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Almost since Pakistan's birth in 1947, the government has been battling a low-level insurgency in the southwest province of Baluchistan. It's a remote, thinly populated region. The wider world rarely pays attention to it. But now its strategic position and natural resources are attracting foreign powers. And the insurgency has been growing worse. Baluchistan is mostly off limits to foreign journalists. But NPR's Anthony Kuhn met with members of the Baluch community in the Pakistani port city of Karachi.
ANTHONY KUHN: Baluch people in search of opportunity come here to Baluch Para, one of several Baluch neighborhoods in Karachi. The dusty walls here are plastered with nationalist graffiti and posters of martyred and missing Baluch rebel leaders. One student activist here says that many young Baluchis see no hope in negotiating with a government that has ignored them for so long.�
Mr. BALUCH: Baluchistan is with Pakistan for 62 or 63 years. What they got? They got nothing. They have no school, colleges, etc., etc., etc.�After the experience of 62 or 63 years, you think the political process can solve the Baluchistan issue?
KUHN: The activist spoke on the condition that we only use his last name, Baluch. That's pretty good cover, since many Baluch use that surname out of national pride.�
(Soundbite of music)
KUHN: Nationalist music pumps out of a parked car. Baluchistan is Pakistan's largest and most sparsely populated province. It borders on Iran and Afghanistan, where some Baluch also live. Islamabad has never established thorough control over Baluchistan. Its independent tribes have resisted invaders from Alexander the Great to the present day, much like the Pashtun, who straddle the border with Afghanistan further north.
Baluch nationalist and former Senator Tahir Bizenjo hears in all this historical echoes of the days when the British and Russian empires once fought proxy wars and vied for spheres of influence in Baluchistan.
Mr. TAHIR BIZENJO: To me, the 19th century Great Game has started in this region again, but in different forms and with different players.
KUHN: The most conspicuous player in Baluchistan right now is China. A government-owned firm is mining gold and copper at Saindak. But Baluchistan National Party Secretary General Jehanzeb Baluch says the Baluch have been shut out of the profits.�
Mr. JEHANZEB BALUCH (Baluchistan National Party): Every nation has a right to pursue its interests. But the means should be fair. They should make sure that their interests do not collide with the local people's interest.
KUHN: How do Baluchis feel about being the object of this game?
Mr. J. BALUCH: First of all, Baluchis feel helpless that they are being sandwiched in all these powers and this great game. The Chinese are interested in getting to Strait of Hormuz, the energy corridor. The main gate of this energy corridor is Gwadar, Baluchistan.
KUHN: The Chinese have helped build and run the port of Gwadar, just 180 nautical miles from the entrance to the Persian Gulf. China's aim is to bring Middle Eastern oil into Gwadar, through Pakistan and into the adjoining Chinese territory of Xinjiang and a strategic chokepoint at the Straits of Malacca.
University of Karachi international relations expert Farhan Siddiqui explains China's strategy.
Professor FARHAN SIDDIQUI (University of Karachi): So they would want to establish good ties with Pakistan so that Pakistan can be used as a counterweight against India, in the same sense that the Americans are using, or utilizing, India against China.
KUHN: One of the Baluchis' biggest complaints about foreign intervention in their region is that while the U.S. arms Pakistan's army to fight the Taliban, Tahir Bizenjo says Islamabad uses U.S. Weapons to kill the Baluch.
Mr. BIZENJO: Washington has been the supporter of human rights violators, especially in Pakistan. No sensitive American citizen, if he is familiar with the politics of Pakistan, cannot deny it.
KUHN: Baluch nationalists say that more than a thousand of their people remain missing, many of them probably killed or kidnapped by Pakistani authorities. The federal government has promised to address the issue of disappearances as part of a comprehensive deal on the Baluch issue. But Jehanzeb Baluch is not optimistic.
Mr. J. BALUCH: They just want Baluchistan, not the Baluch. And any Baluch, according to Islamabad, who is a good Baluch, is a dead Baluch.
KUHN: Farhan Siddiqui says it's doubtful that Baluchistan could ever become independent, because the Baluch are deeply divided between seeking outright independence and seeking autonomy within Pakistan.
Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Islamabad.
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