Three Killed By Military Gunfire At Pakistan Rights Protest

Gunfire at a Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) rally near the Pakistani border with Afghanistan left at least three killed and more than 15 wounded last Sunday, May 26th, 2019. The planned sit-in, led by two members of Parliament, Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir, was protesting against recent military arrests and searches in the north-western Pakistani region of North Waziristan, specifically an alleged enforced disappearance by the military.

According to the New York Times, PTM activists said that soldiers fired indiscriminately on unarmed protesters, causing the casualties. However, the military claimed that the protesters “assaulted” the checkpoint in Boya, North Waziristan to “exert pressure.” The protestors’ alleged attacks on the post wounded five soldiers and prompted retaliation that the military claims “exercised maximum restraint in the face of provocation.” Nine of the protestors, including Wazir, were arrested and will be charged with inciting violence against Pakistani military forces under anti-terrorism laws. Dawar’s whereabouts are unknown, but according to Al Jazeera, his family have received word that he is unhurt.

Just weeks before, the Pakistani Army issued a forceful warning to the Pashtun movement’s leaders at a press conference at the military’s headquarters in Rawalpindi, according to Al Jazeera. “You have enjoyed all the liberty that you wanted to,” said military spokesperson Major-General Asif Ghafoor. “The way [you] are playing into the hands of others, [your] time is up.”

According to Al Jazeera, the PTM has faced arbitrary detentions, treason charges against its leaders, and a blanket ban on media coverage of events. These aggressive measures taken against the PTM are violations of Pakistani freedoms of speech, assembly, and press. Activists in the state have the right to protest peacefully for justice. Nationwide censorship prevents citizen awareness of intrastate issues, impeding the effectiveness of activism. The state should work to secure Pakistani freedoms instead of framing rights violations as necessary for national security. North Waziristan also has some of the worst mobile phone reception and internet connectivity in the country, which hinders independent verification of details regarding similar incidents and exacerbates misinformation. Therefore, the government should also focus on improving infrastructure to assist connectivity in the region. The recent deaths and casualties from the protest on Sunday reveal the downfalls in using violence for conflict resolution. Pakistani troops should pursue non-violent methods to react to similar situations, and the government should work toward strengthening the Pakistani justice system and rule of law.

Even opposition politicians condemned the clash. In a statement to the New York Times, the leader of the Pakistan People’s Party, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, said he found it hard to believe that a member of Parliament would engage in violence. “When we dub our own citizens as traitors when they talk about democracy, rule of law, then it is a very dangerous course to take,” he said.

In January of last year, the PTM led countrywide protests against the extrajudicial police killing of Naqeebullah Mehsud, leading to their prominence in the news. According to Al Jazeera, the PTM has continued to campaign for accountability for alleged rights abuses by armed government forces in the war against the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and its allies. Its three main demands include the clearance of land mines from tribal districts, an end to extrajudicial killings, and accountability for those who have been subjected to state-enforced disappearances. On Sunday after the clash, PTM leader Manzoor Pashteen tweeted, “Strongly protest this cowardly attack. PTM will continue its nonviolent constitutional struggle.”

To maintain stability and security in Pakistan, the PTM and the state should work together to resolve their ongoing conflict. As the Pakistani government is aware of the PTM’s demands, the state should make an effort to openly communicate and co-operate with the Pashtun leaders to prevent further clashes.