COMMENT : Lame pretexts

561bfa76-eac3-877aby Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur

Saindak and Gwadar are the microcosm of all that is wrong in Balochistan; the locals are left out of the benefits

During the 1973-77 Baloch struggle for rights, Pakistan used Iranian expertise, weapons and finances for counter-insurgency and deployed 30 Iranian AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters with Iranian pilots to pursue the Baloch guerrillas who had effectively put the army on the back foot with lethal hit-and-run guerrilla tactics. Historically, the Baloch and Iranians have been at odds and Pakistan exploited the Iranian fear of a Baloch nationalist struggle within its territory. The Iranian state systematically curbs Baloch political, economic and social rights, repressing them and even actively discouraging the Balochi language and attire.

Then the ascendant Iran helped Pakistan fight the Baloch, but today, plagued by problems and under a different regime, cannot afford this luxury. However, they still actively cooperate against the Baloch nationalists who they see as a threat to their interests in Balochistan. Pakistan, practically applying Friedrich Nietzsche’s advice: “The best weapon against an enemy is another enemy”, is now skilfully using China’s rivalry with the United States to counter the Baloch struggle. This tactic, however, is a double edged sword.

Pakistan has always banked on the superpower to sustain its unjust regimes and policies. It was the United States for long but since the Afghan war, old allies, viewing each other suspiciously, have fallen out. Now China, desiring global authority, has stepped in for its own interests. China willingly supports the majority nationality in many countries, much to the chagrin of others.

To become a global power and to sustain its production and development levels, China needs reliable energy and raw material sources. Currently, China ships Gulf oil through the Malaccan Straits to its Pacific coast before sending it inland; it wants to end its dependence on the strategically vulnerable Malaccan Straits. With increased tensions over islands with its neighbours, this has becomes even more urgent. China seeks and needs an opening up of the energy and trade corridor from the Gulf to western China; the answer to its problems are Gwadar and Balochistan.

Gwadar has a number of advantages as a deep-water port; it is an all-year, all-weather deep channel port that could eventually handle the largest of oil tankers. It is close to the Arabian Gulf and on major shipping lanes. It puts Middle East oil and gas reserves within the reach of China. Gwadar’s planned link with the Karakoram Highway in Pakistan’s north could cut almost 8,000 km (5,000 miles) from the Malaccan route for China, and it would have a direct route from the Gulf to its energy-hungry interior.

China has had designs on Balochistan for long because its Gwadar port and resources are an essential springboard to its global ambitions and a foothold there would facilitate and hasten the achievement of its goals. Pakistan presented Gwadar to it on a silver platter when in 2000, the military ruler General Pervez Musharraf inked a deal with it for developing Gwadar and it invested more than $ 200 million in the first port building phase. However, in 2007, Singapore’s PSA International Ltd was given a 40-year contract, with a 20-year tax concession, to run the port. It promised to invest $ 525 million over five years but the deal did not work. The PSA accused the government of reneging on commitments, including the non-availability of the essential 670 acres that the Navy occupied. Then in August 2012, Pakistan and China cut a deal giving the latter the operational control of Gwadar port.

The Pakistan government is granting the most profitable terms to China and also begging it to revive the Gwadar Coastal Oil Refinery project shelved in 2009-10 due to China’s declaration of the province as a no-go area for Chinese nationals because three Chinese engineers were killed in Hub in February 2006 and three more Chinese engineers were killed by a bomb in Gwadar on May 4, 2003. To lure China back Pakistan is offering a 20-year tax holiday and the waiver of one percent Workers Profit Participation Fund (WPPF). All concessions are aimed at ensuring China’s involvement in the exploitation of Balochistan’s resources. The Baloch resent this parcelling out and surrender of Gwadar on the pretext of development, as it would hasten the demographic changes and give China a military foothold there.

Militarisation of Gwadar also goes on apace. Gwadar’s new airport’s 6,500 acres were purchased for Rs 1.05 billion by the Military Estates Officer (MEO), making it military property. An airport this size is surely for military purposes, for even London’s Heathrow Airport, where a plane lands or takes off every 46 seconds at peak hours is on 2,965 acres. In May 2011, after China acceded to take over the Gwadar port, Pakistan’s former defence minister, Ahmad Mukhtar during his China visit had said, “However, we shall be more grateful to the Chinese if they agree to build a naval base at Gwadar.”

The Baloch in Gwadar face multifarious problems. The legendary land grab has deprived them of their most valuable possession; a perennial acute drinking water shortage persists; locals’ share in employment is only manual labour, as they are being turned into a minority and the state repression keeps mounting. They resent being dispossessed, deprived and disenfranchised on the lame pretext of development. In March 2011, a Frontier Works Organisation (FWO) camp outside Gwadar city was attacked, 11 persons were killed and two vehicles torched. The navy prescribes fishing on fixed timings; the fish heed it not so fishermen violate the timings and the administration punishes them by damaging their boats. In January 2006, militants torched three Pakistan Navy submarine force launches at the Gwadar Fish Harbour in retaliation against the security forces damaging dozens of fishermen’s boats.

However, Gwadar is not the only victim of the Pakistan-China friendship; in Saindak, the Metallurgical Construction Company of China (MCC) was given a ten-year lease till 2012. Syed Fazl-e-Haider in 2006 warned that the Chinese were overmining; instead of 15,800 tonnes of blister copper, 24,000 tonnes were being extracted. Environmental degradation and toxic sludge are serious issues for the people. Ironically, Balochistan receives a paltry royalty of $ 0.7 million annually, yet disregarding Baloch resentment, the lease was extended by five years.

Saindak and Gwadar are the microcosm of all that is wrong in Balochistan; the locals are left out of the benefits; demographic changes are wrought forcibly; a rapacious land grab and exploitation of resources on the lame pretext of development continues; acute shortage of essential facilities is perpetual; Baloch assets are gifted away; militarisation goes on unhindered; the armed forces impose arbitrary restrictions and deal punitively with the Baloch; the list of killed and missing keeps mounting, and last but not the least, the Baloch continue to resist all these injustices. [Courtesy: Daily Times]

The writer has an association with the Baloch rights movement going back to the early 1970s. He tweets at mmatalpur and can be contacted at mmatalpur@gmail.com

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