Dr. Jumma Marri
Recent months have seen a new wave of Baloch militancy sweeping through Pakistan.
The latest incident involved a female suicide bomber who killed four people in a van including three Chinese academics at the Confucius Institute at Karachi University. The bomber was identified as a 30-year-old mother of two children. And the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) claimed responsibility for the attack, the most severely one this year against China, Pakistan’s all-weather ally.
The Karachi attack has been strongly condemned by all sections of public opinion in Pakistan. Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has expressed his anguish and sorrow over the death of our Chinese friends. He “strongly condemns the heinous and cowardly act of terrorism” and promised action against “the perpetrators.”
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs called the suicide blast “a direct attack on Pakistan-China friendship”. And the government has officially stated that it will do everything possible to ensure the safety of Chinese citizens, institutions and projects in Pakistan.
The latest BLA attack has posted a serious challenge for the government of PM Shahbaz Sharif. Soon after assuming office, Sharif made positive comments about China, while his finance minister Miftah Ismail held a meeting with officials from the Chinese Embassy as his first formal encounter. At the same time, the appointment of Ahsan Iqbal as minister responsible for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor gave a clear signal that the new government wants a warmer and more cooperative relationship with Beijing.
The Karachi suicide bombing is the latest in a series of attacks by Baloch militants backed by India and other hostile forces, who want the province to remain mired in poverty as part of their plan to exploit the situation and pushing for their larger strategic designs to keep the region under control. The foreign backed insurgents have been specially targeting Chinese because of Beijing’s heavy investment in Balochistan, including the Gwadar Port, which promises to usher in a new era of development and prosperity for Baloch people.
Under CPEC, not only new industrial and energy projects are being implemented but an infrastructure network is being created for linking Balochistan’s Gwadar port with China’s Xinjiang.
The insurgent groups in Balochistan have a long history of targeting Chinese nationals in Pakistan, launching a number of attacks over the years that include targeting the Chinese consulate in Karachi, the Chinese-built Pearl Continental Hotel in Gwadar and the Karachi stock exchange. In 2018, militants blew up a busload of Chinese engineers going to work in Balochistan.
The latest attack on the Confucius Institute is symbolic and significant in many ways. For the first time, the BLA made use of a female suicide bomber who was a well-educated, and middle-class woman, suggesting that the Balochi militants’ narrative is reaching a wider audience in the province. Secondly, it shows that Baloch militants have developed the capability to strike targets in big cities like Karachi and Lahore. In January, a bomb was detonated in a crowded market in Lahore, killing three, and in February, a group of militants attacked two bases belonging to the Frontier Corps.
It seems that the disparate Baloch militant groups are coming together in a bid to beef up their strength. By targeting the Confucius Institute, Baloch militants have sent a clear signal to Chinese who work in Pakistan that not all of them working in the region are affiliated with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and they are vulnerable to militant attacks. BLA is threatening that “hundreds of highly trained BLA members are ready to carry out deadly attacks” and bigger and more attacks on Chinese nationals and joint projects of Pakistan and China’s in Balochistan and elsewhere in Pakistan are expected.
Pakistan’s intelligence agencies are in possession of hard evidence that India, backed by CIA and Mossad, is manipulating the Baloch cause for their own benefits. Funds and weapons are provided to insurgents in order to keep the pot boiling in Balochistan and thus impede its progress. Behind the heightened militant activities India’s footprints are clearly visible.
India has repeatedly objected to CPEC passing through Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan province and asked both Pakistan and China not to alter the status quo in the area because, according to it, Jammu & Kashmir including Ladakh is an integral part of India. It is a political stunt by India designed to thwart China’s regional development plan which envisages inclusive growth and prosperity for all neighbouring states. As a member of QUAD, New Delhi is openly supporting the US policy to encircle and contain China.
In the given circumstances, there is an urgent need to put in place a special security-cum-intelligence apparatus with a countrywide reach for the protection of Chinese citizens in Pakistan. To increase its effectiveness, the new security set-up should be jointly managed by Pakistani and Chinese experts.
At the same time, steps are called for to counter the disinformation campaign on CPEC and its impact on Balochistan’s economy as the insurgents have been voicing false narrative that Islamabad is exploiting local resources with the help of Beijing whilst the CPEC, as part of China’s global development strategy, the Road & Belt Initiative (BRI), has created thousands of jobs for young people in the region.
On the publicity front, Pakistani authorities have not yet done enough to expose India’s game in Balochistan. This gap should be filled. The message must go home to the people of Balochistan that militants are not their well-wishers but are harming the long-term interests of their children. At the same time, the conventional and social media should be used to create mass awareness about the revolutionary change CPEC development projects are bringing in the lives of the people of Balochistan. A powerful narrative on this theme should be built to counter the hostile forces’ negative and fake propaganda on CPEC.