Even as the top Chinese and Pakistani leadership posed grandly to announce the overambitious One Belt One Road (OBOR) project in Beijing this week, widespread protests which broke out across Gilgit Baltistan were symptomatic of how the project runs rough shod over the aspirations of the local communities and transgress sovereign rights of the people of the region, including that of India.
Students who came out into the streets dubbed the project as an illegal attempt to grab Gilgit and see it as a “Road of Gulami or Slavery for Gilgit-Baltistan”. Protestors across Gilgit suspect that the project was merely a ruse by China, in collusion with Pakistan, to take over their land and home.
Though the Chinese leadership (Pakistanis has not even made such a lip service) has, in the past, been offering assurances about respecting sovereign rights of people affected by the corridor, the country’s attitude and actions in settling some of its own territorial disputes in the neighbourhood has been anything but cordial. In fact, China has been using its military muscle to browbeat its smaller neighbours to enforce its control over disputed territories in South China Sea.
Diplomacy and peaceful negotiations are similarly unknown to decision makers in Pakistan. It is therefore difficult to digest that CPEC, which is an integral part of China’s mega dream of One Belt One Road, fig leaf to expand its military and economic influence over Asia and Europe. China is hardly interested in the development of the region through which these roads and rail networks are likely to pass through; the only mission is to make China the next United States of America.
It is not an easy objective to achieve; the pitfalls become even more acute when China wants to achieve this parity with the US in the next decade or so. In such circumstances, human rights violations and interests of local communities are hardly factors which China would allow to come in the way of its megalomaniacal ambition.
The signs are already there on the ground. Mr Alberto Cirio, a member of European Parliament, summed up the situation when he told a conference in March this year that under the pretext of ‘development’, the State (Pakistan) was indulging in corrupt practices for short-term gains, even at the cost of human rights violations against the people of Gilgit-Baltistan and Baluchistan.“ He also pointed out that the charter of the Special Security Division (SSD) was highly questionable for the simple reason that the number of personnel in the SSD was higher than the number of Chinese workers in Pakistan. He cautioned that the real objective of this massive security deployment would be to suppress the local communities.
Although Mr Cirio and other speakers at the conference in Brussels did not elaborate on the situation in Xinjiang, which is the starting point of CPEC, it is well known how China has been militarily suppressing the local Muslim Uighurs with guns and diktats. The Uighur Muslims have been struggling to protect their religious and traditional way of life for years with China hell bent on changing the demography of the region and forcing the local communities to follow the mainstream. This “mainstreaming“ has been brutal and unprecedented in recent times. Hundreds of Uighurs have either been killed without any reason or detained arbitrarily in secret prisons. All these brutalities are carried out in the name of counter-terrorism.
No less insidious has been the Chinese diktat to the community. The Muslims are not allowed to follow their religion freely; they are forbidden from doing anything in public which is religious, cannot name their children overtly Islamic names, men cannot keep long beards, women cannot wear veils and no one can observe fast during the holy Ramzan.
Sensing further trouble in future, China has outsourced the security of the corridor on its side to an ancillary security firm of the infamous Blackwater, the Frontier Services Group (FSG). This company plans to build two operational bases in Xinjiang and Yunnan province.
The next disputed territory through which the corridor passes is the Gilgit-Baltistan. It has for long been a disputed territory. India has been demanding the restoration of the area which was usurped by Pakistan at the time of Partition. It was never meant to be part of Pakistan which was carved out of the British India. Pakistan has forcibly annexed the region after its bid to capture Kashmir had failed in 1948. Interestingly, even Pakistan treats this area not an integral part of the country but a `special` (read disputed) zone where the Supreme Court and National Assembly have had little, if any, jurisdiction.
The people of Gilgit and Baltistan, who have nothing in common with Pakistan in terms of language and culture, would prefer to stay independent and not be part of Pakistan which has kept the region and its people subservient to the mainland. The region has remained on the margins of development and its people enjoy little rights under the constitution. The local communities are opposed to the project. The project takes too much of out of their land in exchange for too little or nothing in return. Several villages had to move, to make way for the infrastructure coming up for the corridor; the army forcibly annexed a large swathe of land to set up the brigade headquarters which will act as the security hub for the project. The forests, rivers, meadows and farms are increasingly getting polluted and filled up with debris which, the locals fear, might trigger massive floods and landslides during the rainy and winter seasons. The Karakoram National Highway (the heart of the project) often gets blocked for days and weeks because of landslides caused by rampant denudation and massive building activities.
To subvert the demands of the local communities and the Indian position on the region, Pakistan has been trying ways to declared Gilgit Baltistan as its new province. The people are strongly opposed to this idea and so is India. On March 23 this year, the British Parliament passed a strong resolution against such a move. The motion said “Gilgit-Baltistan is a legal and constitutional part of the state of Jammu & Kashmir, India, which is illegally occupied by Pakistan since 1947.” The motion rightly declared that attempts to change the demography of the region was in violation of State Subject Ordinance and that the ‘forced and illegal construction’ of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) further interfered with the disputed territory.
Further down the corridor, in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and Sindh, there have been widespread protests against the project. In Pakistan occupied Kashmir, people are opposed to the project because it takes away their land and source of living without offering any credible alternative. In Sindh, the protests have been more loud. Led by Jeay Sindh MuttahidaMahaz (JSMM), a Sindh-based nationalist party, which has been demanding independence from Pakistan, the protesters wanted an immediate halt to the project running through their homeland. The Sindhis have for long been demanding freedom from Pakistan. A major movement to achieve the achieve was suppressed brutally several years ago; in the recent times there has been a revival of this movement with Pakistan repeating the kill and dump policy it had adopted the defeat the aspirations of Baloch people in the neighbouring province. The Sindhi community, which has been quietly bearing the brunt of the military repression, see the corridor as a “Punjabi conspiracy to strengthen its imperialist expansionist hegemony over Sindh and Balochistan.” Many Sindhi leaders, not without reason, fear that the CPEC could act as a “trigger of international conflicts and nuclear arms race in the region and strategic military design of Chinese aggression over the Indian ocean.”
In early May this year, at a conference organised in Brussels on the subject, Dr Rubina Greenwood, chairperson of the World Sindhi Congress (WSC), raised a fundamental question–“Development for whom, and at what cost?” She said that Sindhis were never consulted on the project despite the plan to draw 75% of its activating energy from their region. She accused the Pakistani government of exploiting marginalised populations and wasting billions on projects that benefit a few business barons and politicians instead of investing in the basic needs of clean water, food, health and education for the masses.
In Balochistan, the situation is even more precarious. Balochistan has been witnessed to a continuous repression for decades with the local people living a life of fear and humiliation. As a former editor of Daily Times, an English daily published in Pakistan, Rashed Rahman pointed out at the Brussels conference, Balochistan has been blanked by the state and where a “cloak of secrecy” always meant unreported tales of torture, unlawful imprisonment, and deaths go unreported.
The gross and brutal human rights violations in Balochistan have been well documented although the media in Pakistan have been shy of reporting these incidents with as much clarity and courage as expected. The CPEC project has made the matter worse for the Baloch people with Pakistan repressing any dissent with an iron hand and a bullet and using the pretext of counter terrorism to change the demographic profile of Gwadar and nearby areas where the transnational highway is to reach its final destination—to the Arabian Sea through Gwadar Port. At Brussels, Mr NoordinMengal, a representative of World Baloch Organisation to the European Union, accused Pakistan of using the project to “usurp the wealth and natural resources” of Balochistan. He pleaded that the world must not turn a blind eye to the massive violations of human rights being perpetrated by Pakistan Army on the people of Balochistan; he called it a “linguistic, ethnic, and religious genocide where the “military is judge, jury, and executioner.”
From the above brief assessment it will become clear that the much-touted project is a recipe for a mega disaster in the region.