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Malik Siraj Akbar: Baloch journalist and writer

By Karlos Zurutuza

"Islamabad´s response to our political conflict is terror"

On August 11, 1947, Baluchistan declared its independence. Pakistan invaded their territory seven months later. GARA talks with one of the most authoritative voices on one of the longest running conflicts still active today.

Malik Siraj Akbar

Malik Siraj Akbar (Panjgur,1983) is the editor in chief of the Baloch Hal, the first Baloch newspaper in English. This digital platform was blocked in Pakistan last November by the PTA (Pakistan Telecommunication Authority), which blocks most digital media that broadcasts the voice of the Baloch people. In addition to reporting for The Baloch Hal and other news outlets, Siraj Akbar has recently published his first book "The Dimensions of the Baloch Redefined Movement" (Xlibris, 2011). As a political analyst, Siraj Akbar has been interviewed by media such as Al Jazeera, BBC, The New York Times and The Guardian, among many others.

GARA spoke with Siraj Akbar on the phone as he is currently based in the United States thanks to a scholarship that recognized his courageous and innovative journalistic work. Before we start the interview, Siraj Akbar admits he fears reprisals back home. Little wonder here as his native Balochistan has become a desert in which bodies appear daily on sandy roadsides like victims of a shipwreck. His work has made Islamabad uncomfortable and the killing of so many journalists validates the young journalist's fears for his own life.

Is the situation in East Balochistan as out of control as it seems?

Nobody thought that the situation could reach such levels of violence. Just five years ago the incidents were mainly concentrated in the regions of Dera Bugti and Kohlu but, today, they have spread throughout East Balochistan. Forced disappearances, the killings of dissidents, intellectuals, students, etc., multiply by the day even among families that have never before been politically involved.


The numerous reports by human rights organizations like Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch may imply that Balochistan's is a conflict with roots in the systematic violation of human rights. But the truth is that have to admit that it is a political conflict. Unfortunately, Islamabad´s response to the political conflict is terror.

How should the Baloch conflict be addressed in Pakistan?

Unfortunately, whenever the Prime Minister comes to visit East Balochistan he brings threats rather than solutions. First, Islamabad should recognize it as a political conflict and take measures to promote dialogue. Key to this is the end the forced disappearances drama because this only promotes hatred among the Baloch. Both local and international sources point to the secret services and the Frontier Corps behind the disappearances and murders. They often abduct Baloch in front of hundreds of people in bazaars or at universities. A positive step would be to include Baloch soldiers within the Frontier Corps ranks which, up to date, are almost exclusively formed of Pashtuns. Once you have created a climate of dialogue, Islamabad should negotiate with those Baloch leaders who wish to do so.

But Islamabad puts the blame of Balochistan's backwardness on those tribal leaders, doesn´t it?

You can not disband the tribal system overnight. In any case, today the Baloch tribal leaders are also political leaders. In my native Panjgur, Sardar Akhtar Mengal (head of the Mengal clan and the Balochistan National Party) came to people's houses asking for their votes. That is the way to win people over. Like the Mengals, the Bugtis also had a political party. If we compare the Khan of Kalat (heir in exile to the throne in eastern Balochistan) with Akhtar Mengal, we´ll see that Mengal is 50% a democrat and 50% an aristocrat, while the Khan is 100% tribal. Before his assassination in 2006, Nawab Bugti (veteran leader of the Bugti clan) negotiated with Islamabad as a political leader of a coalition that included the majority of the Eastern Baloch. Paradoxically, Islamabad has negotiated with leaders internally, through the tribal line, but never from the political line.

Do the Baloch share a common roadmap for an eventual negotiation process?

No, and this is a big problem. Some call for autonomy, others for self-determination, and the armed groups and the Marris (the biggest Baloch clan) want independence. In any case, there are many other things to be observed: if Balochistan is an independent state, will it be an Islamic Republic? What will the status of the tribes be? What about the role of women? What will be the relationship between politics and religion? These, and many others, are key issues in a roadmap still to be written.

Thinking about the more immediate future, how will the Baloch people be affected by the withdrawal of the occupation troops in Afghanistan?

It will affect the Baloch both positively and negatively. Washington's reduction of financial support to the Pakistani army will imply that Islamabad will have less resources with which to crush the Baloch. Other than equipment and money, troops like the Frontier Corps were also trained by the Americans in the frame of their "war on terror". The negative part of the withdrawal is that a likely victory for the Taliban - partly financed and supported by Pakistan - will bring the Baloch into the hands of radical fundamentalists. Islamabad is using them to counter the Baloch nationalist movement. The Islamization of East Baluchistan is a recent phenomenon that degenerates, among many other side effects, in numerous attacks against Shiites and Baloch mainly at the hands of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (an armed group allegedly linked to the Taliban).

However, there is much talk lately of "peaceful Balkanization of Pakistan" . . .

Right, but the paradox is that it's in current circumstances in nobody's interest, not even neighbouring "archenemy" India. If Pakistan breaks, India will be flooded with thousands of refugees and militant Islamic radicals just as happened after the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir. Iran - a Shiite theocracy - does not want to see their territory invaded by legions of Sunni militants. For Afghanistan, the balkanization of Pakistan would add new problems to an already long list. Similarly, Washington is highly concerned about Islamabad's nuclear warheads falling into the hands of fundamentalists. Balochistan will remain without infrastructures; it will lack employment, water, electricity, literacy . . . but that will not lead to the disintegration of Pakistan. Inside the country, both the Baluch and Sindhis want independence, and the Pashtuns call for their Pashtunistan. However, these nationalists still have not managed to join forces in order to weaken Pakistan. All this said, I think that the so-called "peaceful balkanization of Pakistan" is out of the question at least at this moment.

Meanwhile, Pakistan is strengthening ties with neighbouring Persia, isn´t it?

While the ideological differences between Shiites and Sunnis could pose an insurmountable obstacle, both countries have addressed their priorities from the most absolute pragmatism. Without going any further, last summer Islamabad and Tehran signed a seven billion project to build the IP (Iran-Pakistan) pipeline. The IP would crisscross the Baloch territory from west to east. Besides, both governments fight alongside to quell the Baloch nationalist movements, to crush the Baluch on their respective borders.

Energy resources plus an highly strategic position boasting a thousand kilometres long coast at the gates of the Persian Gulf. To what extent is the oblivion to which the Baloch are condemned deliberate?

The Khan of Kalat said once that the Baloch were among the losers of World War II and I'm afraid they will also join the same list after the last war in Afghanistan is over. The message from Pakistan to the West has been clear: if you raise the Baloch issue we will make things even more difficult for you in Afghanistan. Moreover, there is very little information about our region. The West often confuses the Baloch cause with the Pashtun Taliban movement, and the fact is that the Baloch movement is the most secular current in the whole region, very much in the antipodes of religious fundamentalists. Indeed, this lack of information prevents people from thinking of Baluchistan as a plausible and effective secular buffer zone positioned between the Islamic republics of Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan.

Do you assume part of the blame? [Do you think the Balochs also committed some mistakes?]

Absolutely. I've always said it's a terrible mistake to boycott the elections in Pakistan. A Member of Parliament still enjoys great respect in the West. By not having them the Baloch lose the opportunity for their representatives to speak with foreign representatives and diplomats. I know this is paradoxical, and even unbearable for many Baluch, but the truth is they are losing opportunities when it comes to getting international support. I think the struggle of the Baluch people has to be multidimensional - through armed struggle on the ground if they support it for themselves as an option, but they also have to struggle through parliamentary politics and their own media. We all know the Baloch won't get much from Parliament, but we have to understand how much they lose by not being in it.

Karlos Zurutuza is a freelance journalist covering off-the-radar conflict regions in the Caucasus and Central Asia. He was awarded the Nawab Bugti Reporting Award 2009 for his reporting on the Baloch areas in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran.