Is Cynthia A Symbol of Pak Army’s Effort to Derail Serious Issues?

Who IS Cynthia Ritchie? Little is known of her past before she came to Pakistan, writes Gul Bukhari.

7 min read

Cynthia Ritchie, an erstwhile little known American woman, residing mostly in Pakistan for the better part of the last ten years, sprang to the center of salacious headlines because of her stunning allegations, in a video followed by a series of tweets, of rape and manhandling against Pakistan Peoples Party’s (PPP) former federal Interior Minister Rehman Malik, former Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, and former federal minister Makhdoom Shahabuddin, while they were in government back in 2011. Grave allegations indeed, which must be investigated, as should her past and present in Pakistan.


What followed the allegations was nothing short of a foaming-at-the-mouth national theatre. All real crises faded into the background, be it sugar and flour prices, petrol shortage, negative GDP growth, or the unfolding COVID disaster. Intense speculation and conspiracy theories followed, as to whether this diversion was contrived at this time to pressure the PPP into agreeing to roll back the coveted 18th Amendment and the NFC awards (considered as bulwarks against the military’s overweening political reach), or whether it was indeed to divert public attention away from the crises facing the country, or something else.

The latest conspiracy theory making the rounds is that Cynthia was, all along, a ‘CIA asset’, who managed to penetrate the highest political and military circles.

How A ‘Sex Scandal’ Accidentally Put Pakistani Military In a Quandary

To my mind, the simpler, more obvious links and timings usually point to the likelier truth. It would be foolish to think that the PPP Co-Chairman, Asif Ali Zardari, would sacrifice his sole political legacy (the 18th Amendment) for a sex scandal that doesn’t even involve him personally. In Pakistani politics, these things, unfortunately, come and go. Diversion from issues? Two hundred million hungry people do not forget their hunger and disease for a sex scandal.

And the CIA theory is a non-starter for several reasons, but most obviously because nothing about Cynthia’s trajectory, or her public spats, has the CIA’s footprints on it. It would never encourage an asset to develop a highly public profile, or publicly attack local political parties, or journalists and human rights activists, as she is wont to do.

A simple rule is to Follow The Money, in this case Malik Riaz.

What almost everyone seems to have forgotten is the raging scandal dominating Pakistan’s news and social media, JUST before the Cynthia scandal spiralled into a raging fire. The viral videos of two daughters of Malik Riaz – a property kingpin of Pakistan – storming the house of local model Uzma Khan and her sister, accompanied by a dozen or so male guards, assaulting the girls, vandalising their home, and inciting the guards to sexually molest the girls, and trying to get in touch on the phone with some man named Bilal to get the girls abducted by the ISI – had caused an outrage that refused to die.

The reason for the horrific attack was purportedly that one or both girls were sleeping with Riaz’s niece’s husband. The niece issued an outraged video appealing to the perceived Pakistani and Islamic values of trying to ‘save her marriage from the home-wreckers’.

Unfortunately for the Pakistani military, the national conversation instead turned to the condemnation of Riaz and his longstanding patrons – the Pakistani military.

Why Malik Riaz Is the Military’s ‘Untouchable’ Man

Social media outrage laid open the brazenness of the attack, especially the incitement to sexual violence and the confidence in having the ISI abducting the girls, at the military’s feet.

Riaz is known as the military’s ‘untouchable’ man. He has not only survived, but his property empire has grown manifold through decades of different political and military governments.

Only recently, the UK’s National Crime Agency seized Riaz’s property and cash worth 190 million pounds and returned it to the Pakistan government. But the PTI government and the courts of Pakistan handed it back to him. He is well-known for documented land-grabbing with impunity, and becoming a trillionaire on the back of it. At any given point in time, he has, in his employ, dozens of generals and brigadiers (as soon as they retire), with their connections intact with the serving top brass, breezily building Bahrain Towns in their dozens across the country on grabbed land. Given the open connivance of the military, it can safely be assumed that handsome commissions are paid right up the line.

Pakistan State’s ‘Bill Clinton’ Moment

As the storm was engulfing the military for being the ultimate culprit of such blatant impunity, tableaued in the words and actions of their own Riaz’s daughter, Cynthia, known as ‘Synthetic Baji’ on Twitter, tweeted that this reminded her of Benazir Bhutto having had women that her husband was (allegedly) sleeping around with, raped. The rest was history. The public, from across the board, piled onto her. She in turn accused the three PPP leaders, one former prime minister and two former federal ministers, of sexual assault. And boom! Malik Riaz and the Pakistani military were forgotten. It was all Cynthia, sex, salaciousness, and the PPP now.


But the media victory was not enough. In response to the PPP’s complaint against her to the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), Cynthia responded with an even more incendiary and damning statement to the FIA – including that she had been investigating the anti-State links between the PTM and the PPP for the previous two years with the help of the military and intelligence agencies (of Pakistan).

This was the moment the victory turned pyrrhic for Team Pakistan.

Who was she to be investigating Pakistani political parties and movements, and in what capacity?

All eyes turned back on to the military – the current DG, Inter-Services Public Relations (DG ISPR) was bombarded with questions on Twitter, but the military maintained a studied public silence, while scrambling privately to convey to politicians, activists, and journalists, that it had nothing to do with this sordid mess. Clearly, the asset had turned into a liability. It was Pakistan’s Bill Clintonesque “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” moment. Which of course led to all her past videos prancing about with LEAs in Waziristan and Balochistan being dug out. These are areas where, leave alone Pakistani men and women, even Pakistani birds cannot flap a wing without clearance from the highest levels in the military and its intelligence agencies. There were no takers for “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”


But – Who IS Cynthia?

But who is Cynthia? Little is known of her past before she came to Pakistan. Even now, no one knows her source of income or how she came to ingratiate herself with the political and military elite, attending state ceremonies, National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) meetings, receiving awards for unknown services, etc. The self-proclaimed Vlogger, documentary-maker, and social media influencer – out to promote a ‘good image’ of Pakistan – however, is commonly viewed as a ‘hired exotic White troll of the Pakistan Army’, and a ‘comic tool’ in its imagined 5th generation (online) war that the Army insists that foreign agents and their Pakistani-enablers (the ‘Ghaddars’) are waging on the State of Pakistan.

She has next to nothing to show for the supposed documentaries she has made on Pakistan, or a single article she has written in the international press to project a ‘positive image’ of Pakistan.

Cynthia became a symbol of the military’s increasingly desperate, flailing, and entertaining attempts at derailing national conversations around serious issues, and smothering dissent, because of her increasingly vitriolic attacks on Pakistani journalists and human rights defenders and movements during the years of Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor as DGISPR, mirroring and dovetailing his (and the military’s) attacks on their pet hates. Pet hates being the increasingly aware and outspoken individuals and groups critical of the military’s gross violations of human rights, its interference in domestic politics and regional policies, and its choking grip over the national budget.


How Cynthia Made Her Way Into Islamabad’s ‘High Society’

Though Asif Ghafoor weaponised Cynthia during his tenure (Dec 2016 – Feb 2020), it was the previous DGISPR, Asim Saleem Bajwa, who poached her from the PTI and PPP for his ‘Pakistan Positive’ image-building project. It was during his tenure as DGISPR (2012 -2016) when her videos – cycling and romping in the Wild West of Pakistan – were circulated in the country. Farhana Swati, resident of Texas, US, and daughter of now sitting PTI senator Azam Swati, first introduced her to professional, well-off Pakistanis in the US in 2008, including the Association of Physicians of Pakistani Descent of North America (APPNA). Cynthia used Farhana Swati’s NGO, ‘Humanity Hope’ as a vehicle to rub shoulders with affluent Pakistani-American doctors in the US.

In 2010, she also met Imran Khan at one fund raiser in the US, and according to her, stayed in touch. Swati, then a Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUIF) Federal Minister for Science and Technology, in coalition with the PPP government at the Centre at that time, introduced Cynthia into senior political circles, and helped place her in a job in the Health Department headed by Cabinet colleague and friend, Minister Makhdoom Shahabuddin (who also stands accused of manhandling or harassing her then).

Shahabuddin then became Cynthia’s route into the upper echelons of the PPP. Later, when Swati jumped ship to PTI in 2015, she worked her way into the highest sanctums of the PTI as well. By this time she was moving around in ‘high society’ in Islamabad. However, she claims to have been working with PTI for quite some time, including, significantly, in its social media team.

Anyhow, given the nexus of the PTI and the military, and the overlaps and coordination in their social media teams, it was a matter of time for her to be ‘promoted’ to the ISPR.


Was Cynthia Expecting Pakistanis to ‘Donate’ to Her?

Coming back to the present, the tragicomic ‘Cynthiagate’ continued to explode into a full-blown fireball of absurdity on Thursday, when Cynthia launched a “fund”, with a dedicated bank account (with details) to help finance her legal battle against the PPP. The irony, delusion, audacity, and most of all stupidity, was baffling.

Was she expecting Pakistanis to donate to her, so she could besmirch and attack their democracy and representatives?

She even provided details of her PayPal account, hoping the perennially-hounded oversees Pakistanis would be forthcoming with dollars – right in the footsteps of the country’s puppeteer. The trolling, and serious possibility of being investigated for how she was opening new, dedicated begging bank accounts in Pakistani banks while having run out of her visa, made her pull off the ‘Fund Tweets’. My feeling is, this is not going to end well.

(Gul Bukhari is a Pakistani journalist and rights activist. She tweets @GulBukhari. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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