”

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Will the PTM succeed in freeing Pakistan’s stunted democracy? In a study of insurgencies from 1900 to 2006, scholars Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan found that campaigns of nonviolent resistance were more than twice as effective as their violent counterparts.

At the least, PTM provides a model of domestic dissent for other countries living under the thumb of a military. Nonviolent protest based on basic rights can expose and often defeat the violence that props up a regime. Peace has its own natural following.