They named it Operation Zer Pahazag, or Defending the Ocean. The 24-hour gun battle they fought with the Pakistani army at the Pearl Continental Hotel in Gwadar, which ended on May 13, was a strike against the abuse of Balochistan and its mineral wealth, the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) said. The operation “commenced on the information of the presence of large number of Chinese and local investors at the PC hotel and our aim was to target all the… representatives of exploitative projects and destroy the PC hotel which is a symbol of Baloch exploitation”, a BLA press release said.
It went on to claim that more than 40 soldiers and four BLA commandos were killed when the siege ended in the restive province’s port city. The figures put out by the army were significantly lower — one soldier, four hotel employees and three BLA men dead. The BLA also said it damaged the Gwadar port with rockets and shot down a spy drone.
Beijing is developing a deep-sea port in Gwadar as part of the $60-billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the centre piece of its so-called Belt and Road Initiative. China and the CPEC project are making things worse for the mineral-rich region, already hugely exploited by Pakistan since its annexation in 1948. To make way for CPEC, villages have been emptied out and people driven out of their land. Military operations against civilians, too, have intensified, worsening the situation.
All this put together may just end up helping — unintentionally — Balochistan’s struggle for freedom, as regional equations change in the face of an expansionist China, says Baloch leader Hyrbyair Marri. The 51-year-old has come out with a ‘Balochistan Liberation Charter’, spelling out his vision and plan for an independent country, also aimed at bringing together disparate Baloch groups.
Marri, who is considered a terrorist by Pakistan, is confident that educated youth leading the ‘freedom fighters of Balochistan’ will drive out the ‘occupier’ and their struggle is legitimate.
“International law is very clear on forced annexation. In the post-1945 world, forced annexation is illegal by international law, conventions and UN charter. If a country is occupied and the occupier is engaged in genocide and colonisation, then it is the natural and legal right of the nation to defend its existence,” he told the Firstpost in an email interview. “The Polish resistance fighters fought against Soviet and Nazi fascism when they lost their state. The French, too, fought for their freedom against Nazi Germany. The same concept and principles apply to the Baloch and Balochistan. Any guerrilla fight against a fascist occupier and colonial power is just and legal if the colonised respect the laws of war and conflict,” says Marri.
With the passing of a whole generation of leaders, the Baloch insurgency is seen as weakening. Marri’s charter is an effort to set things on course and mount a united struggle. “Not a constitution but a road map and a contract with the Baloch nation about what kind of future we want. It is also a message for the international community about the goals of Balochistan’s independence struggle,” says Marri, who leads the Free Balochistan Movement.
He has shared the charter with the chiefs of the other Baloch political parties and their leaders in exile. The document, he says, is open to contributions and changes. Two principles, however, are non-negotiable: no political party shall accept the legitimacy or participate in the occupiers’ political system; and the principal of one
person, one vote.
The charter is an attempt to ensure that Balochistan belongs to all those who live there and that every individual will have equal rights and protection in an independent state, regardless of colour, ethnicity, creed, religious or political background, says Marri, who has been living in self-imposed exile in London since 1999.
He had to leave because as Balochistan’s minister of road and communications, he refused to pledge loyalty to Pakistan and protested against the nuclear tests conducted in May 1998 in the province’s Chagai district.
The fifth son of the late Nawab Khair Baksh Marri, one of the most respected national leaders of the Baloch freedom struggle in 1970s, Marri is considered a visionary by his followers.
He enjoys the unconditional support and devotion of his people. The legend perhaps is also built on the fact that he is something of a recluse. He rarely meets people or journalists and unlike other people from the subcontinent, he doesn’t swan around in London for security reasons.
But, the British capital wasn’t the escape he thought it would be. In December 2007, has was arrested in London on trumped-up charges of terrorism brought by General Pervez Musharraf’s government. A British court cleared him of the charges in 2009. For many years, Marri and the other Baloch leaders in exile have been trying to gain the support of international community. They have on various platforms highlighted rights violations and the ‘genocide’ the Baloch are facing but have found little sympathy.
But, Marri is confident. “Regional security dynamics are changing. I cannot say for sure which country will help Balochistan but the Chinese will be a big factor in the future regional alliances. The Chinese are encircling India, building military bases on Balochistan’s coastal areas. America, India, and countries who have security interests in the region may support Balochistan’s independence struggle to ensure regional security,” he says.
Islamabad, which is trying for his extradition, says Marri is the leader of the guerrilla groups operating in Balochistan and was responsible for the attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi in November.
He denies the charges and says, “The freedom fighters are part and parcel of Baloch society and they are bound to follow the Baloch code of ethics, Baloch values, and international laws.” They have taken up a tough job of “protecting their country and people against foreign invasion”. His charter says the freedom fighters will go on to form the army of an independent Balochistan.
Marri says educated youth are leading the freedom fighters and without a leadership, such a struggle could not have been sustained for 20 years. “Their leadership is secret as the security realities demands. The world will know their identity once they have achieved their goal of liberating Balochistan from occupiers and colonisers”. And, according to him, that day is not too far.
(Francesca Marino is a journalist and a South Asia expert who has written Apocalypse Pakistan with B Natale)