The massive 7.8-magnitude earthquake that struck southeastern Iran on Tuesday and killed at least 57 people in both Iran and neighboring Pakistan occurred in one of the poorest, most desolate (but potentially most significant) regions of South Asia/Middle East.
The quake hit the sparsely populated Iranian province of Sistan-Baluchistan, a vast and desolate region long ignored by the Tehran government.
The native peoples, the Baluch, are spread out across southeastern Iran, parts of western Afghanistan and the western Pakistani province of Baluchistan. They are believed to number some 8 million people, with the majority residing in Pakistan.
The Baluch, about half of whom still toil as semi-nomadic shepherds, speak an Iranian language, but their history is shrouded in mystery – historians believe they first settled in the region in the 12th century, but it is unclear where they originated.
Moreover, due to their geographic isolation, they have developed a unique culture that differs from the dominant Iranian, Afghan and Pakistani societies.
According to the Joshua Project, a Christian organization that focuses on the world’s forgotten ethnic peoples, the Baluch are self-sufficient, relying on their own skills for their homes and livelihood.
“Their economy is based on a combination of farming and semi-nomadic shepherding. They usually raise sheep, cattle, or goats,” Joshua stated.
Like many tribal societies in South Asia and Middle East, the Baluch are an extremely conservative patriarchy – but unlike most Sunni Muslims, they practice monogamous marriage, while mixed marriages are forbidden.
The Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization stated that Iran’s Baluch people are deprived of their cultural, social and economic rights, leaving them “feeling like third-class citizens."
“They face discrimination, particularly with regard to political participation and the job market,” UNPO stated.
“The punishment for dissemination of Baluch culture and language is a declared act of treason against the state, and assimilation policies carried out by the Persian [Iranian] state mean that the Baluch are rapidly losing their identity. Baluch people face systematic intimidation, harassment arrests, and torture.”
When Iran’s dictator-turned-monarch Reza Shah annexed western Baluchistan in 1928, his government enacted a brutal policy of repression in an effort to wipe out Baluchi culture and replace it with Persian norms. The Baluch also suffer for their Sunni faith in a nation dominated by Shias.
Today, Iranian Baluchis have the country’s lowest per capita income, with nearly 80 percent of the population living under the poverty line. The Baluchi also suffer from a life expectancy rate that is eight years less than the Iranian average, while infant mortality rates are the highest in the country.
In recent years, the Tehran regime has executed thousands of Baluchis for a host of alleged crimes, including separatist activities.
On the other side of the border, the Baluchis of Pakistan have along waged a campaign for autonomy from the government, resulting in a war that has so far killed tens of thousands of people as part of a brutal multi-decade crackdown by Islamabad.
Baluchi nationalists, including the Baluchi Liberation Army, claim that Pakistan seeks to keep the local people impoverished while exploiting its vast natural resources. In response, the Pakistani government has branded Baluchi separatist organizations as “terrorists.”
Like their brethren in Iran, the Pakistani Baluchis suffer from high rates of poverty, low literacy and other woes – all of which serve to fuel an insurgency that seems to have no resolution in sight.
Despite its seemingly impoverished and isolated nature, Baluchistan is a key strategic region for both Iran and Pakistan.
Not only does Baluchistan holds large reserves of gas, as well as gold, cooper, uranium and oil, it also enjoys a 600-mile coastline that provides easy access to the Persian Gulf, the world’s oil shipping center.
A huge oil and gas pipeline deal between Iran and Pakistan could be a new flashpoint. A 485-mile pipeline will be built between the two countries over the next two years – much of it through Baluch territory, making it susceptible to sabotage by separatists.
For the Baluchis of Pakistan a turning point in their endless war against the state occurred in 2006, when the local Baluchi tribal leader Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti was killed in a bloody firefight with the Pakistani army.
Bugti, 79 years old at the time of his death, had just submitted a list of demands to Islamabad, which called for, among other things, greater local control of natural resources, more autonomy from Islamabad, and a moratorium on construction of military bases in the area.
Bugti’s death was followed a few years later by the killings of Baluch National Movement president Ghulam Mohammed Baluch and two other nationalist leaders – allegedly by the Pakistani military, though this has ever been proven.
Their deaths sparked strikes, protests and civil disturbances which have never really ended.
Now, Nawabzada Mehran Marri, a representative for Baluchistan at the United Nations Human Rights Council, has accused both Pakistan and its giant ally China of conspiring to defraud the Baluch people, referring to the Pakistani government handing over operational control of the Gwadar deep-sea port project, located in Baluchistan, to Beijing.
"The Chinese and Pakistanis are the partners in the crimes against the Baluch nation,” he told Asian News International.
“And, the Gwadar port project is not a commercial project aimed at bringing prosperity in the region, and especially for the Baluch people, absolutely not. It is a naval base created for the Chinese to have listening post in the region. This is [a] danger to America, international and regional powers, and first and foremost, a danger to us.”
Marri, who is based in Dubai, also questioned Pakistan’s right to Gwadar and its access to Baluch natural resources.
"Pakistan is an illegal occupier and an illegitimate broker. It has no right to be a broker for Baluch resources," he said.
"We have to recognize the problem that Baluchistan is an occupied country … there's military operation, there's international propaganda they have played - Baluch have been a victim for almost 65 years.”
Marri added gloomily: "I don't see any political solution to Baluchistan issue. Everything is escalating year by year.”
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.