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EFSAS Commentary

The Gwadar protests are testimony to the power of popular non-violent movements against powerful exploitative regimes


Pakistan in general, and the province of Balochistan in particular, has been no stranger to demands by vast sections of its population for basic rights that have either been denied to them or snatched away from them. Too often for comfort, these demands have been staked through violent protests involving senseless loss of lives. Over the past month, however, a mass movement by the residents of Gwadar, the Pakistani port city that is a major hub of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), demonstrated how peaceful protest rallies by tens of thousands of wronged men, women and children could achieve so much more than resorting to violence could. The success achieved by the Gwadar Ko Huqooq Do Tehreek (Movement for Gwadar’s rights) in getting the powerful Pakistani State to wilt and accede to their demands, a decision that the Pakistani government would certainly have been loath to take without the concurrence of its Chinese benefactors, was refreshing proof that succor for the exploited and the oppressed sons of the soil was possible even in these modern times characterized by the widespread and repeated trampling of local rights and aspirations by insensitive and authoritarian governments. 

Since the second half of November Maulana Hidayat-ur-Rehman Baloch, a leader of a native fishing tribe, has been leading the largely local Gwadar Ko Huqooq Do Tehreek and staging massive rallies and sit-ins in various parts of the province’s Makran division to press for the demands of Gwadar’s residents who number about one hundred thousand. Traders and businesspeople also joined the movement and complete shut-down strikes and blocking of national highways connecting Gwadar with the economic hub of Karachi complemented the rallies and sit-ins. The main demands of the movement included a ban on illegal trawling in the Arabian Sea, including massive Chinese fishing operations there which the protesters said had rendered the local fishermen and others jobless, access to coastal areas near the Gwadar seaport, and reopening of the Iranian border, which is a major commercial and trading center for the local population. The protestors also demanded the removal of checkpoints erected for the security of Chinese nationals involved in CPEC projects and called for provision of basic amenities like drinking water, health, education, and employment opportunities that have long been denied in Gwadar despite the billions of dollars that have been pumped into the Gwadar port and other related projects under the CPEC.

As Muhammad Akbar Notezai, the Lahore-based correspondent for The Diplomat, observed in his 9 December article titled ‘Gwadar Protests Highlight CPEC’s Achilles’ Heel’, “The mass protests reflect six years of disappointment and resentment on the part of locals who have seen no benefit from Chinese investment projects. When CPEC was launched, the local Baloch community in Gwadar lacked access to water, electricity, and other basic facilities. They still don’t have those basic necessities, despite the influx of billions of dollars in Chinese investment into their hometown. Rather than lifting up the local population, the wave of investments has had the opposite effect: In the wake of the development work, locals have started losing their sources of livelihood… Under these circumstances, it has become clear to the indigenous Baloch that Gwadar’s development is not meant to improve their economic condition. Instead, it is going to wipe them from the scene, as well as cripple them economically. Finally, they have stood up against the authorities to demand access to basic facilities”.

While Balochistan has long been suffering on account of the oppressive step-brotherly treatment meted out by Rawalpindi and Islamabad, it is the Chinese entry into the province through the CPEC that has compounded the exploitative tendencies of the Pakistani regime. As Hidayat-ur-Rehman Baloch was quoted by Pakistani commentator F.M. Shakil as saying, “Our struggle is against those who restricted our movements, snatched our livelihood, denied us the amenities of life and treated us as subhuman in our land”. Despite Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian terming reports of Chinese complicity in the exploitation of the people of Gwadar as “fake news”, media reports in June had informed that Pakistan had issued permits to Chinese trawlers for deep-sea fishing in Karachi and Gwadar. Further, in February this year, dozens of Chinese fishing vessels of the Fujian Fishery Company had docked at the port of Karachi after returning from Gwadar. This had caused a wave of resentment in the local fishing community and had generated legitimate fears that commercial fishing vessels and bottom trawling would deplete fish stocks off Sindh and Baluchistan. In July this year, five Chinese deep-sea vessels were intercepted near Gwadar on suspicion of illegal fishing. The trawlers, subsequently found to be loaded with fish, were taken into custody by the Pakistan Maritime Security Agency amidst calls for a complete end to deep-sea fishing in the 12 nautical-mile sea limit off Gwadar. According to Nasir Rahim Sohrabi, president of the Rural Development Council of Gwadar, nearly 2,000 deep-sea fishing trawlers are currently exploiting the fish in the seas off Gwadar. Sohrabi explained that “These trawlers have long nets. They capture all the fish including the eggs. This endangers fish populations in the sea”. To put scale of the problem in perspective, it is pertinent to point out that 65 percent of the population of Gwadar is dependent on fishing for their livelihood, and about three million fishery workers earn their living from the seas along Sindh and Balochistan’s 1050-kilometer coastline.

It is, additionally, disconcerting for residents of Gwadar that the 40-year lease under the port contract for Gwadar that Pakistan awarded to Beijing in 2013 allowed China to bag over 90% of the gross revenues generated from the port and 85% from surrounding “free zones”. Also, as a 22 December analysis in The Maritime Executive noted, “The second reason for the protests is the plethora of issues experienced by local residents due to the security arrangements of Chinese personnel working on BRI projects. Chinese workers in Gwadar have been under attack by Baloch insurgents who blame China for the exploitation of their resources. As a result, Gwadar has been heavily militarized. Local residents must pass through numerous checkpoints on a daily basis, where they have to prove their identity and at times are refused passage. Recently, locals have resorted to protest against the daily humiliation of justifying their movements and have demanded an end to the security controls”.

As is increasingly the case in such situations, both the Pakistani State and the media largely ignored the protests in the hope that they would fizzle out. Revealing its preference for highhandedness, the government then responded by deploying 5,500 additional riot police in Gwadar despite the protests remaining non-violent. As Hidayat-ur-Rehman lamented, "The regional and central administration doesn't have time to come to us and empathise, and work to alleviate the people's miserable life. Instead, they are indulged in their luxurious and debaucheries. If this is the treatment which we are going to get from the administration, then the lava which is going to erupt in coming times would be unbearable". It was only after the Punjab Legislative Assembly passed a resolution cautioning that “Gwadar played an important role in the development of the country and ignoring its residents would not be a wise thing to do on the part of the government” did Prime Minister Imran Khan eventually take notice of the situation and dispatch two federal ministers to try to resolve the issue. Also, as Adnan Aamir, writing for the Pakistani publication The News, reported, “Media reports suggest that given the pickets on roads leading to Gwadar port and a sense of hostility towards the Chinese project, Chinese diplomats have expressed concern over the matter and asked the government of Pakistan to resolve the issues”.

After several rounds of discussions, the government was compelled to concede the genuineness of the protesters’ demands and on 16 December ended up promising to implement all the measures the protesters had sought, including a complete ban on illegal trawling in Gwadar. Speaking after this development, Hidayat-ur-Rehman stressed that it was not yet time to celebrate and that any laxity in implementing all the demands in toto would lead to more intense protests. It is doubtful that the Pakistani government would be able to live up to its promises, especially since one of the important demands put forth by the protesters was that 98 percent of the revenue from Gwadar port be retained by Gwadar and only 2 percent, as against the over 90 percent currently pledged, goes to China.

China is, quite justifiably, concerned about the escalating protests in Gwadar – both the non-violent and the armed versions of it. This is reflected in the reality brought out by Notezai that CPEC projects have slowed down in Gwadar and elsewhere in Balochistan, indeed in the whole of Pakistan. Due to its direct access to the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea, Gwadar is crucial to China’s geo-economic and geo-strategic interests. Notezai believes that “Gwadar could make China’s BRI successful in the region – but it could also prove disastrous if things do not proceed as planned. If the BRI cannot succeed in Pakistan, an ‘iron brother’ of China that has given its full backing to CPEC, it calls the whole project into doubt. That’s why Chinese authorities have been pushing their Pakistani counterparts to ensure a secure environment for the purpose of implementing CPEC projects in Balochistan. As noted above, however, these stepped-up security provisions have backfired by increasing local resentment… As recent history has shown, militarized security measures cannot ensure total safety for investors. The local community must be brought on board if Gwadar, and by extension CPEC, is going to succeed”.

Canada-based think tank The International Forum for Rights and Security (IFFRAS), meanwhile, pointed out that “Gwadar is the main strategic hub of Chinese activities and it houses Gwadar port, which is touted as the ‘jewel of the CPEC’. At the same time, it is the epicenter of anti-China sentiments”. The think tank also believes that the ongoing protests and terror attacks against the CPEC could prove detrimental to future foreign investment in Pakistan. Bilal Gilani, the executive director of Gallup Pakistan, feels that the “Chinese have been looking at Gwadar with deep interest and caution as well. If the Pakistani government is not able to manage it, then they will reconsider that interest”.

The over-a-month-long protests in Gwadar were remarkable for a number of reasons. To begin with, the courage of the protesters was commendable given the scale of the atrocities that the Baloch have had to endure for generations at the hands of the Pakistani security forces. That the movement remained largely apolitical and focused solely on core local grievances rather than get embroiled in more expansive issues of marginal direct interest to the protesters also contributed to its success. Further, the wide participation of women, often with their little children in tow, and in defiance of the conservative values of Baloch society, indicated the seriousness of the issues facing the residents of Gwadar. On 29 November alone over 18,000 women hit the streets in Gwadar carrying placards that read “Gwadar Ko Haqooq Do” (Give rights to Gwadar), “We need universities and colleges instead of check posts”, “Give us a university”, and “Give us a respectable life”. One of the protesters that day, Mahnoor Baloch, was quoted in the media as saying, “We had to come out. Women can’t get a proper education here and then their families are humiliated at security check posts as well. It is a matter of our survival and our respect”. Another protester, Fatima Aslam Baloch, commenting on the CPEC, said that it was unfortunate that the Chinese and Pakistani governments were spending money on developing Gwadar port but not on the local poor people. In the end it was, above all, the scrupulous adherence to non-violence by the protesters that stood out.

How the situation in Gwadar will play out and what implications that will have on the CPEC will be known in times to come, but what is already amply clear and what the Gwadar Ko Huqooq Do Tehreek has proved fairly comprehensively is that peaceful protest is still a potent tool, and that in Gwadar and other similarly suppressed places, lasting success and progress can only be achieved through taking the local population along.