Leaders and supporters of a civil rights movement demanding security and rights for Pakistan’s ethnic Pashtun minority are questioning a warning by the country’s powerful military to not cross undefined lines.
Members of the PTM -- Urdu initials for the Pashtun Protection Movement -- are asking whether demanding security, dignity, accountability, and the fundamental human rights enshrined in the Pakistani Constitution amounts to some vague limits being crossed that could provoke the military to use force.
“If Pakistan is our country, it should address our demands,” PTM leader Manzoor Ahmad Pashteen told the BBC. “But if it is a case of masters and slaves then they can continue committing atrocities and we will carry on facing them.”
Pashteen was responding to a statement by military spokesman Asif Ghafoor who said the armed forces were monitoring the activities of the PTM closely.
Ghafoor told journalists on December 6 that the military has refrained from using force against the PTM because it is peaceful and that the Pashtuns have suffered disproportionately during Islamabad’s 15-year struggle against militancy.
"We realize their grief, their hardships,” he told journalists. “But [they] should not cross those lines, where the state has to use its force to control the situation."
More than 70,000 Pakistani civilians, soldier, and militants have died in nearly 15 years of violent attacks and military counterinsurgency operations. Most of these casualties were Pashtuns, whose homeland in northwestern Pakistan turned into a main theater for the global war on terrorism after 2003. An estimated 6 million Pashtuns among a population of some 30 million also endured displacement during the various bouts of fighting. Pashtuns make up the largest ethnic minority of Pakistan’s 207 million people.
The emergence of the PTM in February this year has jolted the military.
The movement’s initial five demands were mostly related to the military’s domestic war on terrorism. The movement’s first demand was an investigation and sentencing of Rao Anwar, a police officer in the southern port city of Karachi who reportedly killed many people in alleged staged shootouts. The PTM also demanded that victims of enforced disappearances be presented to courts. It demanded a probe into unlawful killings, demining in conflict zones, and an end to the alleged harsh treatment of civilians under curfews and at military check posts.
The PTM’s often noisy and crowded protests are seen as crossing a red line by criticizing the powerful Pakistani military. The movement’s protests over alleged abuses of Pashtuns by the security forces have only increased despite censorship of its campaigning in the country’s media, sporadic arrests of its activists, and a crescendo of accusations against its leaders.
“You have tried your level best to harm us,” Mohsin Dawar, a PTM lawmaker, wrote on Twitter in response to Ghafoor’s statement. “You charged us in fake cases. You tried to kill us through your proxies (good Taliban). You tried malicious campaigns against us on print, electronic and social media [and] you called us traitors.”
Dawar accused the military of crossing many legal and constitutional red lines in Pakistan’s 71-year history. “[The military has] abrogated constitution, hanged an elected prime minister, fought proxy wars [and] sponsored militancy,” he wrote.
“[You have] destroyed civilian’s properties and markets in cosmetic military operations, humiliated and tortured our people,” he wrote in an apparent reference to the Pashtun grievances, particularly in his native Waziristan and other regions of the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which have borne the brunt of violence in Pakistan. “We have nothing left to lose.”
On December 6 and 7, thousands of PTM supporters trended #KaunsiRedLines – Urdu for ‘what red lines’ on Twitter.
Ghafoor, however, said that years of military operations have reestablished peace in areas of former FATA. He said some 200,000 soldiers are still deployed in the mountainous region along Pakistan’s western border with Afghanistan.
He told journalists that progress was being made on some of the PTM’s demands. Ghafoor said that improvements in security have prompted the military to reduce the number of check posts while specialized teams are now engaged in demining operations.
"From 7,000 cases [of disappeared people], over 4,000 cases have been resolved," he told journalists, underscoring the progress authorities have made in addressing this complex issue.
Pashteen, however, says the authorities are not taking their demands seriously.
“The state played a vital role in even letting Rao Anwar off the hook,” he told VOA. “That doesn’t look like addressing our demands.”
– With reporting by AFP