The Press Conference room, S-226 is overcrowded with journalists and their media equipment , diplomats and staffers of Chief Executive Musharraf’s entourage. This is the relatively small room below the Media floor that houses the United Nations Correspondents’ Association offices. Today, the area down the steps from S-226 is cordoned off because President Clinton is addressing the Security Council. I watch his speech, Tony Blair’s speech and Shaikh Hasina’s speech on TV monitors mounted on the walls in the UN press office, while waiting for the Musharraf event to begin.
The Chief Executive, accompanied to the table by aides, begins with a prepared statement which touches on two points. He speaks about the need for the UN to develop more effective dispute resolutions measures. Second, he speaks about the need to ease the burden of debt on poor countries, which he claims is 50% of Pakistan’s budget, so that the money saved can be used in “social uplift.” Dispute resolution and debt relief are popular themes of speeches in the General Assembly this year.
Next, the Chief Executive focuses on Kashmir. In this, his first Millennium Summit, he has spoken about Kashmir in his General Assembly address. He states that people are talking about Kashmir because Pakistan is talking about it. He dismisses India’s position that Pakistan is not a party to the dispute as “ridiculous.”
Musharraf then turns to domestic issues. He speaks about bringing the “essence of democracy to the people of Pakistan.” He decries the “poor governance” that presumably prevailed during the Sharif regime, before his forcible takeover of the elected government of Pakistan.
The floor is opened to questions. A United Nations protocol officer selects journalists from the floor to pose these, asking us to identify us by our names and press organizations. Today I am here in my capacity as United Nations correspondent for World Parliamentarian Magazine which is published from Brussels. An Indian woman TV reporter asks about the “oppression of minorities” in Pakistan which clearly irks the Chief Executive and some ofd his aides. He retorts “Perhaps this question should be posed on the other side of the border where they are killing Christians and Sikhs.” The reporter Gita Bajaj, from “Eye on Asia” also asks what would happen if not he, Musharraf “a good despot” but a “maniac” seized power. She added “I’m happy you are in charge.” To laughter from the floor. Musharraf said “I am in charge. I am definitely in charge. Nobody has to worry. When I am here, , nothing is going to happen there (Pakistan) I‘m in charge.”
Most questions focus on Kashmir. The Time magazine correspondent, asks whether the Chief Executive has found Clinton unhelpful because of his brief stopover in Pakistan during his extended visit to India and also whether the Chief Executive expected to run for elective office. Musharraf said “ I am a soldier. I will remain a soldier. I like acting like a soldier.”
I asked Musharraf two questions:
Because the army has played such a significant role in Pakistan’s governance for Fifty plus years, do you see a constitutional provision for the role of the Army in governance? And second Would you favor people-to-people peace initiatives in addition to Government-to-government peace initiatives? Musharraf states that yes he would consider giving the army a continued role in governance and “we are thinking along these lines” and yes, when “government –to- government efforts are not working well yes I would support people-to-people initiatives yes I would certainly support that.” The CE appeared pleased by the questions. They gave him an opportunity to sound like more like a statesman and less like a usurper. But the questions were asked largely to take the focus off Kashmir and to suggest alternative glimpses of the leader and his policies particularly in the transition between military takeover and alleged governance reform.
The point about these UN press conferences is most of the real action happens in the hallways and the coffee shops. I was stopped by several people who said they were were “good questions.” One who offered his card and left immediately I immediately asked them for their business cards, if they didn’t offer them first. One who proffered his business card and left almost immediately turns out to be a member of the Permanent Mission of the Organization of the Islamic Conference to the United Nation. I also got telephone numbers and room numbers at the Roosevelt Hotel where the Pakistani delegation is staying as well as phone numbers in Islamabad. The Press Attache for the Chief Executive, Major General Queraishi is enormously charming and skilful. The so-called chielf of Reconstruction, Naqvi, definitely less charming, said to me, when I requested further information “Where are you from? I hope you are not going to ask questions like that TV woman. I said “Did you hear my questions? A Filipina woman who has worked for decades with the Pak mission and I exchanged cards and lots of laughs about making it in New York. On the way to catch the M15 to the A train I am stopped by an elderly gentleman who presents his card and says he liked my questions. He is familiar with World Parliamentarian magazine. He used to be Director of the Africa Division but is now special advisor to the Kyrgystan Delegation to the UN. A New York case of diplomatic re-invention that the Filipina woman and I laughed about earlier.
More speeches and statements, more interviews, more business cards, more conversations in corridors to attempt to put the pieces together. Summit days are almost ending but the work is just beginning.