Cash-strapped and under pressure for poor Covid-handling, Imran Khan government and Pakistan military are using an age-old strategy to shift attention.
As Indian media engages with the China issue, Pakistan’s media is agonising about a Cynthia problem. An American woman living in Pakistan, Cynthia David Ritchie, has made headlines accusing several leaders of the Pakistan Peoples Party, or PPP, of allegedly sexually abusing her. From electronic to social media, Ritchie has everyone glued to their screens, though no one really knows who she is.
In a media otherwise tightly controlled, it is amazing to see the American woman and details of her alleged sexual abuse get airtime, especially from anchors known for their closeness to the establishment. While there is little doubt that some of her stories may be true, Ritchie’s saga is not about abuse of women by some feudal-minded men, but selective spilling of beans that discredits a particular party, and generates enough heat to divert attention from Imran Khan government’s poor handling of the Covid-19 crisis.
Cynthia Ritchie’s allegation about the involvement of three PPP leaders —Rehman Malik, Makhdoom Shahabuddin and ex-prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani — in raping or molesting her is not unbelievable. But there are certain grey areas. Despite the alleged rape, she ‘vlogged’ about Pakistan being ‘a very safe’ place. Her description and known life story told by one of her hosts (a woman working at Walmart in Texas, who later came to Pakistan) fit that of someone out to make a fortune. Indeed, during a television interview, she mentioned getting £2,000 after Rehman Malik allegedly raped her (she says she didn’t grab the cash, but eventually kept it), which means that though the act may not have been consensual, she did indirectly agree to profit from it, and keep the secret for almost nine years until she decided to or was encouraged to spill the beans.
Who is Cynthia?
There is very little known about who sponsored Cynthia Ritchie’s business visa, or other details about her stay in Pakistan since 2010. But there can be little doubt that Cynthia Ritchie was encouraged to come out with her story or systematically go after the Pakistan People’s Party at this particular time.
In fact, she had begun spreading malicious propaganda against Benazir Bhutto’s daughter, Bakhtawar Bhutto Zardari, in January, followed by equally salacious accusations in May against the former prime minister, which resulted in an altercation between her and the PPP’s media wing, finally resulting in more filth coming out. For a country that jealously guards its religious identity, the details she was allowed to share on television without any censorship could only have been sanctioned.
Cynthia Ritchie claims to have arrived in Pakistan almost 10 years ago, she really shot up to fame two-three years ago during the tenure of former DG ISPR Maj. General Asif Ghafoor. It was then that she became noticeable on social media not just publicising Pakistan’s good image but going after dissenting voices. I had blocked her then on seeing her communications with a bunch of, what appeared as, ISPR trolls. Ritchie suited the management and intellectual style of the DG ISPR, who during a conversation, referred to academic scholarship as pornography.
The ISPR social media team’s probable connection with Ritchie was a natural bond driven by the institution’s need to build Pakistan’s positive image or publicise the establishment’s point of view abroad. Ritchie was probably the new experiment because the women used for the purpose in the past were Pakistani and performed many tasks – from presenting papers at international conferences to ‘honey-trapping’ foreign diplomats and journalists.
Old wine, new bottle
Around 2009-10, the need for Pakistani publicity was greatly appreciated. Journalist-turned-diplomat Maleeha Lodhi wrote a book ‘Pakistan: Beyond a Crisis State’ in which she mentioned the need for Pakistan’s image building. Maj. General Ghafoor seemed to have caught on to the idea quite rapidly and ferociously. By December 2016, when he took over the ISPR, there was the huge challenge of proving that Pakistan was not isolated. New Delhi had embarked upon its drive to isolate the old rival internationally, in which the Narendra Modi government failed.
For the ISPR, Ritchie was a new version of a strategy the Pakistan army’s publicity wing had used for long. Since the late 1970s, the ISPR and ISI have engaged with White foreign academics so that they can be encouraged to write about the military and Pakistan in a positive light. Generally, the military does not trust scholars of purely Pakistani origin with data, which is why the country lags behind in research on aspects critical to the state. Precisely because of this approach, there is a dearth of solid research on many issues. For example, you will find far less academic material on Pakistan’s foreign policy than India’s. It is even impossible to access a list of retired diplomats, leave alone see archival material.
The strategy of trusting foreigners, especially White foreigners versus Pakistani, has continued despite the establishment being bitten a couple of times. The attitude remains to open up to academics, media people and (in Cynthia Ritchie’s case) even nobodies with the hope that pouring these people with information, money and other luxuries will produce desired results, at home and globally.
However, Ritchie’s task was also probably to help kill or minimise effectiveness of dissent and counter its spread amongst the relatively literate middle class. Unlike the past, when English newspapers/journals or opinion articles didn’t matter, the ISPR is now fully engaged in countering alternative views in all languages.
An amendment the army doesn’t like
Ritchie seems to share the army’s hatred of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) and the PPP, both of which she has been hitting out against for about a year. While the PTM is opposed and maligned by the military at all forums, nationally and internationally, the PPP is the Pakistan army’s new mini-obsession.
Notwithstanding the two facts that the army’s hatred of the PPP dates back to the mid-1970s and that it does not threaten the security establishment, the current spate of anger appears to be caused by resentment over the PPP’s role in passing the 18th amendment to the 1973 Constitution in 2010. This allows financial autonomy to the federal provinces and has also resulted in gradually reducing the federal government’s share of money, a power that directly impacts the armed forces, especially after the coronavirus outbreak.
In 2019, General Qamar Javed Bajwa criticised the 18th amendment, calling it equivalent to Sheikh Mujeeb’s six-point formula that, in the army GHQ’s eyes, resulted in the breakup of Pakistan. Being the author of the amendment, the PPP cannot approve its removal. Despite the party’s inherent weakness, it cannot afford to make compromises because it would further dilute the PPP’s support base in its home province of Sindh.
Idhar hum, udhar tum
Lately, in its desperation, the military has begun to toy with the idea of altering the formula of distributing national resources by changing the terms of the National Finance Commission (NFC) award. It is the process through which the federal government and the four provinces of the state agree to distribute funds. The Imran Khan government has now suggested including a controversial topic in the Terms of Reference (ToR) of the 10th NFC Award. This is about asking the provincial governments to take responsibility for paying Azad Jammu & Kashmir (AJK) and Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) expenses, which, in turn, means giving AJK/GB a seat at the NFC table.
While the intent behind the move is to free some financial space for the federal government, the political implications are far-reaching. Theoretically, giving AJK/GB a seat at the table means recognising a territory that until now has been considered independent of Pakistan. Recently, PPP’s Bilawal Bhutto held a press conference drawing attention to the fact that in doing so, Islamabad may be signalling acceptance of India’s scrapping of Article 370 and suggesting ‘idhar hum, udhar tum (we are here and you are there)’.
Experts that I spoke with were of the view that the NFC discussions are now delayed for several months and that the military may not get its way. But what it also means is that a resource-desperate military, which is not known for sharing details of its expenditure, may get even more distressed and use Ritchie and her likes for generating greater ruckus.
The author is a research associate at SOAS, London and author of Military Inc. She tweets as: @iamthedrifter. Views are personal.
Note: this article originally published here.