Terrorism

Concerns grow as Baloch, Sindh militants ally to deter Chinese influence

By Abdul Ghani Kakar

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A view of Gwadar port in Balochistan in July 2019. [Abdul Ghani Kakar]

QUETTA -- Anger over growing Chinese influence in Balochistan has spurred Baloch and Sindhi militants to ally with each other, fueling concern that the combined group will step up violent activities in the region.

The Baloch Raji Aajoi Saangar (BRAS) and the Sindhudesh Revolutionary Army (SRA) are now working together "in light of the current scenario in the region as both [Baloch and Sindhis] have severe reservations over growing Chinese influence," BRAS said in a statement in July.

BRAS is a new umbrella organisation that combines four banned militant groups -- the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), the Baloch Liberation Front (BLF), the Baloch Republican Army (BRA), and the Baloch Republican Guards (BRG).

The BLA already has targeted infrastructure projects and Chinese workers in Pakistan multiple times in recent years, including an attack on Beijing's consulate in Karachi that took four lives in 2018.

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Shown is an online banner sent to journalists in July by the Baloch and Sindhi militant organisations about their coalition. [Courtesy of Abdul Ghani Kakar]

In June of this year, the BLA claimed responsibility for an attack on the Pakistan Stock Exchange that security forces thwarted.

Four assailants approached the exchange, opened fire and hurled a grenade, killing three security guards and a policeman before security forces gunned them down.

The BLA said the assault was not only targeting "Pakistan's economy" but was "an attack on Chinese economic interests in response to China's exploitative plans in Balochistan".

Insurgency expected to escalate

The alliance of militant groups "will create an anarchic situation and increase security challenges in the region", warns Lt. Gen. (ret.) Talat Masood of Islamabad, a senior defence analyst.

"I think the Pakistani government has to re-examine the ground realities. The changing political and law-and-order situation in Sindh and Balochistan demands that matters be handled democratically, not by force," he said.

"The need of the hour is to make efforts to bridge the gap between the people and the state. Rather than waste time, the government must address the reservations of political parties on China's influence in the region," he added.

"With the alliance, the insurgency here is likely to escalate here in coming days, and the unrest also could result in a negative impact on ongoing foreign investments," he said.

The partnership of the two outfits will have dangerous consequences, said Talat Shabbir, director of the Pakistan China Study Centre at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad.

"The alliance between Baloch and Sindhi militant organisations is one that will jeopardise the overall security of the region," he said.

There is concern that outside countries are sponsoring anti-government Baloch militant groups to sabotage foreign investment in Balochistan, Shabbir added.

"In my opinion, there is no question that there is external interference in Pakistan's internal affairs. Our various fault lines have always been used by the enemies of the country for their own interests," Shabbir said.

"The alliance between the anti-peace groups shows a new game in which the card of nationalism will be very important," he added.

To help stop the situation from degrading in the region, the Pakistan government "needs to address those reservations that are evolving against Chinese investment in Balochistan with a national perspective," he said.

"The anti-state elements have been using their tools here for decades to weaken Pakistan internally. An environment is being created under an organised agenda to make foreign investors feel insecure here," Shabbir said.

Concerns over Chinese investment

Chinese investment in Balochistan has focused on Gwadar, where a deepwater port development is a Chinese flagship project.

"Gwadar is associated with the history and the identity of the Baloch; therefore, its importance is far more than just economic for the Baloch nation," said Malik Abdul Wali, central vice president of the Balochistan National Party.

"The new alliance between militant groups is a reaction to the Pakistan government allowing Chinese investments in both provinces," he added.

The Baloch people's concerns about Chinese investment in Balochistan are being completely ignored, and local residents consider these investments against their identity and national interest, said Rehmat Ali Baloch, a central leader of the Balochistan National Party.

"Chinese investment in Balochistan without public consent is further aggravating the overall situation in the province," he said.

"The Pakistani government should address the concerns of nationalist parties over the growing Chinese investment in Balochistan," he added.

Muhammad Sajid, a former vice president of the Balochistan National Party, echoed that sentiment.

"I don't think our people have never been against investment in the province, but their real reservations are over Chinese investment, which they have been observing here for decades," he said.

"If the federal government wants to end the insurgency in Balochistan, it should revisit its policy regarding Chinese investment in the province," he added.

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