“Our party and our people want independence, and if there is any doubt about whether this demand has public backing, we are asking for a referendum to find out the will of the people,” Brahamdagh Bugti
Nearly 50 billion dollars’ worth of Chinese investments aimed at linking the country to the Arabian Sea is being billed as a game changer in bringing prosperity to energy-starved Pakistan and a boost to its sluggish economy.
Scores of ambitious energy and industrial projects are part of the 2,500-kilometer-long China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which connects China’s western Xinjiang region to the Arabian Sea Port of Gwadar in Pakistan’s restive southwestern Balochistan Province.
But a prominent exiled Baluch separatist leader sees little hope for success in China’s grand schemes because of the decade-old unrest in his vast homeland that borders Iran and Afghanistan.
“So long as the Pakistani Army and security establishment pursue the same policies they are following in Balochistan, I don’t see this project reaching successful completion,” Brahamdagh Bugti told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website.
Thousands of civilians, soldiers, and militants have been killed in attacks by separatist militants and army counterinsurgency operations. The simmering conflict is marked by accusations of grave rights abuses such as enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, and the large-scale displacement of civilians.
“If you tell me you are building a room in my house that will benefit me greatly, I would first like to know how it will benefit me,” he said. “On the one hand, our people are being killed, while on the other hand, [Islamabad] is allowing China to carry out mega-projects in our homeland. Why is this happening?”
Balochistan, rich in mineral and coastal resources, comprises nearly half of Pakistani territory but its 10 million residents are still the poorest among Pakistan’s estimated population of 180 million.
“We still don’t know what this project is about or how much money it involves,” he said. “Who is financing it, and how will it benefit us? What are the disadvantages?”
While Beijing has refrained from publicly commenting on the unrest in Balochistan or regional opposition to CPEC, Islamabad appears keen on ending the conflict by reaching out to Europe-based separatist leaders.
Bugti confirmed having met with Balochistan’s chief minister, Abdul Malik Baloch, and senior minister Abdul Qadir Baloch in Switzerland this summer. But he denied striking a deal with Islamabad.
Earlier this week, Balochistan government sources told RFE’s Gandhara that Bugti recently engaged in secret negotiations with a senior Pakistani official that will likely result in ending his nine-year exile.
“We have nothing to hide. What’s wrong with taking part in negotiations that lead to a settlement?” he said of the talks, but he added that his meeting with Balochistan’s most senior elected official and the most prominent Baluch figure in the Pakistani cabinet cannot be characterized as formal negotiations.
“There was no set agenda, and no demands were discussed,” he said of the meeting, which lasted three hours. “They only asked me if I was ready to talk to them [the Pakistani government].”
Now in his mid-30s, Bugti left Pakistan after security forces killed his grandfather, Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, in 2006. He first went to Afghanistan but in 2010 moved to Switzerland to seek asylum.
Bugti says he only wants to negotiate directly with the Pakistani Army because it calls the shots on all major issues in the country.
“So long as they [the military generals] do not change their thinking on Balochistan — and agree to cease operations in Balochistan to pave the way for peace talks — I see no benefit in talking to these other [civilian] people,” he said.
The exiled leader says his Baloch Republican Party is still committed to “the complete independence of Balochistan” but that he is open to reconsidering his position if there is an alternative.
“Our party and our people want independence, and if there is any doubt about whether this demand has public backing, we are asking for a referendum to find out the will of the people,” he said. “I do not want to impose my will on the people. If the majority of Baluch decide to live in Pakistan, I am ready to respect their will.”
Bugti revealed that the Pakistani military reached out to him six years ago but the initiative failed because Islamabad was not ready to negotiate Balochistan’s secession.
“A brother of former Pakistani Army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani contacted me through an intermediary,” he said. “He conveyed that they are ready to give me everything except the independence of Balochistan, which he said Islamabad can never grant.”
The young leader rejected assertions that he is reaching out to Pakistani officials because of pressure from Swiss authorities who have been criticized by Islamabad for allowing Bugti to stay.
Pakistani officials often accuse Bugti of heading the Baloch Republican Army, a major separatist insurgent group that often accepts responsibility for attacks on government forces and pro-government leaders in his Dera Bugti homeland.
Bugti denies any links with the group. “We were engaged in a peaceful struggle, and we are still pursuing that,” he said.