Ten years since the killing of Baloch separatist Akbar Bugti, Islamabad continues its confrontational approach with the leaders of ethnic groups, calling them “traitors.” Experts say it doesn’t bode well for the country.
“Don’t push us. It is not the 1970s when you can hit and run and hide in the mountains. This time you won’t even know what hit you.” Former Pakistani president and military chief Pervez Musharraf made these remarks in 2006 as a warning to Baloch separatists and their leader Nawab Akbar Bugti. Soon after, the general came down hard on the separatists and Bugti was killed in a military operation. Baloch nationalists claim that Bugti – who had been hiding in a mountain – was hit by a military rocket, an accusation Musharraf and the country’s army denies.
Ten years after Bugti’s assassination, the Pakistani army continues to target rebels in the western Balochistan province. Musharraf’s wish that the Baloch separatist movement would die with Bugti’s killing hasn’t come true yet. On the contrary, the Balochistan conflict has received more international attention in the past few years.
As Baloch separatists commemorate Bugti’s tenth death anniversary on Friday, August 26, Islamabad accuses the rebels of receiving support from India. Recently, Indian Premier Narendra Modi referred to Pakistani oppression in the Balochistan province.
Balochistan, which borders Iran and Afghanistan, remains Pakistan’s poorest and least populous province despite a number of development projects Islamabad has initiated there in the past. Rebel groups have waged a separatist insurgency in the province for decades, complaining that the central government in Islamabad and the richer Punjab province unfairly exploit their resources. Islamabad reacted to the insurgency by launching a military operation in the province in 2005.
The armed struggle for Baloch independence intensified after Bugti’s killing in 2006. Rebel Baloch groups like the Balochistan Liberation Army have repeatedly attacked security forces and state installations. Most of the rebel leadership is thought to be abroad in the UK, Afghanistan and Dubai.
Local rights groups have the details of thousands of people who they say have disappeared over the past ten years and have not been seen since. Pakistani security agencies claim these people were arrested on terrorism charges. However, the whereabouts of these people are kept secret from the public; they have not been presented to local courts for a proper trial.
Exploitation of economic resources?
Last year, China announced an economic project in Pakistan worth $46 billion (about 41 billion euro). With the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Beijing aims to expand its influence in Pakistan and across Central and South Asia in order to counter US and Indian influence. The CPEC would link Pakistan’s southern Gwadar port on the Arabian Sea to China’s western Xinjiang region. It also includes plans to create road, rail and oil pipeline links to improve connectivity between China and the Middle East.
Pakistan is grappling with an acute economic crisis. Experts say the CPEC can certainly stir the much-needed economic activity in the country.
But the much-vaunted CPEC has not impressed residents of Gwadar and Balochistan who believe they should be the main stakeholders of development projects in their port city.
“Just look at the condition of our roads, our homes and towns; we still lack basic necessities of life,” Farhad Baloch, a Gwadar resident, told DW. “Even drinking water is a rare commodity in the area. We are facing a drought-like situation,” he added.
K. B. Firaq, president of the Gwadar Educational Welfare Society, complains that the locals are being driven out of the city’s port area to make way for Chinese workers and engineers. “The Gwadar fishermen are not allowed near the port boundaries. Thousands of fishermen have been asked to leave the harbor,” Firaq claimed.
Senator Mushahid Ullah Khan, leader of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League party, admits that the people of Balochistan are unhappy with some of the government’s policies, but he denies that Islamabad is usurping the province’s economic resources.
“Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government allowed a Baloch nationalist to become the chief minister of the province. Our administration has also launched a number of development projects for the benefit of the locals,” Senator Khan told DW.
But nationalist leader Abdul Hai Baloch is skeptical about the government’s claims, as he says the issue is more political than economic. He believes the Gwadar residents resent the CPEC project because they fear that with the arrival of workers from China and Pakistan’s other provinces, they will soon become a minority in their own town.
Dr. Abdul Aziz, a Gwadar resident, echoes Hai Baloch’s sentiments. “Our resources are being plundered, and we are being deprived of our livelihood. Many people had to move to remote areas after the government started the construction work on Gwadar port,” he said, adding that non-locals were already buying land in the city. “More dislocations are on the horizon.”
“We should be the masters of our resources, but we are being treated like slaves. This will have catastrophic consequences,” he continued.
Last year, in an interview with DW, Brahamdagh Bugti, leader of the Baloch Republican Party living in exile in Switzerland, and grandson of slain nationalist leader Nawab Akbar Bugti, criticized Islamabad’s development policies for Balochistan.
“None of the previous development projects in Balochistan have ever been beneficial to the province or its people,” Bugti told DW. “We have been complaining for decades that Islamabad has never sought the consent of the Baloch people before initiating these projects. It is quite obvious that they are not launched to boost the province’s economy or to help people out of poverty. They are started for the benefit of the rulers in Islamabad,” he added.
Ten years ago, Islamabad declared Akbar Bugti a “terrorist” and a “traitor.” Experts say that a majority of Baloch leaders are still not trusted by the army and the politicians in Islamabad. In fact, the central government and the military are bent on pushing more nationalist leaders against the wall, analysts say.
Recently, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), a southern Sindh province-based political party, came under direct conflict with the Pakistani authorities when its exiled leader Altaf Hussain criticized the army and government officials of systematically targeting his workers.
Like Baloch leader Akbar Bugti, Hussain has so far chosen to remain close to Islamabad, but the government’s actions against him are forcing him to turn against the state.
Some analysts say that instead of resolving the conflicts and paying attention to the grievances of the country’s smaller provinces and ethnic groups, Islamabad continues to use force against them, which shows that the military and the civilian establishment haven’t learnt much from their past mistakes. It is the same “you won’t even know what hit you” paradigm all over again.
Additional reporting by Sattar Khan, DW’s Islamabad correspondent.