Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Daily Times Editorial April 10, 2014

Sibi train bombing The bombing of a passenger train at Sibi on Tuesday in which 17 people were burnt to death, including six women and four children, and 40 injured, serves to highlight the continuing tragedy of Balochistan. The United Baloch Army (UBA) claimed responsibility and warned of more such attacks, advising people not to travel by trains. The UBA says the attack was in retaliation for the major operation in Kalat district on Monday, in which the security forces claimed to have killed 40 insurgents belonging to the Baloch Republican Army (BRA) and the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA). All three groups, the UBA, BRA and BLA are Baloch nationalist insurgent groups waging a guerrilla war that initially was seen as a struggle for the rights of the Baloch people, a long standing problem, but over time has seen a hardening of attitudes on all sides, including the exponential growth of separatist sentiment. A strike called by the Baloch National Front (BNF) on Tuesday saw many towns throughout the province shut down in protest at the operation, with claims by the BNF that those killed were non-combatants, including women and children. Since the media is not allowed to report freely from many areas of the province, it is difficult to assess the truth or otherwise of all these claims and counter-claims. Nevertheless, if there is even a grain of truth in the reports, it only underlines the bloody struggle simmering in Balochistan, without any end in sight. The very nature of guerrilla struggle envisages a conflict between two sides of unequal strength. The weaker force, the guerrilla force, will therefore perforce attack soft targets. These include, in the context of Balochistan, infrastructure such as railways, highways, electricity and gas lines. Inherent in some of such attacks is the possibility of collateral non-combatant casualties. Similarly, when the security forces conduct operations, there is no gainsaying the possibility of collateral damage. Ironically, President Mamnoon Hussain happened to be visiting Quetta on the day of the Sibi incident. He talked about the usual formula of exploiting Balochistan’s immense untapped mineral resources to bring prosperity and development to the most underdeveloped province of the country. This conventional approach to a complex issue misses the wood for the trees. Without a political solution to the ongoing insurgency, it is unlikely development alone will bring peace to the troubled province. The election of a ‘nationalist’ chief minister in last year’s general elections had led to hopes that Dr Abdul Malik Baloch would manage to open channels of communication with the Baloch insurgent leadership in exile and in the mountains to seek a negotiated solution to Balochistan’s long running resentment at being marginalised and deprived of its rights throughout the 66-year history of the country. However, by now it is clear that the security forces in Balochistan, led by the Frontier Corps, have their own take and approach to the problem and are not amenable to letting up on their operations to open up space for a possible political negotiation with the insurgents, which may lead to a political solution to the Balochistan conundrum. Dr Malik himself has said in interviews in recent days that the ‘development’ approach to Balochistan’s problems is unlikely to work if the examples of major projects like the Saindak copper and gold project run by the Chinese are taken into account. These projects have not yielded major benefits to the province, either in the shape of a share of the profits (the major chunk goes to the Chinese companies running such projects, while the federal government receives the bulk of the remainder) or local employment opportunities. In the light of these remarks, the potential of Gwadar port is not likely to yield very different outcomes. Recent initiatives to provide jobs to Baloch youth are unexceptionable in themselves, but they skirt the main issue, which is the simmering, and at times open resentment of the Baloch people at what they perceive is hard treatment by the state. Nationalist and even separatist sentiment cannot be crushed by force. After all Balochistan is going through its fifth insurgency since Pakistan came into being. The pattern is that insurgencies surge, attempts are made to crush them by force, the guerrillas nevertheless survive, and eventually the two sides come to some (temporary) compromise. The potential of Balochistan, its integration into the mainstream through extension of the province’s due rights, embracing the Baloch people as equal citizens of the state, reconciliation, are the way forward. Each insurgency takes a toll of the people and the security forces. A new path, a new initiative has become the inescapable necessity that history dictates. It is time for the tragedy to end.

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