The Baloch people have a right to self-determination

The Baloch people, who have suffered decades of repression, deserve the right to self-determination.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) is urging the complete demilitarisation of the rebel province of Balochistan, as a precondition for a negotiated political settlement to end six decades of economic neglect, ethnic persecution and military repression by successive governments in Islamabad.

The region has been under military occupation ever since 1948, after the Khan of Kalat state (which made up part of what is now Balochistan) acceded to Pakistan under pressure from the Muslim League and threats from the government in Islamabad, just nine months after the long-autonomous principality secured its independence from Britain. The Kalat state's parliament voted against incorporation into Pakistan. The people never agreed to give up their independence. They were not allowed a referendum. Sixty-plus years of rebellion have followed.

Echoing the criticisms of Baloch national leaders, the HRCP says the Pakistan’s peace and reconciliation proposals are undermined by on-going military operations and human rights abuses.

It points out that 4,000 Baloch people have been arrested and then disappeared. Only a handful have been released since the western-backed military dictator, Pervez Musharraf, was replaced by a democratically-elected civilian government in 2008.

The torture of Baloch rights campaigners remains routine.

Promises of military de-escalation are contradicted by continued army incursions and air strikes, which have resulted in many civilian casualties, and by the shooting dead of peaceful Baloch protesters, most recently in Turbat in January this year. The shooting starts 3.12 minutes into this mobile phone footage:

Successive Pakistani military attacks on Balochistan are estimated to have in resulted in 3,000 people killed and up to 200,000 displaced.

Baloch human rights groups report that the kidnapping and torture of peaceful, lawful Baloch activists remains unchecked.

Indeed, the Pakistani government has admitted that in 2009 over 1,000 Baloch people were seized by its security forces and disappeared.

These crimes against humanity are still happening in Balochistan, despite Pakistan’s ostensible transition to democratic government. They are well documented by Pakistani and international human rights groups, including the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Human Rights Watch, the Asian Human Rights Commission, the International Crisis Group and Amnesty International.

These abuses were also recounted to me in 2007, when I interviewed Mehran Baluch, the Baloch representative to the UN Human Rights Council, for my Talking With Tatchell internet television series.


See more Talking with Tatchell interviews on veoh.com

In response to national and international criticism, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Syed Yousaf Raza Gilani, has publicly apologised for the persecution of the Baloch people and pledged to halt military assaults in Balochistan.

Despite the his assurances, military attacks have continued. They have been aided and abetted by military supplies from western countries, especially the US.

It has sold the Pakistani armed forces $10 billion worth of weapons, including F-16 attack aircraft and Cobra attack helicopters, which have been used to indiscriminately strafe and bomb Balochistan, killing civilians and livestock and destroying houses and farm equipment.

A 2006 report by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan documented arbitrary arrests and detention, torture, extra-judicial and summary executions, disappearances and the use of excessive and indiscriminate violence by Pakistan’s police, military and intelligence forces.

These findings are corroborated by Amnesty International. Typical tortures include being hung upside down, sleep deprivation, electric shocks and cigarette burns.

To cover up its human rights abuses, Islamabad restricts media access to Balochistan and refuses to allow the UN and international aid agencies to provide humanitarian assistance to most parts of the region. If Pakistan has nothing to hide, why is it refusing open access to Balochistan?

Despite Balochistan’s huge mineral wealth, Balochistan is the poorest region of Pakistan. Much of the population is malnourished, illiterate and semi-destitute; living in squalid housing with no electricity or clean drinking water.

According to the Asian Human Rights Commission’s 2009 report:

“88% of the population of Balochistan is under the poverty line. Balochistan has the lowest literacy rate, and the lowest school enrolment ratio, educational attainment index and health index compared to the other provinces. 78% of the population has no access to electricity and 79% has no access to natural gas.”

Pakistan has blanketed the country with military garrisons to suppress the people. In recent years, there has been a 62% increase in police stations and a 100% increase in paramilitary checkpoints.

If the Baloch people are happy and free, as Islamabad claims, why is there a need for this pervasive, suffocating military presence? And why has Pakistan always refused Balochistan a referendum on independence?

Ever since the annexations of 1947-1948, Balochistan has been subjected to a quadruple whammy of military occupation, political domination, economic exploitation and cultural hegemony.

Pakistan is an oppressed nation turned oppressor nation. It now adopts the imperialist tactics of its former colonial overlords to subjugate and exploit the Baloch – and the people of other victim provinces such as Sindh and North West Frontier.

Just like Israel’s settlement programme on the West Bank, Islamabad has a settler scheme to colonise Balochistan. It is encouraging Punjabis, the largest and dominant ethnic group in Pakistan, to move to the region. The aim is to make the Baloch people a minority in their own homeland, as happened to the Native Americans in the US and the Aboriginal people in Australia. This goal has already been achieved in major cities like Quetta, where colonist settlers now predominate.

Cultural imperialism is another weapon. Punjabi supremacists have imposed an alien language, Urdu, on the Balochi-speaking people. Borrowing from the tactics of the apartheid regime in South Africa, which forced black children to be schooled in Afrikaans, Islamabad has dictated that Urdu is the compulsory language of instruction in Baloch educational institutions.

The cultural conquest of Balochistan also involves the radical Islamification of the traditionally more secular Baloch nation. Large numbers of religious schools have been funded by Islamabad, with a view to imposing Pakistan’s harsher, more narrow-minded interpretation of Islam. This is fuelling fundamentalism.

The West’s attitude towards the plight of the Baloch people is less than honourable. Because Britain and the United States want Pakistan as an ally in the so-called “war on terror,” they have armed Pakistan and acquiesced with its suppression of the Baloch people.

Pakistan’s war against Balochistan is strengthening the position of the Taliban, who have exploited the unstable, strife-ridden situation to establish bases and influence in the region. From these bases, the Taliban terrorise the often more liberal, secular Baloch people and enforce the Talibanisation of Balochistan.

The Pakistani military often tolerates the Taliban, on the grounds that Taliban influence acts as a second force to crush the Baloch people and weaken their struggle for independence. In other words, the Taliban are being used as a proxy force by Islamabad in its war against Balochistan.

The bases in the Baloch region are also hide-outs from where Taliban fighters mount military operations in Afghanistan. Despite recent well-publicised military operations, the Pakistani security forces are taking very little serious action to stop the Taliban using Balochistan as a rear base for their Islamist war against democracy and human rights.

If the nations of the world want to strike a blow against the Taliban and fundamentalism, they should seek an end Pakistan’s repression in Balochistan and support the Baloch people’s right to self-determination. Baloch secular nationalism could act as a powerful bulwark against the Talibanisation of the country, which ultimately threatens all the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan – and the wider region.

The future status of Balochistan

Whether self-determination means the restoration of independence, or full regional autonomy within a federal Pakistan, is a matter for the Baloch people to decide. The best way to resolve this issue would be for the government of Pakistan to authorise a United Nations-supervised and monitored referendum to allow the people of Balochistan to freely and democratically determine their own future.

The Baloch people, like all people everywhere, have a right to self-determination – and the right to democracy, human rights and social justice.

If tiny East Timor can be an independent, self-governing nation, why not Balochistan?

About the author

Peter Tatchell is a human rights campaigner