Baloch Insurgency Continues Amid CPEC Development and International PR Campaign
In early January the US government placed Pakistan on a special watch list for “severe violations of religious freedom” and condemned it for not doing enough to combat terrorism. Activists from the country’s separatist Balochistan province applauded the move, with the president of the World Baloch Women’s Forum denouncing Pakistan on a broad range of issues including kidnappings, forced conversions, blasphemy, persecutions, and facilitating terror.
The special watch list designation comes amidst a months-long public relations campaign branded “#FreeBalochistan” that has been using billboards and transit advertising in London and New York to bring awareness to the Baloch independence cause. In November, when the campaign began in London, the Pakistani government filed complaints with the UK foreign office and was successful in having the advertising removed from London’s transit network.
Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest province, is strategically positioned and richly endowed with natural resources. However, violence from different armed groups - including government forces - appears endemic. The military has been accused of kidnapping and ‘disappearing’ thousands of politically active Balochis, along with massacres, suppression of the press, the killing of journalists, and a permissiveness toward the fundamentalist terror groups operating in the province.
Concurrently, Baloch nationalist separatists have targeted military and security forces and occasionally Chinese workers in their bid for independence, and to protest the $62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
The development of the strategic port of Gwadar through CPEC is a major point of contention for Baloch hardliners who see its growth as displacing Balochis in their own land and offering them little in return. The city is expected to grow to 2 million from a current population of 263,000 as the project comes to fruition. Development involves an infrastructure network designed to link China’s western provinces to the Indian Ocean and serve as a shipment route for oil from the Persian Gulf. Rumours of a potential Chinese naval base at nearby Jiwani make the project even more important for China and lucrative for Pakistan.
Because China’s massive investment has made its workers political targets in the past, both Pakistan and China have invested manpower and resources for security. Accordingly, one percent of CPEC’s cost – roughly $620 million – is being spent on security, with two armed guards for every Chinese worker.
The strategic importance of the corridor has motivated India to sabotage the project, according to Pakistani politicians looking to stoke the longstanding India-Pakistan rivalry with accusations. “The attack on Dargah Shah Noorani was an attack on CPEC, so the role of India should not be ignored,” said Senator Rehman Malik, referencing the November 2016 suicide bombing of a religious shrine in an attack claimed by the Islamic State. Additionally, Pakistani Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal accused India of using Afghanistan as a base to launch terror attacks in Balochistan, with an eye to derailing CPEC. The main charge levelled is that India uses its intelligence service, the Research and Analysis Wing, to foment instability in Pakistan.
For his part, Indian PM Narendra Modi voiced support for Balochistan in his 2016 Independence Day address and criticized the Pakistani government for its support of terror networks in the province and throughout the region in general.
Even as violence continues into 2018 with multiple targeted attacks on security forces and similarly deadly military operations against insurgents, the Pakistani government has claimed that over 2,000 Baloch separatists have voluntarily surrendered in exchange for amnesty and government jobs in the past two years. The rhetoric at the highest levels has cooled somewhat too, and China has gone so far as to announce that Baloch militants are no longer a threat to CPEC.
Still, the longing for Baloch independence is likely to linger, at least among its strongest supporters. On December 16, Bangladesh celebrated Victory Day, the day it won independence from Pakistan in 1971 in a war supported by the Indian army. Commemorating the occasion, Baloch Republican Party President Brahumdagh Bugti tweeted, “Happy Victory Day to the people of Bangladesh. They won their freedom from the tyrant state of Pakistan through brave struggle and sacrifices. The Baloch nation longs for the same victory and we hope to achieve it soon.”
Whether Bugti’s determination and activist campaigns in the West will be enough to measure up to the reality of CPEC’s titanic security and infrastructure investment in Pakistan’s largest province remains to be seen. However, without foreign support of the kind long railed against by Pakistan’s politicians, and given the shifting status quo at Gwadar, independence seems an increasing impossibility. Low-level separatist violence and corresponding government brutality, on the other hand, could continue indefinitely.