Islamabad's renewed policy to restive province showing signs of normalizing region, analysts say
By Aamir Latif
The effort to court Baloch separatists has borne fruits in recent months but there is still a long way to go until the decades-long insurgency is ended, local analysts have said.
Balochistan -- strategically important because of its copper, zinc and natural gas riches -- has been ravaged by more than six decades of insurgency by separatists who claim the southwestern province was forcibly incorporated into Pakistan in 1947.
In recent years, Islamabad has embarked on a strategy of trying to address some of the province’s main grievances.
More than 2,000 suspected separatists have surrendered to the security forces in the last two years, with 300 handing themselves in last week under a general amnesty that promises money and a government job in return.
Hundreds of Baloch students have been granted scholarships by universities in Punjab. Pakistan’s largest province has previously been accused of exploiting Balochistan’s natural resources.
Separatist leader Nawabzada Gazain Marri returned to Pakistan last month after a decade in self-imposed exile, a development seen as another government success in soothing tensions within the province.
Perhaps the most surprising move towards reconciliation is the army’s relaxation of its selection criteria for applicants from Balochistan. The military has traditionally been viewed with suspicion by most Balochs.
“We are very hopeful about the pace and direction of our reconciliation move,” Anwar-ul-Haq Kakar, a spokesman for Balochistan government, told Anadolu Agency.
“There is a strong realization among the fighters now that the task assigned to [liberation] is not doable. That’s why they are taking advantage of our reconciliation move.
“We are interested in foot soldiers, the common fighters, because they were hoodwinked by their masters. We are not interested in elites.”
The “elites” he was referring to were separatist leaders such as Barahandagh Bugti and Harbiyar Marri, presently residing in European exile.
- China's corridor
“By the end of 2018, God willing, the insurgency will be fully controlled,” Kakar said.
Aside from its mineral resources, Balochistan’s importance has been boosted by the $62 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor, which aims to connect China's northwestern Xinxiang province (East Turkistan) to Balochistan’s Gawadar port.
The corridor will move cargo, oil and gas when it is completed, earning Pakistan billions of dollars for providing transit facilities to the world’s second largest economy as China gains cheaper access to Africa and the Middle East.
Pakistan’s rival India sees the project as a threat to its interests in the region and has openly declared its opposition. Islamabad has accused India of backing the low-intensity insurrection in Balochistan, a charge that New Delhi has denied.
The project is also facing opposition from Baloch separatists who see this as “yet another” bid by Islamabad to harness their resources, this time with Chinese help.
In the past Chinese workers have been killed, attacked and kidnapped in southwestern and northwestern Pakistan, including in Gawadar, by Baloch separatists and Taliban militants.
Balochistan constitutes 42 per cent of Pakistan but is the smallest province in terms of population, with slightly more than 12 million people from a total population of 210 million.
Half of the population are non-Balochs, mainly Pashtuns, who dominate in northern regions bordering Afghanistan.
Since the creation of Pakistan in 1947, the province has seen several spells of insurgency.
Siddique Baloch, a Quetta-based political analyst, said the roots of the violence could be traced back to 19th century.
“The region had seen the first insurgency in 1843, following the British invasion and later capture of Balochistan,” he told Anadolu Agency. “Since then, there have been scores of insurgency spells.”
The current fighting involves five major militant groups -- the Balochistan Liberation Army, the Balochistan Liberation Front, the Balochistan Republican Army, Lashkar-e-Balochistan and the United Baloch Army.
- Improved economy
Despite Islamabad’s efforts, the reconciliation drive has had little impact in many parts of the province’s arid plains and highlands, particularly in the coastal belt comprising Turbat, Gawadar and Awaran districts.
“Insurgency is an emotional reaction of Baloch youths who are fed up with the state’s attitude towards them,” Baloch, who edits the Balochistan Express, the region’s largest circulation newspaper, said.
“It can be quenched or subdued through military actions but the state has to do a lot more to satisfy common Balochs, who have been suffering from ignorance, illiteracy, and unemployment for the last 70 years.”
He called for three developments to improve life in Balochistan -- halt security operations, recognize locals’ right to resources and the launch of massive economic and education drives.
“If the prevailing sense of deprivation is eliminated, there will be no need for any military action in the province,” Baloch said.
Saeed Sarbazi, a Karachi-based analyst, agreed.
“The government is terming the CPEC a game changer for Pakistan and the entire region,” he said. “But, the reality is that the people of Gawadar today have no access to even drinkable water.
“If this attitude continues, then how could a common Baloch feel an equal citizen of Pakistan?”
In the port of Gawadar, local Bahram Baloch testified to improving economic conditons.
“The situation, of course, cannot be dubbed as ideal,” he told Anadolu Agency. “But it is true that recent economic activity has improved the living standards of many of us.
“For instance, only a few people had cars in Gawadar till a decade ago. But today, you cannot count the people who have their own vehicles.”
Rampant construction around the port had also seen land prices rocket, to the benefit of many locals, he added