Pakistan: Mass demonstrations against government’s military policies

Pakistanis have once again taken to the streets. The cause of the current mass protests organized by the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) is the ongoing terror attacks, and Pakistan's military operations.

Pakistanis have once again taken to the streets. The cause of the current mass protests organized by the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) is the ongoing terror attacks, and Pakistan’s military operations which are destabilizing the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province.

Following terror attacks by jihadist groups and subsequent Pakistani military operations, a massive rally was organized on June 25. The purpose was to protest the terrorist attacks targeting Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as well as the regional military policies of the government of Pakistan. Protesters expressed their opposition to their land being used for further military operations and wars.

The PTM staged another gathering on June 22 in the North Waziristan District. The rally condemned “the rise in target killings, enforced disappearances, and threats from landmines, demanding an end to violence and human rights abuses in the region”.

The Asian News International (ANI) reported that thousands participated in the demonstration against what they perceived as “ongoing oppression, state terrorism, exploitation of mineral resources, target killings, and kidnappings”. The report continues,

“‘We will not tolerate this terrorist policy of the [political] establishment and the army anymore. In this policy, not only the Pashtuns [an ethnic group that make up Pakistan’s second largest ethnic group, after Punjabis], but all nations and the lower-class people are being exploited,’ asserted PTM founder Manzoor Pashteen.”

Pashteen further said: “This is terrorism, and behind it is the [military] uniform [Pakistan’s military]. If the military’s terrorist policy is not changed, soon the common people will get fed up and overthrow the military regime. We are closely monitoring public anger.” The ANI reported: 

“The recent rallies underscore PTM’s growing influence and the mounting frustration among Pashtuns regarding military operations in their homeland.

“The turnout at the rally signals widespread discontent and a pressing call for change.

“Participants expressed their yearning for peace and justice, stressing the urgency to halt military operations and establish a fair and equitable system that upholds the rights and freedoms of all citizens.

“The Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), established in 2018, is a grassroots movement advocating for the rights of Pashtuns in Pakistan.

“Led by Manzoor Pashteen, PTM emerged in response to human rights violations faced by Pashtuns, including extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and the threat of landmines in their regions.

“The movement organizes peaceful protests and rallies, demanding accountability from the Pakistani military and government.”

Pakistan has witnessed a surge in militant attacks in recent years, predominantly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. In January 2023, for instance, militants killed at least 101 people, mostly police officers.

On June 21, 2024, Pakistan’s military said at least five soldiers in a troop convoy were killed by a roadside bomb in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province near the Afghan border. The attack was claimed by the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a longtime ally of the Afghan Taliban.

Residents of Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province then reportedly protested a lack of security in the region in a June 15, 2024 demonstration that condemned both the government and terrorists.

Today, the protests in the province Balochistan in Pakistan remain ongoing. A women-led movement against enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings started in January and has grown exponentially. The protesters demand an end to the enforced disappearances rampant in Balochistan, as well as accountability for those involved in the murders of Baloch people. The organizers call the protests the “march against Baloch genocide”.

The Pakistani government’s usual response to requests from the Baloch people has been a bloody counterinsurgency and crackdown on the region. This includes murders and enforced disappearances. Bodies have appeared, according to media reports, some with clearly visible torture marks.

The Voice of Baloch Missing Persons, an organization that works for the rights of people missing in Balochistan, says about 14,000 from Balochistan are missing.

Since the region’s 1948 annexation by Pakistan, Balochistan has seen at least five rebellion movements for independence or wider autonomy. The fifth wave of rebellion began in the early 2000s. The region’s history is marked by Pakistan’s forceful suppression of the Balochi right to self-determination.

The fifth insurgency through which the Balochis demand broader autonomy for Balochistan is now in its third decade.

Since Pakistan’s founding in 1948. it has “managed to keep its stranglehold over Balochistan, but only through brute force and censorship of the type that would embarrass even the Chinese,” writes Sushant Sareen, a senior fellow of the Observer Research Foundation.

Sareen explains:

“For more than a decade, young and old Baloch women have been demonstrating and demanding to know the whereabouts of their husbands, sons, fathers, brothers who have been forcibly kidnapped by Pakistani security agencies. Most have probably been butchered by the Pakistan Army. There have been dozens of incidents of mutilated bodies of activists who were subjected to enforced disappearances being thrown on the roadside. There have even been cases of a few mass graves that have been uncovered. But there has been no closure for the Baloch, something that has continued to fuel militancy.

“Even today, young Baloch students and activists who are studying in Punjab and other provinces have ‘disappeared’. Every other day there are reports of young people, householders, professionals who are victims of enforced disappearances by the security forces.

“Instead of using protests and civil disobedience in Balochistan to take a political initiative and engage the representatives of the Baloch, the Pakistan Army has decided to crush it with brute force and to suppress the voices of dissent,” adds Sareen. “But that is only fueling the anger against Pakistan and creating a situation that is fast reaching the point of no return.”

According to Sareen, “Pakistan’s greatest advantage against the Baloch people has been the inability of the Baloch to unite under a common leadership — both political and military. This allows Pakistan to divide and rule…Until the Baloch are able to unite under a common flag, Pakistan will continue its colonial approach and genocidal policy in Balochistan.”

Due to all these severe human rights abuses and more, Pakistan was first added to the US State Department’s “County of Particular Concern” (CPC) list in 2018 and has remained on the list every year since. “Country of Particular Concern” is a designation by the US Secretary of State of a country responsible for particularly severe violations of religious freedom.

Similarly, the 2023 “Country Report on Human Rights Practices: Pakistan” by the Department of State details the widespread human rights abuses in the country such as:

“[U]nlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings; enforced disappearance; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by the government or its agents; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary detention; political prisoners; transnational repression against individuals in another country; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; punishment of family members for alleged offenses by a relative; serious abuses in a conflict, including reportedly unlawful civilian deaths and enforced disappearance; serious restrictions on freedom of expression and media freedom, including violence against journalists, unjustified arrests and disappearances of journalists, censorship, criminal defamation laws, and laws against blasphemy,” among others.

Whether it is in Balochistan, Gilgit-Baltistan or Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, it appears that there are massive differences between the government’s goals and what the people in Pakistan need. Whereas many people in those regions simply seek decent living conditions, security and basic human rights, Pakistan prioritizes militarization, policies that enable terrorism, economic, ethnic and religious oppression, resource exploitation, and the destabilization of the wider region.

Public mass protests thus continue, so do terrorism, conflicts and human rights abuses across the country.

Uzay Bulut
Uzay Bulut
Uzay Bulut is a Turkish journalist and political analyst formerly based in Ankara. Her writings have appeared in The Washington Times, The American Conservative, The Christian Post, The Jerusalem Post, and Al-Ahram Weekly. Her work focuses mainly on human rights, Turkish politics and history, religious minorities in the Middle East, and antisemitism.