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RIGHTS: After the Kurds, the Case of the Balochis

Sanjay Suri

LONDON, May 19 2003 (IPS) - After world attention turned to the Kurds in Iraq, the Balochis of Iran are now asking for their cry of injustice to be heard.

The parallels are striking. Kurd leaders have said they are a people without a state, scattered across Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria. The Balochis now say they are a nation divided between Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

As the Kurds spoke of years of suppression under the Saddam Hussein regime, Baloch leaders now speak of years of oppression and denial of rights under the regime in Iran. The Kurds are mostly Shia Muslims who were oppressed by a Sunni-led regime under Saddam. The Balochis are mostly Sunni Muslims facing denial or rights under the Shia regime of Iran, their leaders say.

The eruption of the Kurd question on the world stage triggered determination among Baloch leaders from Iran to launch a new struggle for their rights. And while the world media focussed on Kurds, several leaders of Iranian Balochis held a meeting in London April 26 and 27 to launch a Balochistan United Front (BUF).

"We are a nation within Iran," BUF leader Abdullah Baloch told IPS in London Monday. "We have our own history, our own culture, our own language, our own ways." And the Balochis are a people who are unable to get their rights within Iran, he said.

The new BUF leaders are clear, however, that they are not looking for an Iraq kind of solution. "We are looking for autonomy and our rights within the framework of Iran," he said. "We want to solve our problems where we are without looking to the U.S. or Britain or anyone else for help."

There are an estimated three million Balochis in Iran, mostly in the Sistan and Balochistan province of Iran towards the south and east.

The Balochis have no representation in the Iranian parliament. "In any case that is just a consultative body," Abdullah Baloch said. "It can only give opinions." He said the Baloch leadership in Iran had written to President Mohammed Khatami several times about their plight, but have had no response.

Abdullah Baloch did not spell out who the Baloch leaders in Iran are. "The BUF has representation from the Baloch leadership in Iran, but we cannot name them for the sake of their security and well-being," he said.

The BUF has put out a statement detailing the persecution of Balochis in Iran. The BUF says Balochis are discriminated against because they are Sunni Muslim and also because they are "distinct from the Persians." They are "allowed to practise their own version of Islam, but culturally and politically they are oppressed."

The BUF cites figures from the Iranian government to show that between 35 and 50 per cent of the Balochi workforce are unemployed. In order to exercise tight control over the Balochis, the areas where they live have been declared a "special security zone", the BUF leaders say.

"Open and brutal suppression, imprisonment, torture and summary executions are routine in Balochistan," the BUF says.

The BUF lists some of the results of the discrimination:

– Only 60 per cent of Balochi children have access to basic education. – There is a high incidence of malaria, tuberculosis and other diseases in many deprived villages. – In the past 24 years of the Islamic regime, there has not been a single Baloch minister, chief executive, director, general manager, ambassador or senior army officer.

Baloch says that while the Balochis are spread across three countries, the BUF is speaking for the Iranian Balochis within Iran. There is no plan as yet to network politically with Balochis in Afghanistan and Pakistan, he said.

The networking is taking place internally for the moment, he said. There are several Baloch opposition groups who have come together within Iran and are looking for a voice abroad through the BUF.

"Balochistan United Front has been formed not only to unite all Baloch political forces in one coalition but also to let the world know what is going on in Balochistan," the BUF note says.

The BUF note says its leaders will also liaise with leaders of other oppressed groups within Iran to struggle jointly for their rights and to "fight the injustice and despotism of the Islamic regime."

The BUF says it will struggle for "a democratic, decentralised and civilised Iran where real democracy and separation of religion and politics are the tenet of an enlightened society."

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