Gilgit-Baltistan is politically marginalized yet a geo-strategic region, which borders China, India, Afghanistan-Tajikistan and Pakistan. China has been involved in development of the region since the early 1960s while recently earmarking billions of dollars for mineral extraction, dam building, and industrial and telecom growth. The Institute believes that since Gilgit-Baltistan is sparsely populated, ecologically fragile, and contested by two nuclear powers, rapid interventions can create political friction at the global level.
Given China’s interest in accessing the Gwadar port through Gilgit-Baltistan, thousands of Chinese workers and security personnel have entered the disputed region endangering the well being of locals and placing an extra burden on resources. It is estimated that China will invest more than $30 billion in Gilgit-Baltistan in the coming years to build dams and connect Xinjiang with Gwadar via rail and road.
This will help China access naval bases in Karachi and Balochistan. Chinese firms are also involved in mineral extraction which has triggered tens of thousands of locals to protest. Although many of these projects could lead to prosperity, the presence of foreign workers could deprive the poverty-stricken citizens of economic opportunities. In some instances, the natives have clashed with Chinese workers demanding their withdrawal.
The Institute remains keen in analyzing these evolving situations which have long-term cultural, environmental and political implications for the region. The Institute asks the Pakistani government not to promote Chinese Mandarin language in Gilgit-Baltistan at the cost of the indigenous languages. There is already a ban on teaching native languages in government schools which could lead to a cultural genocide.
The Institute also focuses on terrorism. The Pakistani government has long used Gilgit-Baltistan to promote insurgency in Afghanistan and India. In 1974, Pakistan violated UN resolutions by abrogating the State Subject Rule and causing large-scale demographic change in Gilgit-Baltistan. Many internationally banned state-led organizations have since established their presence in the region.
Extremists and militants threaten the survival of the native population which follows Shia and Sufi traditions. Shias refuse to allow their land being used as sanctuaries, training camps and launching pads for insurgencies which has become the main cause of their persecution. The Pakistani secret service is concerned about losing control over the strategic region, and encourages the persecution of Shias to keep them subservient. As a result, thousands of Shias have died in the past 65 years while tens of thousands have been forced out of their homes and continue to live as refugees.
In 2012, more than 100 Shias of Gilgit-Baltistan were killed by terrorists. Demographic change through exodus, genocide and forceful conversions has helped the militants secure grounds in different regions. Growing extremism has brought social degradation and polarized religious and ethnic groups. At the same time, it has affected the tourism industry which is the backbone of local economic growth.
Militants have also forced India to increase troop-deployment on the border with Gilgit-Baltistan creating political friction. As the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan is fast approaching, it is feared that Gilgit-Baltistan will once again become the hub of banned terrorist outfits which intend to infiltrate into northern Afghanistan. The Institute believes that the fallout of these advances on local people and culture will be detrimental. Given the gravity of the situation, the Institute believes that the US government should declare Pakistan a country of particular concern (CPC) to contain state-led religious persecution. The Institute also strongly recommends that Pakistan remove militant camps and reinstate State Subject Rule in Gilgit-Baltistan to discourage religious and racial demographic change and resource thievery.
Moreover, the Institute suggests that Pakistan resume travel between Afghanistan, Gilgit-Baltistan and India to promote trade and secular culture as a counter to the growing extremism. For centuries, these routes have served as the lifeline of the silk trade and brought prosperity to the locals. The closed border has directly affected more than half a million people in Gilgit-Baltistan who now survive on government handouts and temporary labor.
The Institute shares the view that isolation and closed borders breeds terrorism and restricts the ability of the natives to resist militant onslaught. Therefore resumption of trade on traditional routes will be an incentive for the locals to empower themselves financially and partner with Western governments in the fight against terrorism. Resuming travel between Gilgit-Baltistan and India is also a humanitarian appeal as it will allow more than ten thousand refugees reunite with their relatives across the Line of Control, which has become the Berlin Wall of South Asia.
Pakistan lacks sovereignty over the disputed region of Gilgit-Baltistan and rules it with ad-hoc ordinances. As Gilgit-Baltistan remains outside Pakistan’s constitutional framework, such temporary political frameworks have failed to provide socioeconomic relief or justice to the locals. These ordinances – twelve in total since 1948 – have promoted exploitation of resources by outsiders but with little benefits to the indigenous peoples.
The Institute remains a committed defender of courageous political and cultural activists who work at great personal risk. Currently several political activists are facing sedition charges and detention for challenging illegal government practices. The Institute demands immediate release of all political prisoners and an investigation by the UN into the state-led extra judicial killings in Gilgit-Baltistan. The Institute also asks Pakistan and India to demilitarize the region to de-escalate tension. Pakistan has fought many wars with India over Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan, most recently the Kargil war of 1999 which killed more than 4,000 people in Gilgit-Baltistan. The Institute supports peaceful dialogue as the only means to solve the Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan dispute and expects that the UN plays a supportive role in this regard.
(Senge Sering is a researcher and human rights advocate. He was born in the UN declared disputed region of Gilgit-Baltistan which remains in Pakistani control since 1948. Currently, he is managing the Institute for Gilgit Baltistan Studies, based in Washington DC. He frequently visits the Geneva based United Nations Human Rights Council, the European Parliament, the British Parliament and the American Congress where he raises awareness about Gilgit Baltistan. Senge has been instrumental in arranging conference on Gilgit Baltistan in collaboration with several US and European think tanks and disseminating information on related issues)