A Pakistani ethnic rights group drew over 8,000 people to a rally in Lahore on Sunday, despite pressure from security officials to call off the event focusing on human rights violations in areas bordering Afghanistan.
The leader of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), student activist Manzoor Pashteen, delivered an address criticizing the country’s powerful military and its actions in the majority ethnic Pashtun Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).
“I urge professional soldiers not to follow the command of the generals and brigadiers. Refuse to obey their orders because they (generals) can get you killed like they did with people of Waziristan and other parts of the country,” Pashteen said.
The North and South Waziristan areas of FATA were the site of large military operations in 2009 and 2014 after the Pakistan Taliban took control of swathes of territory in the region.
Waziristan is still affected by media restrictions, limiting the ability of journalists to travel there, and activists say that has contributed to the portrayal of the Pashtun population as wedded to backward tribal customs and maintaining close ties to militant groups.
On Saturday, five PTM members were taken from their hotel by Lahore police and told they did not have permission to hold a rally, organization leader Ali Wazir told Reuters.
“We have come to Lahore so we can share our pain and suffering with people,” Wazir said.
“No one here knows what is happening in FATA.”
Police confirmed five activists were picked up but did not give any reasons for their detention.
PTM emerged after the January killing by police of Pashtun youth Naqibullah Mehsud in Karachi sparked nationwide condemnation and demonstrations attracting several thousand people.
The organization has drawn the ire of the country’s armed forces.
Pakistan’s army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa said at an April 12 meeting with dignitaries that “no anti-state agenda in the garb of engineered protests” will be allowed to succeed, the military’s public relations department said in a statement.
He did not name PTM when making the comments.
At least two universities in Pakistan canceled talks related to Pashtun rights last week after receiving calls from security officials, faculties at both institutions said.
A faculty member at Lahore’s Punjab University was fired after being criticized for participating in an event attended by Pashteen and promoting left-leaning ideas with students, associate professor Ammar Ali Jan said.
The university has said Jan was removed after failing to complete employment paperwork, despite teaching there for over a semester.
Midway through the rally, sewage water was released onto the grounds of Lahore’s Mochi Gate where the protest was being held but participants remained undeterred.
Local government officials declined to comment on how the waste water was released.