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Pakistan's Baluchi Minority Eyes Autonomy, Wealth, And Rights

Baluch fighters at a camp southeast of Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan Province (file photo)
Baluch fighters at a camp southeast of Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan Province (file photo)
Despite living along strategic trade routes atop a wealth of untapped hydrocarbon and mineral deposits, members of Southwest Asia's Baluchi minority have found it difficult to shed their lives of misery and suppression.

More than 8 million members of the beleaguered nation call the Iranian Plateau their home, spanning the borders of Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan, with their southern reaches hemmed in by the Arabian Sea.

Some 60 percent are concentrated in Pakistan's southwestern Baluchistan Province, where they seek autonomy and have been in the grips of a violent insurgency -- their fifth in modern history -- since 2004.

Another 1.5 million live under severe political and cultural oppression as a Sunni Muslim minority in predominantly Shi'ite Iran. In southwestern Afghanistan, 1 million Baluchis and their Hanafi school of jurisprudence are more in keeping with the majority.

Now, faced with a more violent insurgency led by the Taliban and Al-Qaeda along its western borders with Afghanistan, Pakistan's government under President Asif Ali Zardari has made it a priority to negotiate an end to its Baluchi insurgency.

'Forgotten Conflict'

Hundreds of Baluchi militants, Pakistani troops, and civilians have died and tens of thousands displaced as a result of the latest fight, which the International Crisis Group last year dubbed a "forgotten conflict."

In an opening gesture that quickly followed the Pakistan People's Party's victory in the February general elections, the new coalition government issued a public apology to the people of Baluchistan Province.

Zardari highlighted the importance of the move during his first address to the parliament in September.

"This is the agenda of moving quickly to heal the wounds of the past," he said. "To restore the trust in the federation. Tendering an apology to the people of Baluchistan was a long overdue step."

And last week, Zardari's government followed up by unveiling a detailed road map for ending the insurgency that calls for reconciliation with Baluchi nationalists, rebuilding institutions, and negotiating a new resource-distribution formula to appease alienated Baluchis.

But while Baluchi leaders appreciate the change in heart, they want concrete actions and policies that reflect understanding of their aims for autonomy without trying to wrest control over the abundant resources on Baluchi lands.

Greater Autonomy

Habib Jalib, secretary-general of the Baluchistan National Party, tells RFE/RL that he hoped greater autonomy would be granted to the provinces following the victory of democratic political parties in February's elections. But so far, Jalib says, there has been little movement in that direction.

"In Baluchistan, the military operation, in different areas, is going on. Many disappeared people are still disappeared. Thousands of young Baluch are behind the bars and they are waiting for their trial[s]," Jalib says. "And also the construction of the [military] cantonments has not been given up yet. The anti-Baluch mega-projects, like the Gawadar mega-project, is under way."

Jalib is referring to the Pakistani government's claims to be pouring billions of dollars into major infrastructure-development projects in Baluchi areas, including a new port on the Arabian Sea coast at Gwadar. The construction of major roads, rail networks, dams, and new military training camps are also on tap.

But many Baluchis believe there are ulterior motives at hand, especially concerning ambitious projects aimed at extracting gold, copper, oil, gas, and minerals from Baluchistan Province, which accounts for nearly half of Pakistan's territory and also has a large ethnic-Pashtun population.

Among those who believe that the "mega-projects" are aimed a at plundering Baluchi resources is Mir Ahmed Sulieman Daud, a middle-aged Baluchi leader whose grandfather was the last ruler of an autonomous Baluchi principality within the British Indian empire before it was forced to join Pakistan in the late 1940s.

"They are mega-frauds and mega-programs to rid the Baluch of their land and make them a minority on their own land," Daud says. "That's what all these mega-projects are."

Resentment against the authorities remains high among the Baluch, whose earlier nationalist insurgencies -- in 1948, 1958, 1962, and 1973-77 -- were all suppressed militarily.

Thousands of Baluchi nationalists languish in jails and hundreds remain missing as a result of the current conflict, with Islamabad regarding them as separatist revolutionaries bankrolled by regional archrival India.

Baluchis in Iran, where they account for 2 percent of the population, face similar or even worse circumstances, according to leaders of the minority.

'Violation Of Human Rights'

Reza Hosseinbor, the London-based spokesman for Baluchistan People's Front -- an alliance of Baluchi nationalists and tribes in Iran -- tells RFE/RL that Iran's clerical regime discriminates against the Baluchis on two counts. One is their status as an ethnic minority in a multiethnic country dominated by Farsi speakers; the other is due to being Sunnis in a country ruled by a Shi'ite majority.

"It's the continuous violation of human rights in Balochistan by the Iranian authorities and security forces. The human rights are violated on a daily basis," Hosseinbor says. "Every week we read that 30, 40, even 50 people have been arrested. And we also had the report that 5,050 people had been arrested during last month. Everybody who protests against the Iranian policies will be arrested and tortured."

Hosseinbor notes that the Baluchi language is not allowed to be taught in the schools, and it is not allowed to publish books on Baluchistan in Baluchi.

But, he says, "the worst kind of discrimination is political, when there has not been even one Baluch or even [any] Sunni, in fact, a minister, ambassador, or army general in the last 30 years."

Despite the difficulties the Baluchis face, their leaders in Pakistan and Iran remain adamant that international focus on their plight will bring them an emancipated future.

And looking toward their Arab neighbors across the Persian Gulf, they hold out hope that their mineral wealth will give the international community ample reason to resolve their "forgotten" political crises.
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.

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