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Why is Imran Khan so desperate to talk to Baloch separatists?

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan under pressure from China is desperate to talk to Baloch separatists

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and his “selector,” Army Chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa are desperate under the Chinese pressure on the delay of projects under the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). In the last 24 hours, Imran Khan first repeated that previous governments of Pakistan were responsible for “backwardness” of Balochistan, which was breeding anger among residents. Therefore, he was now “mulling” over prospects to hold talks with “angry” Baloch insurgents.  “If development work had been carried out in the province, we would never have had to worry about insurgents,” Pakistani media quoted Khan as saying.

Within 12 hours, General Bajwa also flashed a parallel statement.  “We will never leave Balochistan behind as Pakistan  moves towards peace and prosperity. Balochistan will always be part of our success.”

During a ground-breaking event at the Gwadar Port, on July 5, Imran Khan said that he had always thought that when his party came to power, the government would pay attention to Balochistan because when the province would progress, peace would prevail. “It may be that they had grievances in the old times and may have been used by other countries … India may have used them to spread chaos but the situation now is not the same.” He added: “Gwadar is becoming a focal point for Pakistan, which will benefit the country, especially Balochistan.”

Also Read: Pak General blames China for crushing Baloch freedom movement to save CPEC

For the last one year, China has been putting pressure on the Imran Khan government as the insurgent Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) has been totally opposed to CPEC and the use of Gwadar port by Chinese ships. The BLA, in the past two years, has not only attacked the Chinese consulate in Karachi, but also the Karachi Stock Exchange, as well as a luxury hotel in Gwadar amid continuous attack on Chinese workers and engineers in a bid to hit at the Chinese developers of the various projects under CPEC.

What is evident from the discourse surrounding the attacks is the lack of representation of common Baloch citizens. Caught in a geopolitical cross-fire, the people of Balochistan have become collateral damage, with no major stakeholder willing to drive policymaking or speak on their behalf.

The 3,000-km-long CPEC is aimed at connecting China and Pakistan with rail, road, pipelines and optical cable fibre network. It connects China's Xinjiang province with Pakistan's Gwadar port, providing access to China to the Arabian Sea.

According to Pakistani media, initially China tried quietly holding talks with Baloch insurgents in Pakistan's restive Balochistan province to protect its USD 60 billion CPEC, but failed to succeed. Pakistan’s preoccupation with the military suppression of the Baloch ethnonationalist movement, rather than addressing the underlying socioeconomic factors driving it, has been unsuccessful in bringing lasting peace to Baluchistan.

Hailed as the flagship venture of Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), CPEC begins in Balochistan’s port city of Gwadar and traverses the province northward to Kashgar. The mineral and gas rich Balochistan has a track-record of providing natural gas and other resources that have continuously benefited Pakistan. Naturally, this has made Balochistan hopeful about the impact of CPEC on its province. However, the CPEC has overlooked the voices of the Baloch people and failed to fulfill the promise of extensive benefits to populated Baloch areas. The continued unavailability of previously promised provisions like education, health, employment, communication and industrial growth etc on the western route of the CPEC is a testament to the project’s disappointing implementation.

Also Read: Serena hotel blast—Has TPP joined Baloch nationalists to target Chinese in Pakistan?

While Pakistani PM Imran Khan has been blaming the foreign support for the Baloch insurgency by countries mainly India, separatist group Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) says that Pakistan and China do not want the world to know about the real state of affairs in Balochistan, and therefore, continue to present a more easily-believed narrative of an age-old adversary.

“Enforced disappearances” and custodial torture of political activists are commonplace, as are extra-judicial killings. A report by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan stated that around 47,000 people had “disappeared” in Balochistan as of 2019.

China in its impatience to access Balochistan's resources is taking a shortcut through Rawalpindi. In January, a Pakistani General confessed that China has deployed him in Balochistan to crush the Baloch movement and has given a six-month task.

China wants CPEC to be successful at any cost. So far, the Pakistani military establishment and the Imran government have not been able to satisfy Chinese authorities over CPEC.