The volatile situation in Balochistan can be described as Pakistan’s “forgotten conflict,” a title most recently bestowed by the International Crisis Group in October 2007, when the organization wrote,
“Violence continues unabated in Pakistan’s strategically important and resource-rich province of Balochistan, where the military government is fighting Baloch militants demanding political and economic autonomy. President Pervez Musharraf’s government insists the insurgency is an attempt to seize power by a handful of tribal chiefs [sardars] bent on resisting economic development. Baloch nationalists maintain it is fuelled by the military’s attempts to subdue dissent by force and the alienation caused by the absence of real democracy.”
Balochistan is Pakistan’s largest province, but it is sparsely populated with only six million people, according to the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Focus in June 2006 [although different sources provide different stats]. Nevertheless, the region holds strategic importance – since it possesses considerable mineral, gas, and petroleum wealth. However, “Little of the wealth now produced in Balochistan has found its way back into the province, which remains badly underdeveloped and faces a major financial crisis even as new natural gas discoveries continue.”
Much of these economic and political grievances have fueled the province’s six-year insurgency. Baloch alienation is reportedly widespread, “crossing tribal, regional, and class lines.” However, instead of redressing these issues, the military responded through the use of force. In August 2006, a sardar (tribal leader) Nawab Akbar Bugti was killed in a battle between tribal militants and government forces in Balochistan. According to the BBC’s Dan Isaacs, his death represented “a major victory for the government in its campaign to undermine rebels” in the province. Sardar Akhtar Jan Mengal, another leader, was also incarcerated and has been held on terrorism-related charges without due process since December. The ICG noted, “Law enforcement agencies have detained thousands of Baloch nationalists or those believed to be sympathetic to the cause; many have simply disappeared. With the nationalist parties under siege, many young activists are losing faith in the political process and now see armed resistance as the only viable way to secure their rights.”
However, there has been some relatively positive news of late. Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper reported today that provincial governor Nawab Zulfiqar Ali Magsi announced reconciliation efforts have begun in Balochistan and the new government will take steps to ensure its success. The leader asserted that halting the military’s campaign of force and restoring peace would be “the new government’s priority.” And just who is this new government? In the recent 2008 elections, the PML-Q won 20 seats in the provincial assembly (a somewhat curious development given the situation), while the PPP and Balochistan National Party (Awami) have 11 and 7 seats, respectively.
I don’t pretend to be an expert on the situation in Balochistan – and, because the former government heavily restricted the movement of journalists in this province, not a lot is reported on the area, [see Human Rights Watch]. Therefore, if you have any additions to this piece, any predictions on the future of the conflict, please feel free to contribute by commenting. I do feel it is important to highlight a conflict that is occurring within our own borders, that is largely forgotten but is still very much present. [Image from BBC News]