Sunday, January 16, 2005

In Balochistan an Army Rape, a Cover-Up and Rush to Kill


By Najam Sethi

The crisis in Balochistan is enveloped in a curtain of official censorship, public ignorance, tribal honor and military arrogance.

There are two aspects to it. First, there is the local conflict in Dera Bugti in which Sui gas installations continue to be rocketed by Bugti tribesmen and officials of the Defense Security Group (DSG) and Frontier Corps are being fatally targeted. Second, there is the “nationalist resistance” to central rule led by the shadowy Baloch Liberation Army in which military targets in Balochistan are under attack.

Behind the scenes, negotiations are being conducted between Islamabad and representatives of the small Baloch nationalist parties and groups over the terms and conditions of local employment and compensation contracts by the gas companies as well as over the amount of royalties and federal development outlays and handouts for Balochistan province and their distribution between the provincial and local administrations.

In the first case, Nawab Bugti has constantly complained that Pakistan Petroleum Ltd has reneged on its financial commitments to local Bugti tribesmen at Sui. Various federal governments have tried to bribe or browbeat him but to no avail.

Meanwhile, Islamabad has relentlessly propagated the notion that the tribal sardars, including Nawab Bugti, are both greedy and opposed to their area’s development. This has injected personal acrimony into the conflict and stiffened the tribal resolve. In the latest round at Sui, over two dozen troopers have been killed, gas supply to major industrial units in the Punjab and Sindh has been halted, thousands of regular army troops have been rushed to the area and helicopter gun ships have been marshaled to put down the Bugtis and Marris.

The conflict is cloaked in a web of deception. It is being painted as standard sardari ‘mischief’. But the facts are quite different and alarming.

A young lady doctor was gang-raped at Sui recently. At first, the PPL and DSG tried to destroy the evidence and denied the incident. Then the woman was spirited out to Karachi and told to shut up.

At no stage was the local police allowed to meet and interrogate her. But when the police turned up sperm and blood evidence of rape at the scene of the crime, the PPL/DSG reluctantly allowed an FIR against “unknown assailants” However, Nawab Bugti insisted that one of the rapists was Captain Hammad of the DSG.

But the military flatly rejected the allegation. Indeed, the local and national media was advised not to print Nawab Bugti’s allegations. Outraged, the Bugtis joined ranks and vowed resistance. The local military commanders now want to “sort them out”. But that may be easier said than done. If the Bugtis are not calmed down and military action is precipitated, the gas compression and precipitation plants at Sui could be attacked and destroyed with disastrous consequences.

The second issue is even less amenable to the military’s ‘standard operating procedures’. It is a throwback to the 1970s insurgency that resulted from ZA Bhutto’s dismissal of Ataullah Mengal’s nationalist government and the detention on conspiracy charges of 55 nationalist politicians and student leaders.

That revolt was crushed by a combination of military force, political appeasement and economic largesse by Gen Zia ul Haq. In the 1990s, the Baloch nationalists were quiescent because they were part of the democratic process, sharing power at the center and in the province with the ruling PPP and PML parties in turns.

But that has changed under General Musharraf who has instead shared power and privileges with the mullahs in Balochistan and forced the nationalists to sulk and conspire in the wilderness.

A second generation of Baloch students and tribal leaders has readily fallen prey to the call to arms, targeting such multi-billion rupee federal development projects as Gwadar which have largely left the local Baloch middle classes out of the loop of beneficial stake holders.

This disgruntlement has been fed with financial donations from working class Baloch communities in Oman and the Gulf and foreign powers interested in fishing in troubled waters. Certainly, the nature of sophisticated weaponry in the hands of the BLA suggests that it will not be easily sorted out by military means alone.

General Pervez Musharraf has warned the Baloch: “They shouldn’t push us. It isn’t the 1970s when you can hit and run and hide in the mountains. This time you won’t even know what hit you”.

Wrong. This is exactly what is happening in South Waziristan where a couple of hundred motivated militants with local sympathies and support continue to pose serious problems despite all the new US supplied helicopter gun ships and wonderful new equipment with the Pak army. In fact, General Musharraf should be thinking of speedily extricating himself from Wana rather than jumping into the Baloch quicksand.

To be fair to him, though, General Musharraf has sincerely tried to negotiate Baloch grievances through dedicated civilian interlocutors. But army hardliners in Balochistan want to jump the gun.

The situation in Sui is precipitous. It can be diffused by arresting the DSG officer and ordering an inquiry. The longer term nationalist problem can be tackled by co-opting the main tribes and nationalist parties into the political process and isolating those who give succor to the BLA.

The writer is Editor of The Friday Times and the Daily Times of Lahore. This editorial was written for The Friday Times.

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