The scarred Pakistani province of Balochistan has been suffering from conflict with the central government since the country’s inception in 1947. Steeped in violence and deprivation, bitterness, hunger and frustration are everyday realities.
Apart from the humanitarian aspect of this conflict, why is Balochistan a concern for the rest of the world?
Balochistan is a strategically important region bordering Iran and Afghanistan. Left unchecked, this conflict between the Baloch people and the Pakistani government over the province’s resources – combined with the increasing Talibanisation of the northern parts of Pakistan – could wreak havoc on the country by propelling it into a state of instability.
A protracted conflict could also destabilise the surrounding region, politically and economically. Balochistan is rich with gas, natural resources and some of the rarest mineral reserves. Large portions of two proposed gas pipelines – one between Iran, Pakistan and India and another between Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India – would pass through Balochistan. International powers like the United States, China, Iran and India are already looking to this region for increased access to gas and use of Balochistan’s Gwadar port, at the entrance of the Persian Gulf, for international trade.
But Balochs have long argued that they do not see their fair share of the revenue – in the form of development and employment – from these resources. The Pakistani government has been fighting various Baloch insurgencies for decades, claiming that they want unwarranted autonomy and even independence.
Recently, however, there have been encouraging developments. No terrorist attacks or acts of sabotage have been carried out in Balochistan since three Baloch militant organisations, namely the Baloch Liberation Army, the Baloch Republican Army and the Baloch Liberation Front, announced a surprising ceasefire in early September.
Can we expect peace to return to Balochistan under these circumstances?
The success or failure of this resolve will depend on how quickly and effectively the new Pakistani government seizes this opportunity to set things right. Now is the time for the Baloch people to heal their psychological wounds and assuage political grievances through dialogue.
The intriguing decision to cease hostilities is proof of these groups’ willingness to work towards resolving the conflict with meaningful words, not gunfire.
It is crucial that the two sides view this conflict not as a win-lose, but a win-win situation. For this to happen, three basic conditions must be met: Acknowledgment, Acceptance and Adaptability – the “Three A’s” of conflict resolution, according to mediation trainers Judith Warner and Thomas Crum.
Both the Pakistani government and the Baloch resistance movements must acknowledge the conflict’s existence, rather than trying to avoid or deny it, and accept each party’s involvement.
Adaptability requires openness to ideas that could lead to viable solutions. A firm commitment and resolve, with the flexibility to make concessions, will determine how those solutions will be implemented.
Many in Pakistan hope to implement a peace deal similar to the Aceh Peace Agreement in August 2005, which brought an end to a 29-year long conflict in Indonesia.
Through this pact, the Indonesian government agreed to cede power to Acehnese in all public sectors, except in foreign affairs, external defence, national security and fiscal matters. Instead of continuing their fight for full independence the Acehnese settled for local self-rule.
The people of Balochistan would be happy with a similar settlement. Violence will only continue to hamper a consensus between the Baloch people and the central government.
The government must look sympathetically at the demands of Balochistan and be open to a political solution to the conflict. Most Pakistanis are inclined to provide more autonomy to the provinces than is granted under the current constitution, so that peace can prevail and provincial disparities are done away with.
Where there’s a will there’s a way. With a new democratic government in place, now is the time to institutionalise a change for Balochistan, by amending the constitution to give Balochs the rights they deserve and the limited control that the Pakistani government requires for sovereignty.
A peace deal between Islamabad and Balochistan could even serve as a model for the Northwest Frontier Provinces and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas within Pakistan. Most importantly, however, it will pave the way for long-lasting peace in the region.
* Saba Jamal (email@example.com) is a filmmaker, socio-political analyst and Pakistani talk show host. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).