The Pashtuns vs Pakistan Army: Another Disaster in the Making?

On Sunday, 26 May, reports from North Waziristan started to pour in about a clash between Pakistan military and the protesters of Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), a rights movement from the tribal belt of Pakistan. At first, social media was the only source of information for the so-called clash, where it emerged that the protesters were fired upon by the Pakistani military soldiers and several of them were injured in the incident with many critical.

The Pakistani media remained tight-lipped about the whole affair, until the ISPR, the military media wing, came out with a statement where it confirmed the killing of three persons, but gave it a completely different spin, blaming the protesters for attacking a check-post and injuring five soldiers. This update was followed up by the mainstream media in Pakistan who picked up on the cue, and started to paint PTM as the aggressor while calling the military a victim.

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But subsequent eyewitness videos and statements including that of Mohsin Dawar, a parliamentarian who represents the PTM and was leading the protest, contradicts military’s claims.

It points to the fact that the military targeted him and other unarmed civilians right after they crossed a check-post to join a protest that had been called in North Waziristan in the wake of military abuse of an elderly woman who was beaten up by soldiers during a raid in the area.

As the military fired upon the protesters, Dawar said he saw bodies falling around him. The crowd ran for safety and cover, while many of them were taken into custody including Ali Wazir, who is the other parliamentarian from the area, and was also part of the convoy that was going to join the protest.

Dawar, who was slightly injured, has gone underground and continues to give statements to the press.

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‘Establish the Truth’: Human Rights Commission of Pak

On 27 May, Ali Wazir was presented at an Anti-Terrorist Court in the city of Bannu, and remanded in the custody of the Counter-Terrorism Department for eight days.

Local journalists also now claim that the death toll is much higher and according to several accounts, at least 13 people have been killed by this military action against unarmed civilians.

Following the incident, thousands of protesters took to the streets across Pakistan, and demonstrations were held in Peshawar, Swat, Dera Ismail Khan, Quetta, and other cities and towns in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces on Monday.

In a statement, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) called for a parliamentary commission to investigate the matter and “establish the truth.” It also demanded the release of Wazir and “any other activists taken into custody.”

Amnesty International has also asked the Pakistani government to immediately order an independent and effective investigation into the reported killings of PTM activists.

However, this is not the first time the Pashtuns have been victims of such state brutality. The PTM which originated from the Waziristan region in 2018 became a country-wide movement after an extra-judicial killing of a Pashtun youngster Naqeebullah Mehsud. Mehsud was target-killed by Rao Anwar, a policeman who since then has been able to evade any punishment for his actions, even though it was proven that Mehsud was wrongly targeted and was not a terrorist, as was claimed by the security officials.

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Pak Military Risking Another Debacle Like Bangladesh Movement

Following this injustice, the PTM rose to prominence demanding an end to such extra-judicial killings, enforced disappearances and a truth commission that they say should be setup to unearth military abuse in the tribal belt, following the army operations post 9/11, when the Pakistani forces moved into the area on the pretext of fighting War on Terror.

The PTM has repeatedly called for a non-violent movement against the state, but despite that, it has had to pay a heavy price as it did over this weekend too.

The Pakistan Army has ensured that the PTM is not given any fair platform to voice its grievances in the local mainstream media, and that it is only covered in a negative light, and even push fake news about it at times.

This was seen with the latest event, where prominent television channels aired footage of an unrelated violent protest from the region and claimed it to be that of PTM.

The military has also accused the movement of being funded by foreign elements including India and Afghanistan, but has not been able to share any evidence in this regard.

Owing to this severe and unjustified crackdown, many are today drawing parallels between this ethnic movement of the Pashtuns and that of the Bangladesh movement, then called East Pakistan, whereby Bengalis started to agitate against discrimination by the then military regime of General Ayub Khan and subsequently of General Yahya Khan, leading to the division of the country, with Fall of Dhaka on 16 December 1971.

As witnessed today, most of the mainstream media back then also painted the Bengalis’ legitimate movement as foreign-funded and blacked out State violence against the civilian population, leading to an armed revolt which eventually saw the Pakistan Army being defeated.

It appears that almost five decades later, history is repeating itself and the Pakistani ruling elite have not learnt any lessons from the past. The civilian government must rein in the military and find a political solution to the latest incident in Waziristan, while also addressing the long-running grievances of the Pashtun population. Otherwise, the country is headed for a similar disaster as witnessed in 1971.

(Taha Siddiqui is an award-winning Pakistani journalist living in exile in Paris since February 2018 and is currently writing a book about Pakistan. He teaches journalism at SciencesPo and runs a digital platform called safenewsrooms.org, which documents censorship in the media. He tweets at @TahaSSiddiqui This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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