Challenges in establishing peace & development in Balochistan

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By Tilak Devasher

Several recent developments point towards an ominous plan that the army-supported Imran Khan government has devised to further subjugate Balochistan in order to secure Chinese interests.

In 2015, English daily Dawn had talked about a fencing plan to protect Gwadar from attacks of Baloch nationalists whereby local residents would get residence cards while all outsiders coming into the city would be registered at entry points. An April 2016 article in the Wall Street Journal mentioned that the Chinese were pushing for a 65-mile fence around the whole town for purposes of security, with a special permit required by anyone— including locals— to enter.

The fencing that was earlier talked about has now been initiated. While details are scanty, it is believed that security fences with surveillance cameras would be laid around a major part of the city. Two or three entry and exit points will regulate the flow of people with residents being given a residence card, without which entry would not be possible. Such a procedure would be akin to the apartheid era system of passes that kept the native population of South Africa under control by regulating their movement.

Curiously, details of the Gwadar port are not in the public domain. A Senate panel was informed in November 2020 that the contract governing affairs of the Gwadar port was “confidential” and its details could not be disclosed publicly. The local Baloch perceive lack of transparency and the fencing as a conspiracy to displace them from the city, change its demography and ultimately separate Gwadar from Balochistan.

Gwadar Port

Then there is the use of the new term ‘south Balochistan’ to describe the Makran coast that has crept into the vocabulary of the federal government. On a visit to Balochistan on September 11, 2020, Imran Khan expressed his desire for development of the southern districts. In November 2020, the federal cabinet announced a Rs 600-billion package for development exclusively of the nine districts of south Balochistan over the next three years.

Prior to this, there was no geographical categorisation and for purposes of administration, ‘divisions’ and ‘districts’ were used. The army has a southern command based in Quetta that was earlier commanded by Lt Gen Asim Bajwa who now heads the CPEC Authority. The paramilitary Frontier Corps (FC) Balochistan was divided into North and South regions in 2017. The areas referred to as south Balochistan by the government are the same as those in the FC South.

Similar past development packages of 2009 and 2017 have had a dismal history of implementation. More than the fate of the package, however, the Baloch are concerned and suspicious because it could well be the beginning of a conspiracy to separate the coast from the rest of Balochistan in the name of development and security. As a former chief minister put it: ‘There is only one Balochistan and there can be no Southern, Northern, Eastern or Western Balochistan.’ Likewise, it is believed that the federal government would be in complete control of south Balochistan and the province as a whole would lose its precious coast and Gwadar port.

Gwadar map

Making matters worse was the recent promulgation of an ordinance to set up a Pakistan Islands Development Authority (PIDA) for “development and management of islands in internal and territorial waters of Pakistan.” The people of Sindh and Balochistan have seen this as Islamabad muscling its way into their coast and taking control of their islands. Sindh is up in arms over the attempted takeover of two islands off Karachi and now the Baloch are concerned over the possible federal takeover of south Balochistan.

An important question is about funding. The federal government is not only broke but under massive debt and is seeking loans from all and sundry. It has just secured a $1- billion loan from ‘iron brother’ China to repay the ‘brotherly country’ of Saudi Arabia. So, the moot question is why announce a package when there are no funds unless the intention was not development but creation of south Balochistan?

These developments confirm one thing above all: despite what the government and the army have been saying, the Baloch insurgency is a major security challenge for Pakistan and for the Chinese investments. The challenge is being met by fencing Gwadar, the outlet for CPEC, and taking initial steps to divide Balochistan and assuming control of the southern portion. The justification that these districts are backward does not hold since all districts of Balochistan are backward too. Thus, the underlying reasons for this package are strategic — an attempt to pacify the Makran region that is believed to be the hotbed of insurgency and so allow the CPEC projects in Gwadar to fructify without hindrance.

Additionally, there are massive human rights violations being committed by the army that include thousands of Baloch who have been subjected to ‘enforced disappearance’ as well as the suspicious death in 2020 of at least two Baloch activists in exile — Sajid Hussain in Sweden and Karima Baloch in Canada. It is clear that the state has decided to go on an overdrive to impress the Chinese that their investments and citizens are safe. In the process, the Baloch are being pushed further to the wall.

Under these circumstances, a mere development package is unlikely to tackle the deep-rooted and festering political, economic and human rights problems of Balochistan. If anything, attempts to fence Gwadar and bifurcate Balochistan would only aggravate the feeling of alienation of the Baloch. The remedy can only be political, something that the army is unwilling to understand just as they were unable to perceive the political problem of the then East Pakistan in 1971 with disastrous consequences for the country.

(Disclaimer: Tilak Devasher is Member, National Security Advisory Board. The contents of the article are personal and not necessarily be agreed by the newspaper. Editor)