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Beijing to Balochistan

If the Baloch and the Chinese did hold secret talks, this clearly reflects a weakness of the Pakistani government in bringing the Baloch to the negotiation table denied a recent Financial Times report that revealed Beijing’s five-year-long covert contacts with the Baloch separatists to end the ongoing insurgency in the country’s largest province.

Experts have directly tied the success of China’s flagship project, the Gwadar Port, under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to peace and stability in Balochistan. Such contacts, therefore, seemed to be coming and they are completely possible.

Since the FT report, based mostly on numerous unnamed sources, did not mention a particular leader, a group or a political party that the Chinese were interested in negotiating with, it is hard to predict the outcome of these efforts.

The Chinese might help Pakistan build roads and bridges, but they can’t teach Islamabad how to understand its own people, their grievances and perspectives.

The Baloch nationalists have not only denounced these reports, they have also gone ahead in an unprecedented move to form a new alliance among different groups.

On February 24, three resistance organisations — the Baloch Republican Army (BRA), the United Baloch Army (UBA) and the Lashkar-e-Balochistan (LB) — announced a joint struggle for the pursuit of their ultimate goals. By their new tactical shift, the Baloch groups are trying to communicate a message of unity and commitment in their ranks in the midst of recurrent government claims that the insurgency has significantly been weakened.

These clandestine engagements come in the backdrop of a recent interview of the Chinese Ambassador to Pakistan, Yao Jing, who said the Baloch militants no longer posed a threat to CPEC. In the same interview, he also sounded frustrated with the Baloch separatists, insisting that if “they [Baloch militants] are true Pakistanis, they should work in the interest of Pakistan.”

Moderate Balochs took offense to the envoy’s remarks maintaining that it was unfair for a foreigner to decide who was a true or an untrue Pakistani. Hard-liner nationalists immediately interpreted the representative’s statement as an acknowledgement of their existence as an entity separate from Islamabad.

The China-Baloch cat-and-mouse game predates the announcement of CPEC in 2015. The fear of and opposition to a sizable Chinese presence in Gwadar serves as one of the critical pillars of the modern Baloch resistance movement. When the Chinese arrived to build the Gwadar Port in the early 2000s, this provided ideological fodder to the separatists and helped them galvanise support for their movement. The complaint that the Chinese do not hire locals and they even bring their cooks and drivers from China has become an essential (and mostly accurate) talking-point of the nationalist narrative.

China probably paid serious attention to the Baloch movement for the first time in May 2004 when three of its citizens were killed by the nationalists in a bomb blast in Gwadar. The slain Chinese engineers were working on the Gwadar Port, and this incident seemed like an expression of resentment toward the construction of the Gwadar Port. Since then, the nationalists have carried out numerous violent attacks on Chinese nationals in Gwadar and elsewhere in Balochistan. The nationalists naively hoped that the attacks would scare the Chinese and force them to flee Pakistan. That was a miscalculation.

Surprisingly, then the Chinese did not protest with Islamabad as vehemently as, for instance, a western country would do if their citizens were targeted in such a fashion. With the CPEC buzz, the Chinese have now become more assertive in expecting Islamabad to ensure the safety and security of their nationals working on different facilities. The Baloch, in response, question the rationale behind the preferential security treatment offered to the Chinese while, on the contrary, the locals regularly face police brutality and intimidation.

The Baloch nationalists have repeatedly warned China to stay away from Gwadar or to at least directly negotiate with them about Balochistan’s coastal and mineral resources instead of going through Islamabad. In a nutshell, the nationalists’ posture toward China is based on these key messages: Stay out of Balochistan. Don’t usurp the province’s resources. Don’t become a party in the Baloch-Islamabad conflict. 

Primarily, the Chinese understanding was that Pakistan was already fully capable of handling the Balochistan insurgency. However, it is Islamabad’s consistent failure to initiate dialogue with the Baloch nationalists that could have compelled the Chinese to consider alternative options, such as direct outreach to the separatists.

Hence, if the Baloch and the Chinese held secret talks, this clearly reflects a weakness of the Pakistani government in bringing the Baloch to the negotiation table. If Balochistan is Pakistan’s ‘internal matter’, it should have the same leverage over the Baloch, as the Chinese now seem to have. So far, the Pakistani government and the media have not raised the “meddling into our internal matters” mantra. Imagine how Islamabad would have reacted if the FT had reported that the Balochs were negotiating with India or the United States instead of China.

The nationalists are most likely to find these reports flattering as any such contacts somehow amount to the recognition of their movement by a foreign country. That’s how they exuberantly construed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s explosive statement on Balochistan in 2016.

The secrecy surrounding these reports is not helpful to any of the stakeholders in the conflict. It is essential to know who the Chinese have been talking to in order to gauge the significance, relevance, and influence of the separatists they have been approaching.

The biggest drawback to a secret negotiation is the possibility of infiltration of fake and irrelevant individuals who might pose to the Chinese or officials in Islamabad as influential leaders of the movement.

Balochistan is a fertile land for pretentious and greedy tribal chiefs who waste no time in trying to impress outsiders (such as the Chinese) with what they will offer as their excellent local contacts and negotiation and conflict management skills. Eventually, it turns out they have zero support on the ground and have no constituency or ability to hammer out a solution.

Various Pakistani governments, backed by security forces, have claimed numerous times that certain Baloch fighters had given up their arms, availed official amnesty offers, promised to join the mainstream politics and expressed unconditional support for Pakistan.

The government has also offered substantial financial incentives to these surrendering ‘commanders’ and guerrilla fighters. This deceptive practice has been taking place for almost a decade. Nobody knows who these so-called ‘commanders’ are and why there is still an active armed resistance in Balochistan when so many ‘nationalists’, as claimed by the government, have already defected from the resistance.

Last month witnessed a similar demonstration of such desperation with the news of a Moscow-based activist, Dr. Juma Marri, announcing his defection from the movement and pledging allegiance to Pakistan.

It was misleading to describe him as a Baloch ‘leader’ because he neither leads any of the armed groups nor is he associated with any separatist political organisation. Exaggerating such events as a ‘breakthrough’ or breaking news amounts to causing more distractions from the actual work that needs to be accomplished to achieve peace and stability.

Similarly, reports about the formation of a government-sponsored pro-CPEC jirga known as the Muhibbaan Tehreek Nazarya-i-Pakistan is another profoundly flawed approach. Creation of such jirgas comprising mostly of leaders of religious parties undermines the Balochistan Assembly and other democratic institutions and gives a new lifeline to the broken and faulty tribal system.

Beijing’s interests in Balochistan are specific to the region surrounding the Gwadar Port. This is one area where even the usual suspects of the Baloch nationalist leadership (Brahamdagh Bugti, Hyrbyair Marri or the Khan of Kalat Suleman Dawood) have nearly zero influence in Mekran region, where the Gwadar Port is located. The Baloch Liberation Front led by Dr. Allah Nazar Baloch is the most active resistance group in the area.

However, the government has two options to address the unrest in this distinct area of Balochistan.

The first one is rather easy that the security establishment has used in recent years: Cultivating an extensive network of local informers and spies to provide ‘ground intelligence’ about the ‘bad guys’. The bad news is that these freelance informers often provide the government with inaccurate information. They usually end up settling personal scores with fellow villagers by reporting their enemies as ‘insurgents’ or ‘foreign agents’ to the security services.

Baloch nationalists have also fallen into the trap of the same unreliable method of information collection. Both sides in the conflict have killed numerous innocent people based on such disinformation that comes from people who want to report their personal enemies either to the government or the insurgents. This practice has become so dangerous that it has already pushed Balochistan into a mini civil war.

The second option for the government is to introduce and implement good public policy. The Baloch insurgency can still be reversed by substantially investing in local governments, community policing and public education. What has contributed to the worsening of the situation is a perennial reliance on paramilitary forces, such as the Frontier Corps, and military intelligence agencies to handle the situation. These forces were primarily not trained to perform police duties. Thus, they failed miserably because their practices backfired, opening the doors for more violence, rebellion, revenge, repression, and chaos.

There is a need for Islamabad to step back and review the current political and security strategy. The government will have to accommodate local perspectives, promote community policing and hold consultation with all stakeholders to win the trust of the people. The insurgency erupted and then thrived for more than a decade in the absence of shrewd public policy. The Chinese might help Pakistan build roads and bridges, but they can’t teach Islamabad how to understand its own people, their grievances and perspectives.

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