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Why Are People Protesting Against a Fence in Gwadar?

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The Pulse | Security | South Asia

Why Are People Protesting Against a Fence in Gwadar?

The government says the fence is to enhance security. But will it? The fence along the Durand Line has not reduced terrorism emanating from Afghanistan.

Why Are People Protesting Against a Fence in Gwadar?

Residents of Gwadar protest against the fence barrier, May 2024,

Credit: Baloch Yakjehti Committee

In early May, residents of Gwadar blocked the main coastal highway that connects the Pakistani port city with the country’s commercial capital, Karachi, at Vshen Dhor, on the city’s outskirts. They were opposing the Pakistani government’s suspected plan to fence off Gwadar. The protests erupted when trenches extending over a kilometer were seen at Vshen Dohr.

Meanwhile, activists and citizens across Balochistan are pitching in by holding press conferences and posting their views on social media using the hashtag #StopGwadarFencing.

Although the full extent of the government’s plan for these trenches remains unclear, many believe they are meant to connect with the previous barbed wire fence constructed in 2020 as part of the “safe city project.”

The coastal town of Gwadar is the gateway to the $62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). In early 2020, the Gwadar Development Authority with the assistance of the federal government and the Chinese government issued a new master plan for the port city. This plan included new measures for security, what was later referred to as the Gwadar Safe City Project, costing approximately $10 million.

Under the project, cameras were to be installed throughout the city as part of a larger surveillance system. Not much of this surveillance equipment has been installed so far, although wired fence barriers are visible in some areas.

“Fencing the city is part of the project to ensure security and safety,” then-Deputy Commissioner of Gwadar Abdul Kabeer Zarkoon said in an interview in March 2021. However, amid growing public protests, the plan was left incomplete.

Trenches at Vshen Dohn in the northern suburbs of Gwadar, Pakistan. Photo by Saeed Faiz.

At a public discussion forum at Gwadar in December 2020, then-Home Minister of Balochistan Ziaullah Langove assured local political leaders and activists that “no decision will be taken against the wishes of the people.”

Despite that assurance, work on the fence has now been resumed, and residents of Vshen Dhor have noticed the rapid digging of trenches, similar to those they saw in 2020. This has sparked the recent wave of protests.

Government officials, including Gwadar’s Deputy Commissioner Hamood Rehman, denied plans for erecting a fence barrier around the city. They have dismissed such reports as “mere propaganda.”

According to local journalist Javed Baloch, “People are skeptical. They are asking why workers are digging trenches on the outskirts of Gwadar if the government did not plan to erect a security fence.”

Several political parties across Balochistan have condemned the fencing initiative. Advocate Sajid Tareen of the Balochistan National Party (BNP) submitted a petition to the Balochistan High Court opposing the construction of the fence, stating it “can divide the city.” Moreover, it is a “clear violation of the local people’s right of movement.”

Ironically, the deputy commissioner of Gwadar, who initially denied the government’s plan, is now part of the committee that has submitted the petition, alongside the commissioner of Makran Division, and Balochistan’s chief secretary.

Over the years, government officials have stressed the need to increase security measures to ensure the success of CPEC projects and realize the full potential of Gwadar Port.

However, there is already a heavy deployment of security personnel in and around the city, and it has not prevented militant attacks. Additionally, members of the Balochistan assembly from Gwadar, including Moulana Hidayat Ur Rehman and other representatives and local government officials, appear to be unaware of the recent development – let alone the local people, who have a right to know what happens in their city.

“The issue is not only about the fence; it is about the right to freedom of movement of the local population and their right to know what happens on their land,” Maulana Hidayat Ur Rehman, member of the Balochistan Provincial Assembly, told The Diplomat.

“So, no matter what the digging is for, I will not favor it. It has also destroyed the agricultural lands of local farmers and shepherds. I will not let the project divide the local population in the name of security.”

So far, very little is being done to address people’s grievances. The dire security situation in the region provides the government justification to deploy more security forces, set up more check posts, and erect a fence barrier across the city.

“It already feels like a walled city, where every entrance, exit, within and around the city, have been turned into check posts. You are asked to prove your identity, and often viewed with huge suspicion in your own place,” said Naila Ahmed, (name changed on request). an activist and student at the University of Gwadar.

“Despite all the humiliation the local citizens endure, and an enormously huge number of security forces around the city, there are continuous attacks. They can fence the land, but Gwadar is a peninsula, how can they fence the ocean?” she asked.

Incomplete wire fence construction from 2020 outside Gwadar City, Pakistan, December 2020. Photo by Suleman Hashim.

Many are also pointing out that the border fence barrier along the Durand Line, Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, has not made a difference. Although that fencing project was much larger, extending to over 2640 km, the motive was the same security. Despite the fence, the Pakistani government has been unable to curb terrorism emanating from Afghanistan.

The Gwadar fencing is not even 30 km. But it too will cost millions of dollars. Is this expenditure worth it for an already struggling economy?

There are also questions about whether security is the real concern or law enforcement has simply failed across the country. Is there too much control by the state?

Balancing these factors may be difficult but without a sincere effort to address underlying grievances, citizens’ freedoms will end up being eroded, and security may still be a concern.