Pakistan's Baloch activists accuse Islamabad of committing rights abuses in their province. In recently held rallies in Germany, they complained that while Kashmir continues to dominate news, their plight is ignored.
A group of Pakistani activists recently held demonstrations in a number of German cities to raise awareness about the "atrocities committed by the Pakistani army" in the Islamic country's Balochistan province. The Pakistani-German activists voiced concerns about the neglect and indifference the impoverished Balochistan province faces from the local and international media.
The Baloch activists began their "Free Balochistan March" on July 16 in the city of Düsseldorf, which culminated in Hannover on July 27.
"Balochistan was never a part of Pakistan," Naobat Mari, a young Baloch activist, told DW. "First, our land was invaded by the British, who divided it into three parts. After the partition of India in 1947, the eastern part of Balochistan remained an independent state, which was later forcibly annexed by Pakistan," he added.
"Our movement has always been peaceful. We want to inform the European people about our plight. We want to assert that freedom is our fundamental right," the activist noted.
'Exploitation of resources'
Balochistan, which borders Iran and Afghanistan, remains Pakistan's poorest and least populous province despite a number of development projects Islamabad initiated there in the past. Rebel groups have waged a separatist insurgency in the province for decades, complaining that the central government in Islamabad and the richer Punjab province unfairly exploit their resources. Islamabad reacted to the insurgency by launching a military operation in the province in 2005.
Last year in April, Chinese President Xi Jinping signed 51 accords to inaugurate the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which will create a network of roads, railways and pipelines linking China's restive west to the Arabian Sea through Balochistan's Gwadar port. The Pakistani government says the deals will boost Pakistan's underperforming economy and generate employment opportunities in Balochistan.
In the wake of the China-Pakistan deal, the Baloch separatists demand a share of the financial benefits for their province. Some Baloch leaders have also complained that Islamabad deliberately changed the corridor route in favor of the Punjab, avoiding Balochistan's key cities.
Are talks with separatists possible?
The German march participants told DW that the military aid, which the Pakistani government receives for the West to battle Islamist extremists, is being used to target Baloch separatists and activists.
Activist Beebagr Baloch demanded that Pakistan must pull out its troops from the area and hold talks with the separatists.
"The international community supports Pakistan in the war against terror but is not fully aware of the fact that its government and army are involved in promoting Islamic terrorism on its own soil and in other parts of the world," Naubat Mari, a UK resident and march participant, told DW.
"The march is part of a peaceful political movement for our rights. We condemn and reject civilian killings everywhere, whether they are perpetrated by the state or the separatists," he added.
The Baloch activists are particularly angered by a lack of media coverage of the ongoing military operation and human rights violations in their province. They argue that while most Pakistanis protest the killings in the Indian-administered Kashmir, and several social media campaigns have been launched to highlight the violence in the valley, there is a "media blackout" for the "atrocities" in Balochistan.
"The Pakistani state continues to propagate narratives that suit its domestic and regional interests. Those who point out to the crimes committed by the Pakistani army are silenced by the state," Mustafa Baloch, a Hertfordshire-based university professor, told DW
However, Sarfaraz Bugti, Balochistan's interior minister, contradicts Baloch's claims. "Kashmir and Balochistan are two different issues. If the people want, we can hold a referendum in the province. But we don't see any political struggle in Balochistan. The members of the nationalist parties are in the provincial assembly. They don't demand freedom. They merely ask for a greater control over provincial resources. We can work with them on this issue," the official told DW.
But Baloch argues that the main issue is not about the fight over resources as claimed by Islamabad. He asserts that the people of the "neglected province" no longer trust Pakistani authorities because, he claims, the security forces are involved in kidnappings, torturing and killings in the province.
"More than 20,000 Baloch activists are missing, and we discover mutilated bodies almost every day," said Baloch, adding that the conflict would not be resolved until the Pakistani military and government changed their policies toward Balochistan.
Independent reporting is 'near impossible'
Recently, militant Pakistani Sunni extremists with links to al Qaeda have also intensified their attacks in Balochistan. Nasir Tufail, a Karachi-based journalist who works for Geo TV, told DW that many journalists "could not even think of going to most parts of Balochistan where the military is operating against separatists. How can you expect independent reporting from them?" he asked.
Local and foreign media, he said, relied mostly on the reports of a few journalists for their reporting on Balochistan and the semi-governed north-western tribal areas of Pakistan.
Another problem was that the conflict does not interest readers. "We highlighted the issue of Balochistan for several months. We tried to analyze it in a serious manner. But in Pakistan people are so insensitive and apathetic about Balochistan that they don't even want to think about it," said Tufail.
Last year, Karachi-based activist Sabeen Mahmood, who was campaigning to highlight the Balochistan conflict, was shot dead by an extremist.
Another outspoken Pakistani journalist and TV anchor, Hamid Mir, was also shot by unknown gunmen in Karachi. Mir was also critical of the military's rights violations in Balochistan.
Additional reporting by Shamil Shams.