Thousands of protesters gathered in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, are demanding reforms in the restive northwestern tribal region.
Lawmakers, activists, and supporters of nearly half a dozen major political parties gathered in front of the Pakistani Parliament to demand the unification of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) with the neighboring northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
A majority of the residents of the two regions are ethnic Pashtuns but are governed under different legal regimes. While more than 30 million residents of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa enjoy all the citizenship rights and live under regular municipal laws, more than 5 million FATA residents still live under a century-old, colonial-era legal regime that often imposes collective punishments and denies most rights and civil liberties to FATA Pashtuns.
"The decision to merge FATA with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has been made by the people of FATA," Aimal Wali Khan, a senior leader of the Awami National Party (ANP), told the protesters.
Former lawmaker Akhunzada Chattan, a leader of the secular Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), said millions have suffered in FATA for decades.
"There is havoc in FATA," he said.
Pakistani media reports said the country’s prime minister, Shahid Khaqan Abassai, was set to hold a meeting with lawmakers from FATA late in the evening to discuss how to end the protest.
Lawmaker Shahjee Gul represents FATA’s Khyber tribal district in the National Assembly or lower house of the Pakistani Parliament. Before leaving for the capital in the northwestern city of Peshawar, he was hopeful protests would prompt Islamabad to swiftly implement long-delayed reforms in the region.
“Today, we are going to protest for improving the prospects for our future generations and to complete and strengthen Pakistan,” he told Radio Mashaal. “We are going to protest peacefully to pressure the government into issuing a presidential order to merge us [FATA] into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and extend the jurisdiction of [the provincial] high court and [federal] supreme court into FATA.”
The protest is unique because the ruling Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) and two major opposition parties -- PPP and Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) -- are also taking part. Other major political parties such as the moderate Pashtun ethno-nationalist ANP, Qawmi Watan Party, and Islamist Jammat-e Islami and Jamiat Ulam-e Islam Sami-ul-Haq faction are participating, as well.
“The spirit is through the roof,” said Nizamuddin Khan, a young activist from FATA’s northernmost Bajaur tribal district. “I have never seen political workers of so many parties supporting, cheering, and bucking each other up.”
Earlier this year, a government-sponsored effort to reform the archaic governance regime in FATA stalled after two of PML-N’s coalition partners opposed it. The Pashtunkhwa Milli Awami Party, a hard-line nationalist faction popular in the Pashtun districts of southwestern Balochistan Province, and Islamist Jamiat Ulma-e Islam Fazal want Islamabad to hold a referendum in FATA before implementing measures to merge the region into the country’s administrative, political, and economic mainstream.
The delay threatened decades of efforts aimed at reforming FATA and particularly ending the century-old draconian Frontiers Crimes Regulations law, which violates most modern human rights provisions and even contradicts the Pakistani Constitution.
The reforms, publicly backed by Pakistan’s political spectrum and powerful security establishment, are part of Islamabad’s efforts to stabilize FATA. Opinion surveys have found that most FATA residents support the reforms. An estimated 50,000 FATA civilians have been killed and nearly 3 million displaced over more than a decade of insurgency.
Unrest in the region began after the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and allied militant groups established a foothold in the region after the demise of the hard-line Taliban regime in 2001. The Pakistani military claims to have carried out hundreds of raids and military operations to cleanse FATA of militants since 2002.
With reporting by Dawn.com and Geo News