LAHORE Protests against Pakistan’s acquisition of vast tracts of land for mega military projects in its western Balochistan province are snowballing, with armed tribesmen blowing up an airport in the gas-rich region of Sui last week, and local nationalist parties threatening political action on August 1.
The tribesmen battled security forces in Balochistan, which witnessed a low-level insurgency for greater autonomy in the 1970s, and fired more than 50 rockets at security posts in the Sui natural gas field on Saturday night. The fighting raged for over two hours.
The militants blew up the airport by planting dynamite sticks in the building’s walls, which collapsed during the rocket barrage, the police said. The attack destroyed the airport building, its departure lounge and its runway. All flights to Sui were suspended Sunday.
An unidentified person, describing himself as a member of the relatively unknown Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) claimed responsibility. He said the BLA opposed the establishment of cantonments in Balochistan and construction of police and Frontier Corps (FC) posts in various parts of the province.
The early morning attack was the second in the area within two days. Unidentified assailants had fired more than a dozen rockets on Friday but the main gas installations were not damaged.
In May, about 140 rockets were fired in Sui, while at least 120 rockets have hit the remote and thinly populated area this month so far. Last week, 12 civilians were wounded when rockets slammed into residential areas of Sui town.
In a pincer movement though it may not have been a coordinated effort last week four Baloch nationalist parties joined hands to resist the establishment of military cantonments in Balochistan and launched a campaign against the Gwadar Port mega-project.
Chief of the National Party, Abdul Hai Baloch, says a conference of all political parties would be called on August 1 to protest against the projects, which he accused of capturing the resources of Balochistan.
He says parliamentarians from both the parties would raise these issues in the National Assembly.
Balochistan National Movement leader Aslam Buledi charged the Balochistan Coast Guard and Frontier Constabulary with grabbing more than 500,000 acres of land in the province.
He claims the Pakistan Army has already acquired at least five million acres of land.
The spate of guerrilla attacks and political statements have spurred the Pakistan government to press the panic button. Interior Minister Faisal Saleh Hayat threatened that the government may use force if matters are not resolved at the political level.
Remarks Hayat, “Besides terrorists, some local elements are also involved in the attack on Sui airport and are responsible for destroying the gas pipelines. Talks are underway with them at the political level.”
He warns, “If the issues are not resolved politically, the government may resort to military operation there.”
It’s easy to see why the Pakistanis are on a hair trigger. At a time when global fuel prices are soaring, Sui, situated some 400 kilometers (250 mi.) southeast of the provincial capital of Quetta, contributes 60 percent of the country’s natural gas production. Any obstruction in the flow of gas to industry in the east would shatter Pakistan’s fragile economy.
The situation in the area turned volatile after the federal government announced the establishment of military cantonments in Sui, Kohlu and Gwadar last year.
Tribal leader and veteran politician Nawab Akbar Bugti says the projects are planned to suppress the local people. He declares that he will go down fighting rather than allow a military cantonment to be established in his region.
Last month too, there was a major flare-up when three Chinese engineers and several locals were killed in an attack in Gwadar. Security forces launched a crackdown and arrested more than 30 suspects in overnight house-to-house searches.
The forces sealed all roads leading to the town before launching the searches, in which arms and ammunition were also recovered. More check posts were set up in the area and 500 additional security guards were deployed and anti-aircraft guns installed along the roads leading to the town.
Two prominent leaders of the nationalist alliance, the Pakistan Oppressed Nations Movement (PONM), Abdul Wali Kakar of the Balochistan National Party (Mengal) and Abdul Malik of the National Party, were arrested for criticizing government policies.
PONM president and Baloch nationalist Sardar Attaullah Khan Mengal describes the establishment of cantonment areas in the Balochistan especially in Quetta, as a military invasion.
Sardar Mengal accuses the establishment of suppressing autonomy. “We have remained silent on the small nation-crushing policies for over 50 years; now, it’s high time to do something to snatch our rights from the powerful,” he thunders.
He says the PONM has decided to hit the streets for the acceptance of, what he called, legitimate demands, such as halting work on cantonments, mega water projects like the Kalabagh Dam and Greater Thal Canal, and the Gwadar Port.
He emphasizes that all national units must be given rights to use the resources of their regions and provinces.
But the government’s priorities seem to lie elsewhere. Balochistan Home Minister Mir Shoaib Nausherwani asserts that the cantonments are sorely needed in the province as they would accelerate development.
“We want to put the under-developed areas of Balochistan on the development track,” observes the minister. “It is also necessary to control terrorist activities in Sui and Gwadar,” he adds.
Jamhori Watan Party (JWP) senator Amanullah terms the government’s policies as twisted, as the bankrupt country is building cantonments while the impoverished Balochs are dying of hunger.
He claims at least 200 acres of lands belonging to the poor have ended up in the army’s hands.
According to him, there was coercion in the acquisition of land, against the wills of the local people. He claims the hapless people were forced to vacate their land.
Amanullah alleges the army is busy occupying lucrative land across the country, including Balochistan.
Local journalist and social activist Niaz Hussain says resentment is brewing in the province. The people feel Balochistan’s resources are being plundered by the federal government without their getting any economic benefits.
“This tendency is giving rise to militancy in the province,” points out Hussain. He says the government must give serious thought to local development.
“The gulf is widening between the haves and have-nots, with palatial bungalows and plazas on the one hand and slums on the other,” he cautions.
For a country that lost a major province (Bangladesh, then East Pakistan) in 1971 because local aspirations were suppressed, that’s an ominous warning.