In December 2017, China offered the Afghan government a chance to become part of their ambitious $50 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). At the same time, they made it clear that the project was not in any way directed against India and that no third party should be concerned with its progress. This came after India complained that the corridor passes through Gilgit-Baltistan (GB)in Pakistan-administered Kashmir which is a territory claimed by both India and Pakistan. After negotiating a border stand-off at Doklam Plateau (China-Bhutan disputed border) both India and China indicated that they wanted to build peaceful relations by solving their bilateral disputes through diplomacy instead of armed conflicts. Pakistan wants to follow the same path, and open a dialogue with India in order for CPEC to develop without any problems. However, another solution could be that the government of Pakistan could instead refer to the people of this region. The Kashmiris and the people of GB could also be brought into the loop. They could finally have the plebiscite that was promised these people by the UNCIP resolution so many years ago. But this will never happen. Pakistan fears the outcome of the plebiscite. Why do you think Pakistan has been so reluctant to grant GB provincial status? The usual response from Islamabad is that its due to its disputed nature yet the reality is quite different. After the 18th amendment was passed under Asif Ali Zardari’s government, provinces were granted a semblance of autonomy. However, if GB was given provincial status, it would control its own economic and administrative polices and could claim a larger share of the benefits from CPEC. Another reason was their small population size of only two million people. If they were granted provincial status then the people of FATA, Southern Punjab, the Potohar region and Karachi could also end up demanding provincial status and full autonomy. Thus, by issuing Order 2018, Islamabad has made certain that the centre continues to enjoy the economic benefits and administrative powers that would’ve instead been under the control of the people of GB themselves. In case of Azad Jammu Kashmir (AJK), Islamabad amended the Interim Act of 1974. The legislative, monetary and administrative status of the Kashmir Council has been reduced to an advisory role, with all powers reverted to the office of the prime minister. By reinforcing Section 7 of the Interim Act, and adding an additional clause, the government has essentially restricted the freedom movement in AJK and disillusioned the locals. In October 2017, Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani categorically said that his country would join the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) only if Islamabad allows connectivity between India and Afghanistan. Mentioning sovereignty issues raised by India, Ghani also warned that if Afghanistan was not given transit access to Wagah and Attari for trade with India via Pakistan, then Kabul would also restrict Islamabad’s access to central Asia. When Pakistan and India both reluctant to sit down for a civilised talk, China decided to use backdoor channels to open a dialogue with India and convince them to cooperate with Pakistan. As a result, an Indian delegation was spotted at a March 23 parade in Islamabad, and later the same year at the Shanghai Co-operation Summit. What the region needs is a strong group of leaders who are not afraid to take on the collective might of the Indian and Pakistani governments, in order to fight for the disenfranchised people of Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Jammu Kashmir Now there is an interim government in charge. They have limited powers and this provides the establishment a freehand. As a first step the ISPR (Inter Services Public Relations) on May,29 2018 (soon after the announcement of interim PM) tweeted the first sign of the establishment’s anticipated strategy to calm tensions with India. The director generals of Military Operations (DGMOs) of both countries agreed to a ceasefire agreement on the border, including the LOC in AJK. India for their part realise that the only time relations with their neighbours to the West got better, was under Musharraf’s rule, which is why they believe talking to the establishment will lead to better results with respect to CPEC. If this turns out to be true, then India will be given the green light to join CPEC in the coming weeks. It would benefit them greatly as it would open up markets in central Asia, and, at the same time, ease tensions with Pakistan. In the end, CPEC seems like a great opportunity for all countries involved yet there is one important community that is being ignored in all of this, the people of GB and AJK. If there had been a strong and unified leadership in the region then perhaps they could have used this opportunity to pressurise Pakistan, and India in to giving them more autonomy and letting them be in charge of their own fate. However, current leaders are not brave enough to make these sacrifices and are, instead, happy to take whatever scraps Islamabad throws at them. What the region needs is a strong group of leaders who are not afraid to take on the collective might of the Indian and Pakistani governments, in order to fight for the disenfranchised people of GB and AJK. Only then can the years of oppression they have suffered through finally come to a stop and its citizens get the freedom they have craved for so long. The writer is a US-based human rights activist and a freelance journalist of Kashmiri origin. He can be reached at [email protected] Published in Daily Times, June 8th 2018.