Friday, August 31, 2012

Meeting the Chargé d’affaires Ambassador Richard Hoagland.

A couple of days ago I along with few other people active on the social media got an invitation from the US Consulate General Lahore to meet with the Chargé d’affaires Ambassador Richard Hoagland. The discussion theme was youth activism in Pakistan and the role & impact of social media. As social media was involved therefore, the discussion was live tweeted by the participants (@iftikherh @FatimaArif @nabihameher @arooojzahra @sabahat24 @usmannrana @manihammad @USCGLahore @miqazi @awaisaftab) with the hash tag #PakyouthAmb. The advantage of having a small group was that it was quite an interactive session where everyone got to present their view point in an informal environment.

Put the words Pakistan & America in the same space & the result is never going to be simplistic. There is no black & white, the entire thing is covered in the shades of grey. This current shade of grey also has a long history of a complex relationship that the two countries have shared and before you get bored with the repeated mention of grey & complex, let me tell you that this is not how our session started.

After the introductions were made, Ambassador Hoagland said, ‘Before you ask me questions, let me ask one question, what has happened to @majorlyprofound?’ The identity of this very interesting Twitter account and the associated blog has never been clear (there have been a lot of speculations though!). Then there are a lot of public figures now using social media to communicate with their audience/fans and lately, the Pakistani politicians have taken up Twitter with a lot of enthusiasm, even though apparently very few of them are operating their own accounts while the rest have left it on their media teams. So all those who have kind of outsourced their accounts, you people don’t have a secret here!

From here on the roles were reversed & for almost an hour it was the Ambassador answering our questions.  The first question put forward (obviously) was about the anti-US sentiment in Pakistan. To this the Ambassador responded that he feels that it is no more just an outright emotional response but an intellectual one. Any American can walk the streets of Pakistan & will be treated just like anyone else. Following this, one of the participants brought up the issue of drone attacks which have claimed more innocent civilian lives than the terrorist targets that they are supposed to be marking. The tweeters were divided on the issue, favoring the attacks while others were opposed to them. Then referring to the current army operation the Ambassador answered that it was Pakistan Army’s own decision and was not demanded by the US. In fact when they had asked General Kiyani as to how they can help, his response was that by staying out of it.

During the discussion (which took a 180 degree turn from social media) the Ambassador Hoagland commented that he is not comfortable with the ‘nanny image’ of the United States, instructing other countries on how to get about their business. A response to this from the participants was that it is more of the ‘turning their face the other way’ attitude that was causing the trouble. The image is that as long as US’s interests are met their stated morals and rules don’t matter but otherwise they need to be upheld. The eleven brutal years of Zia-ul-Haq (which have transformed the very core of what Pakistan was or was meant to be) were mentioned. The US or any other global power did not come to the aid of the people who were struggling against his regime. Public floggings, draconian legislatures (that still haunt us), the curbing of the freedom of expression, nothing was taken a note of. A similar attitude was observed in the Musharraff’s tenure as well.

This troubled history plays a key role in the widening of the trust deficit that the two countries have faced in the past & is what dominates the current status of the relationship as well. These current grey shades affect the people at a micro level as well. As on one hand they want cordial relations with the US & her people just like any other civilized society, while on the other hand the fear of US interference & the past experience opens a window of doubt & people want to distance themselves from associating with the US even if the association is in a positive manners. Even the developmental projects (construction of roads, education etc) that the US is involved in then are seen with skepticism. All this needs to be revisited & changed for a better future.     

As stated earlier, this was intended to be a social media related event, so to keep the theme alive we did somehow manage to come back to the topic. I will just mention the key points that were highlighted from the exchange of ideas on this topic. For one it was agreed upon to some extent that social media has made a considerable impact on the youth of Pakistan, though one opinion was that the impact is largely in the urban centers. Also, the social media does not reflect the majority opinion as the section of society active on social media is not representative of the majority population. Still the positive side is that this otherwise silent section of our society is now active & open to debate. Added to this all this social media activity is being observed closely, as it is yet to be proven that all this will turn into actual practical numbers in the coming elections. It is not just in the case of the election but other causes that are taken up & promoted through the platform of social media. Until they are translated into the real world with the same vigor, we won’t be seeing any real change around us.

We ended on the positive note of hope & optimism that things will change for a better future. 

p.s The Delicatessen, has my vote, so if you haven’t tried it yet please do. For me the judgement point for a cafe is its coffee more than anything else & both the coffee & the snakes were really good.

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