Pakistan’s powerful military and Pashtuns demanding rights and protection are at loggerheads over what terms ended a recent sit-in protest prompted by the alleged killing of a young protester.
While protestors say that authorities have accepted to investigate whether security shot dead a protestor and injured several more in the northwestern North Waziristan tribal district last week, a top military spokesman said such a probe will only “ascertain facts” and the security forces hadn’t killed or injured anyone in the restive region.
After nearly 15 years of unrest, with thousands killed in terrorist attacks and counterterror sweeps, life is slowly returning to normal in North Waziristan, which served as the global headquarters of several Islamist militant groups. More than 1 million members of the region’s Dawar and Wazir Pashtun tribes were displaced after the Pakistani military launched a major offensive in 2014.
“The people of North Waziristan are patriotic Pakistanis. We expect the government to be accountable for its mistakes,” says Ali Khan Dawar, a young activist in Waziristan. “Our people were happy with the agreement that ended their sit-in protest, but they are greatly disappointed that the military spokesman said the government forces were not involved in any killing.”
Dawar was referring to the controversy following a weekend sit-in protest in Miran Shah, the administrative headquarters of North Waziristan. On August 26, thousands of protesters ended a three-day sit-in protest after authorities agreed to accept their demands.
The sit-in was prompted by the reported killing of a protester on August 24. Seven more protesters were reportedly injured in the alleged shooting in Hamzoni, a village near Miran Shah. Locals reportedly blamed the soldiers for targeting protesters who had blocked a road to protest the arrests of suspects by the security forces.
But hours after protesters left the venue in Miran Shah on August 26, lawmaker Mohsin Dawar, North Waziristan’s representative in the National Assembly or lower house of the Pakistani Parliament, and military chief spokesman Asif Ghafoor publicly disagreed over the terms of the agreement, which had not been recorded in writing.
The protesters’ main assertion was that the security forces had shot unarmed demonstrators, but Ghafoor questioned the validity of such claims.
“While an inquiry has been ordered to ascertain facts, no assurance given for any court martial. No one was killed/injured by Forces,” he wrote on Twitter in response to a tweet by VOA Deewa Radio that he dubbed “false reporting.”
The VOA Deewa Radio tweet had quoted Mohsin Dawar as congratulating Miran Shah protesters for “the power of peaceful protest,” as he announced an end to their sit-in “following officials assurance to court martial captain Zarar who allegedly killed a boy during a protest.”
Mohsin Dawar, however, fired back at Ghafoor’s denial. “And you are keeping your tradition of backtracking. Our one precondition for beginning talks was an admission of guilt from your side, regarding the martyrdom of innocent protestors,” he wrote on Twitter. “We only began talks AFTER we were given that admission of guilt.”
Ghafoor was quick to respond. “We don’t backtrack. We don’t mince words. There is no guilt in serving this great nation and the brave people of Waziristan,” he wrote. “Truth can’t be hidden. And soon you shall see it coming out about all the ‘inimical forces’. We shall not allow anyone to reverse the gains of peace IA,” he added while using the English initials for the Arabic word Inshallah, meaning “God willing.”
“There is nothing peaceful about imposing curfews on IDPs [internally displaced persons] and killing protestors exercising their basic rights,” Mohsin Dawar replied. “There is nothing ‘inimical’ about demanding our rights enshrined in [the] constitution,” he added while warning that “truth will come out when causes of militancy” are investigated.
The episode marks another chapter of this year’s sit-in protests by Pakistan’s ethnic Pashtun minority. Under the banner of the Pashtun Tahafuz (Protection) Movement (PTM), they are demanding security, accountability, and fundamental human rights in their mountainous homeland, which forms a belt along Pakistan’s nearly 2,500-kilometer western border with Afghanistan.
Like Moshin Dawar, many PTM leader and activists come from the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas, which was recently merged into the adjacent province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. As a main front in the global and Islamabad’s domestic war on terrorism, these regions paid a heavy price. Tens of thousands of Pashtun civilians were killed and millions more were displaced by the fighting. The PTM wants Islamabad to find thousands of Pashtuns who disappeared amid the insurgency and is calling for an end to discrimination and stereotyping of more than 30 million Pashtuns in Pakistan who make up the second-largest minority in a country of more than 200 million people.
The PTM’s harsh public criticism of the Pakistani military’s conduct in the war on terror, however, has meant frequent disagreements. This is perhaps why none of their agreements with the authorities -- typically made after an incident or a protest -- has managed to satisfy the movement’s supporters. Instead, alleged excesses and atrocities by the security forces appear to be contributing to the PTM’s popularity.
Khalid Jan Dawar, a resident of Hamzoni and leader of the Islamist Jamiat Ulema-e Islam, took part in the negotiations after the sit-in in Miran Shah began on August 24.
He says the talks with the civilian authorities, who in turn communicated with the military, were successful as both sides agreed on investigating the incident, compensating the victims, and ending curfews and aggressive searches.
“We have not revolted against the state. Instead, our demands are about peace and prosperity,” he told Radio Mashaal. “They [the army] are responsible for guarding us, but we are deeply disappointed after they turned away from the investigation they agreed to.”
A civilian official in Miran Shah confirmed to Radio Mahsaal that the protesters and authorities had agreed to hold an enquiry into “what happened and who was responsible for the killing.”
Speaking on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to the media, he said the government agreed to increase the compensation payments for death and injury in Hamzoni. He said there will not be any unannounced curfews in North Waziristan and that security forces will search houses with the help of the local civil administration and summon people suspected of militant ties through local tribal leaders.
The official said the two sides also agreed to help the remaining displaced North Waziristan residents to return to their communities. They also agreed that the security forces would not use anti-riot gear instead of firearms when dealing with future protests.
In Miran Shah, community leaders are confident that they now know how to compel authorities to listen to their demands.
“We are now locked in a complex web of problems, but we have the master key to unlock them all,” tribal leader Malik Omar Khan told VOA’s Deewa Radio.
“And the master key we have is known as the sit-in protest,” he noted.