Why every Pakistani politician needs a shipping container

By Magazine Monitor
A collection of cultural artefacts

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image captionImran Khan and his customised shipping container on 20 August

Forget the soapbox - the must-have accessory for the modern politician in Pakistan seems to be the shipping container. Even Imran Khan is said to have spent more than $120,000 (£70,000) on one, reports Fahad Desmukh.

"These containers that you have placed on all four sides are not enough to stop this ocean of people!" declared cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan at a rally on Tuesday night. He was addressing Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and the "containers" he was referring to were shipping containers.

The government had placed hundreds of the giant steel boxes on Islamabad's roads to block protesters and stop them moving freely through the city.

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But the marchers brought cranes with them, moved the containers out of the way, and are now camped out at the gates of parliament.

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image captionSupporters of Tahir ul-Qadri moving containers out of the way on August 19

For the past week and a half, Pakistanis have been glued to their TV screens to see what will become of the latest attempt to topple the government. The new push is being led by two different forces. One is Khan, whose party won the third highest number of seats in last year's elections. The other is Tahir ul-Qadri, a religious leader holding Canadian dual-citizenship.

The men are leading separate sit-ins in Islamabad, hoping to force Sharif to resign.

For the past five years, the government has placed containers near key state institutions in all Pakistan's major cities, ready to be moved into position whenever a mob approaches. Many of the containers have the official police logo painted on them so that there is no question about ownership.

But party workers have discovered that containers make excellent stages for rallies and they are now an essential item for any big political event.

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image captionImran Khan making a speech on top of his shipping container

To the endless fascination of Pakistan's media, they can also be converted into mobile homes. In January last year, ul-Qadri held a four-day sit-in in Islamabad. While his supporters were out on the street, he slept inside his customised container, fitted with heating and a bathroom. Recently it was widely reported that Khan's party had had a container converted at a cost of some 12.5m Pakistani rupees ($124,000; £75,000). The BBC contacted their office but they declined to comment on that figure. It must be said that in TV reports the box does not come over as the last word in luxury. But it is equipped with meeting facilities, a bathroom, and a nifty spiral staircase leading to the roof - and is supposedly bomb-proof.

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image captionUl-Qadri making a speech inside his shipping container

For all the enthusiasm for shipping containers from police and protestors alike, they have made life difficult for many of the residents in the capital. Some have had to take long routes to work to bypass the roadblocks, or have been stuck in traffic jams. And the head of a private transporters' association has complained that the authorities have seized about 1,400 containers from them in the past two weeks, and offered the owners compensation at less than half the market rate.

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image captionImran Khan's supporters find a way past shipping containers

Fahad Desmukh reported on Pakistani politicians' love of shipping containers on the Fifth Floor on the BBC World Service. Listen to the programme again on iPlayer or get the Fifth Floor podcast.

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