The death of human rights activist Karima Baloch in Toronto last week has again brought world attention to the trouble in Pakistan’s Balochistan region. The 37-year-old activist had gone missing after setting out for a walk. The police said that they had no reason to suspect foul play but her family told the BBC that “her death at least warrants closer inspection”.

Baloch, an advocate for independence for her resource-rich region, had been living in exile in Canada since 2016. She had fled Pakistan the previous year, fearing she would be “disappeared” by the authorities as several other activists had been.

This wasn’t the first death of a Baloch activist in exile this year. In March, the body of exiled journalist Sajid Hussain Baloch was found in Sweden’s Fyris River, outside Uppsala, just over 20 days after he had gone missing. Though the police ruled out foul play, others were more sceptical.

Said Daniel Bastard, the head of the Asia-Pacific desk of Reporters Without Border that works to protect journalists, “Everything indicates that this is an enforced disappearance. And if you ask yourself who would have an interest in silencing a dissident journalist, the first response would have to be the Pakistani intelligence services.”

Deep resentments

The root of the problem is Balochistan is the perception of residents that they have not benefited from the exploitation of the extensive natural resources of their province, their resentment at the slow pace of provincial economic development and the influx of people from other provinces.

The province’s desire for autonomy runs deep. On June 3, 1947 when the Indian Independence Act was announced, Balochistan had announced its independence. It was only after lot of pressure from Pakistan’s founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah that it agreed to accede to Pakistan in March 1948.

The accession is not yet complete as it was not passed by both the houses of the Parliament.

The region has already seen four waves of violent unrest: in 1948, 1958-’59, 1962-’63 and 1973-’77. The present violence, the fifth wave of unrest, started with Pervez Musharraf taking over as president in 1999. It was heightened in 2005 and is still simmering.

The confrontation between Baloch nationalists and the state is complicated by rivalries, strategic alliances between tribes and sub-tribes and by human rights abuses committed by Pakistan’s Special Forces.

Pakistan has often blamed the “foreign hand”, including India, for the troubles in Balochistan. It has also blamed Iran for provoking Shias, who are an equally prosecuted minority in Pakistan.

The armed struggle for independence in Balochistan has now got international attention due to exploitation of its vast natural resources and the construction of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, an ambitious Chinese project traversing almost 870 kms through the state.

Why Balochistan matters

The region of Balochistan is spread over three countries. While the major areas are in Pakistan, it extends as Sistan Balochistan in the neighboring Iran and also extends into Afghanistan across the Durand line.

It is the biggest province of Pakistan in sheer size as it occupies almost 43% of the country’s territory. But it is very sparsely populated, with just over 12.3 million people. The Baloch form about 5% of Pakistan’s population.

Economically and strategically, the province is of immense importance to the state of Pakistan. It is rich in mineral and energy resources. Its sub soil holds large quantities of yet unexploited minerals like gold, copper, coal, silver, platinum, and above all uranium.

These resources and their exploitation is a bone of contention between the Baloch people and the state of Pakistan. It is a major transit route for not only sea trade but also gas pipe line between Iran and Pakistan. Gwadar port in Balochistan is located very close to the Strait of Hormuz and is strategically poised at the mouth of Persian Gulf. The Pakistan Navy has two important naval bases on the Makran coast (Ormara and Gwadar).

In June 2016, construction began on the Gwadar Special Economic Zone, which is being built on 2,292-acre site adjacent to Gwadar’s port. In late 2015, the port was officially leased to China for 43 years, until 2059. The aim is to make this as the nerve center of all commercial activity in the region.

As a consequence, the Pakistan government is building a road and rail network linking Gwadar to Afghanistan and Central Asia. The network is intended to provide these landlocked areas with an outlet to the sea.

Gwadar port, situated 725 kilometers to the west of Karachi, has been designed to bolster Pakistan’s strategic defenses by providing an alternative to the Karachi port, which in the 1971 war had to face a blockade by the Indian Navy.

Some even consider this isolated township in the southwest of Pakistan as a Chinese naval outpost on the Indian Ocean designed to protect Beijing’s oil supply lines from the Middle East and to counter the growing US presence in Central Asia.

Beijing also operates the gold and copper mines in Saindak, near the borders of Afghanistan and Iran not far from the Ras Koh, the mountains where Pak’s nuclear tests are conducted.

Iran, which has a Baluch population of about one million, is closely monitoring these developments.

To some people, the tactics adopted by Pakistan’s Frontier Corps and Inter Services Intelligence in Balochistan would seem similar to the Pakistani Army’s actions in 1971 in the terroritory known East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). The strategy of “pick and dump” of dissidents is the norm. Many bodies are never recovered. The number of disappearances painstakingly catalogued of those have never been traced runs into the thousands.

It is high time the world took notice of the situation in Balochistan.

Major General Yash Mor (Retired) has served in South Kashmir and in Punjab in counter-terrorist operations and with the United Nations in Mozambique.