Gwadar attack: Growing separatist violence in Balochistan indicates anger among locals against Chinese interference in Pakistan

Now it seems that China is the target for attack by the new armed groups who have sprung up, arising from a bitter hatred of the ‘colonisers’ of their country.

Tara Kartha May 13, 2019 11:19:31 IST
Gwadar attack: Growing separatist violence in Balochistan indicates anger among locals against Chinese interference in Pakistan
  • Now it seems that China is the target for attack by the new armed groups who have sprung up, arising from a bitter hatred of the ‘colonisers’ of their country.

  • For years it was an open secret that China maintained links with at some of the insurgent groups operating in the area in a deal-making exercise.

  • Balochistan is the least populated province of the country, with little villages clustered around small water sources, surrounded by mile upon mile of barren territory.

In an act as shocking as it was tragic, three attackers from the ‘Majeed Brigade” of the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) claimed the attack on the upscale Pearl Continental Hotel in Gwadar, the port city that is at the heart of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Shocking, because it been just weeks since the group, together with other resistance groups, attacked a bus on the Makran Highway, killing at least 11 personnel from the navy, coast guard and the air force.

This time around, there appear to be some casualties from the navy, and some injured from the Pakistan Army. Tragic, because this has become a cyclical affair. The Pakistani forces — including the dreaded intelligence — have been picking up young people from their homes for interrogation for years. Bodies are found much later, and sometimes not at all. That style of counterinsurgency has led to more and more recruits moving to join various militant groups who have sprung up over the years.

Gwadar attack Growing separatist violence in Balochistan indicates anger among locals against Chinese interference in Pakistan

Pearl Continental Hotel in Gwadar which was under attack on Saturday. AFP

Major worldwide news channels call them "separatist" groups, rather than the usual insurgent/terrorist appellation. Ironically, that word was popularised by the Chinese to describe the Uighur rebellion that has also been steadily increasing in tempo. Now it seems that China is the target for attack by the new armed groups who have sprung up, arising from a bitter hatred of the ‘colonisers’ of their country. Unlike the past, when luxuriantly moustachioed and well known tribal Sardars took the lead in sustaining such groups — and sometimes cohabited with the government when it suited them — objectives have broadened from simply greater autonomy to one that calls for outright independence.

Also in another difference from the past, the present group leadership is shrouded in secrecy. The BLA, for instance, may have been headed by ‘Aslam Baloch’ — certainly a nom de guerre —  who was alleged to have been responsible for the attack on the Chinese consulate in November 2018. The fact that a suicide attack killed him and four of his colleagues just a month later at Aino Maina in Kandahar province, seems to confirm not just his involvement, but also the extent of Chinese reach when it is seriously annoyed. For years it was an open secret that China maintained links with at some of the insurgent groups operating in the area in a deal-making exercise that has ensured access to Chinese companies in some of the most hostile areas of the world.

Apparently, the BLA was not one of them. Hence the swift coup de grace of the leadership in a neighbouring country. The group, however, seems to have recovered rather quickly. That it could penetrate a high-security zone — and in Pakistan, this is as high security as it gets — speaks volumes for its meticulous planning and the support that it was able to get from the local population. The group could not harm the several Chinese staying in the hotel, testifies also to the efficiency and training of Pakistani security forces, who managed to contain the attackers to a single floor. The blunt message on Twitter by the group warning the Chinese to stay away is likely to make Chinese businessmen more nervous, the better response and capabilities of Pakistani forces notwithstanding.

They have every reason to be rather more than nervous. After all, it’s not just the BLA that stands against Chinese expansion. There is the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF), led by Allah Nazar — whom the Pakistanis had hoped to have killed in September 2015, but who resurfaced in a video two months later — is another group that wants China to leave. They have no particular grouse against Beijing. They just want the rights to their own resources. There are other smaller and even more secretive groups like the Baloch Republican Guard, which had claimed an attack on a Pakistani Army convoy just days after Iran warned Pakistan to rein in terror group which attacked the Iranian Revolutionary Guards killing 27 personnel.

In an unusual move, the group joined the other two for the Makran highway attack, in a rather curious coalition called Baloch Raaji Ajoi Sangar (BRAS). It’s not just the acronym which was strange. These groups are known to quarrel with each other rather more than ever cooperating for an attack. These divisions have always been the primary weakness in the Baloch fight for independence. That’s one reason why the Baloch fight is not likely to see much success.

There are others -- Balochistan is the least populated province of the country, with little villages clustered around small water sources, surrounded by mile upon mile of barren territory. There’s simply nowhere to hide. A third reason is that Pakistan is getting better at counterinsurgency tactics. Apart from its brutal tactics of simply picking up and disposing of anyone whom its suspects, it has been successful in keeping the Baloch question well out of the public debate, either within mainland Pakistan or outside it.

Not even the rapacious New Delhi media pays much attention. As for the world at large, they’d have trouble locating the area on a map. The only hope for the Baloch is if China sees the futility of warring with them, and instead persuades Islamabad to give them more democratic space and rights. But that would be a contradiction on so many levels, that it's probably an impossibility. Taking advice from Beijing on democracy is something that even Islamabad may draw the line at.

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