Protests in Balochistan province in Pakistan are rare and unheard of because a movement for freedom has been suppressed since more than six decades and China is implementing the multi-trillion dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with the Gwadar port in the southwestern province as the focal point since a decade.

On Nov. 16, thousands staged a sit-in against lack of basic facilities like drinking water, health and education for residents. The protesters were angry as the deadline given in the first week of October for the acceptance of the people’s demands had passed.

The residential areas in Balochistan, a least developed province of Pakistan, are facing 21 hour-long electricity cuts and severe water shortage as the supplies have been diverted for Chinese use.

Gwadar port, which became fully operational on May 31, 2021, has long been portrayed as the jewel in the crown of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), considered a vital link to the BRI, the signature foreign policy initiative by China. The deep sea port at the mouth of the Persian Gulf was inaugurated by the then Pakistan president, Pervez Musharraf, in 2011.

The Pakistan authorities are adamant on making Gwadar port the main center of Chinese activities and in the process, Balochistan province has become an embodiment of a security state.

Many inhabitants allege that they are made to feel like strangers on their soil and face discrimination at the hands of the Punjabi-dominated Pakistani politicians and the bureaucracy.

People’s mobility and assemblies are restricted by security forces and there is unwarranted questioning of their activities. Balochis allege that instead of the port, which is developed by China as a strategic and commercial hub, becoming a harbinger of an economic boom, the security apparatus has increased many-fold.

In Balochistan, the largest province in terms of land area, a freedom movement has been ongoing since 1947 against the forceful integration of the ‘independent region.’

Adding salt to the wounds to the miseries of the fishermen who make up a large percentage of the populace, Chinese trawlers are on a fishing spree and their small traditional boats are no match for the Chinese boats. As a result, their livelihoods are hit badly as the trawlers are taking away all the fish from the area. The Nov. 16 protesters included fishermen and their family members.

The fishermen allege that the bottom trawling method of fishing used by Chinese trawlers are destroying the waterbeds and the marine wealth.

Maulana Hidayat-ur-Rehman, provincial general secretary of Jamaat-e-Islami Balochistan, which is championing the Haq Do Gwadar Ko (Give rights to Gwadar) movement, has said the stir will stay till the demands are met.

As the provincial administration’s efforts to end the ongoing stir resulted in inconclusive talks Nov. 18, the opposition Jamaat-e-Islami, which has backed the protests, has given an ultimatum to the federal government to meet their demands urgently, threatening to take to the street in the national capital Islamabad Nov. 28.

Pakistan is planning major development projects in Gwadar port, including the Gwadar Port Free Zone, seaport, airport, and major road connections, to make it a global trade center for the benefit of the $62 billion CPEC, which connects China’s western Xinjiang province to the Arabian Sea.

By 2045, the port in the southern coastal city of Gwadar is expected to berth 150 ships and handle up to 400 million tonnes of cargo.

Prime Minister Imran Khan has on many occasions assured his government support to Chinese businesses in Pakistan.
India, which is developing Iran’s strategic Chabahar Port to trade with Afghanistan unimpeded by Pakistan, has registered its protest against CPEC, the flagship project of China and Pakistan, as it traverses through the disputed Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Gwadar Port is just 171 km away from the Iranian port and currently handles a bulk of cargo from Afghanistan.