Pakistan’s powerful military has seemed unstoppable recently in getting what it wants: its favored candidate as prime minister, a victory of sorts in a dogfight with the Indian military, and its media critics hounded into silence or compliance.
Now, the Pakistani Army has turned its sights on ending one of the last unbending sources of dissent to its power, an ethnic Pashtun rights protest movement known as P.T.M. that has called the Pakistani security forces to account for extrajudicial killings and other injustices.
Trying to stop a rights demonstration in the troubled region of Waziristan on Sunday, the security forces killed at least eight people, according to members of the movement who described the dead as unarmed and peaceful protesters. The army also took into custody Ali Wazir, one of the movement’s leaders and a member of the country’s Parliament.
After months of threatening and arresting leading P.T.M. figures, the army has made clear that it will no longer tolerate the group. A military spokesman said that its members attacked and wounded security forces before any shooting started — though the army has shown no evidence to counter witness accounts and videos largely pointing to the contrary. The military also accuses the protest movement of being a proxy for enemies in India and Afghanistan.
For its part, the P.T.M. leadership has insisted since the attack that their members who were fired upon were unarmed and that the movement would not back down. Protests broke out Monday all around Pakistan’s Pashtun-heavy northwestern frontier.
“This terrorism? Behind it is the uniform,” protesters shouted in Wana, Waziristan, referring to the country’s military.
“This thuggery? Behind it is the uniform.”
The Pakistani state has long had a troubled relationship with its Pashtun population, the second largest ethnic group in the country. Many Pashtun leaders disagreed with the formation of Pakistan when the country split from India in 1947.
More recently, the Pakistani Army has often treated Pashtuns with suspicion because the Taliban militancy against the state has been predominantly Pashtun — though locals in Pashtun areas say that their area was until recently governed by draconian, colonial-era laws, and that they feel trampled both by the militants and the Pakistani military.
Now, the military seems set to make that prediction true, setting up a conflict that some observers are already comparing, if prematurely, to when Pakistan’s oppressed Bengali population broke away to form Bangladesh in 1971.
Last month, the military’s main spokesperson made it clear that the P.T.M. would no longer be tolerated, and that their next big move could be their last. The warning came at a time when Pakistan’s military was particularly confident, having recently shot down an Indian warplaneand captured its pilot.
“Their time is up,” Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor, the spokesman, said of the P.T.M. at a news conference.
Details of Sunday’s clash are not clear. Eyewitnesses said a convoy of P.T.M. supporters, including two of its leaders who are members of Parliament, were on their way to a sit-in of tribal elders in Datta Khel in North Waziristan, bordering Afghanistan.
The situation in the area has been tense. Earlier this month, Pakistani forces came under fire and lost one soldier. No group claimed the attack, but in retaliation, the military raided villages and rounded up people. The villagers protested the heavy-handed response.
When the convoy was trying to cross a checkpoint to reach the sit-in, security forces blocked their path. On the other side of the checkpoint, eyewitnesses said dozens of people from the sit-in arrived to receive the P.T.M. members.
“It was clearly a charged situation, but it is not clear what triggered the military personnel to start firing,” said Hamid Ullah, a local resident who witnessed the incident.
Videos from the scene before and after the firing did not show any armed men among the protesters. One video shows the convoy had crossed the checkpoint, and Ali Wazir, one of the lawmakers, was being received with a garland of flowers by protesters when shooting erupted and the crowd around him dispersed.
Mohsin Dawar, a leader of the P.T.M. and the second member of Parliament accompanying the convoy, rejected the military’s claim that P.T.M. supporters had fired at soldiers at the checkpoint. Mr. Dawar said all the supporters with him were unarmed. He urged an independent investigation.
“P.T.M. is ready to present itself in any commission,” Mr. Dawar said. “Killing unarmed and entirely peaceful protesters in broad daylight cannot be justified under any Pakistani and international law.”
After arresting his fellow member of Parliament, Mr. Dawar said the military was searching for him as well. He spoke via satellite phone from an undisclosed location.
“North Waziristan has become a black hole since the incident,” he said. “Curfew has been imposed. Phones are not working. Roads are closed. The entire district has become a jail.”
Manzoor Pashteen, the top leader of the P.T.M., said on Twitter that the group will continue its nonviolent constitutional struggle.
“Those who attack, do they come with garlands of flowers around their necks?” he said, sharing videos showing unarmed protesters. “Which one of these regular folks and the people’s representatives are carrying weapons?”
The trigger for the movement’s start last February was the killing of Naqeebullah Mehsud, an aspiring model from South Waziristan with a large social media following who was shot dead by the police. Its growth has been rapid, and its often emotional rallies — with elderly mothers carrying pictures of children who are missing and allegedly disappeared by Pakistani forces — have drawn thousands of people.
The Pakistani military has resorted to wide-ranging restrictions and harassment of the movement, and a media ban of their rallies and activities seems to be in place.
As the P.T.M. increased pressure, Pakistan’s military has accommodated some of its demands, such as reducing the number of checkpoints in North and South Waziristan, easing aggressive searches, relaxing the curfew, starting demining programs and offering answers to some of the families searching for missing people.
Current and former security officials said P.T.M. had proved difficult to control, largely because it has stuck to nonviolence and kept their demands within constitutional bounds. In this, they were different from Balochi separatists, who formed an armed insurgency, against whom Pakistan’s military could more easily justify the use of force.
Despite publicly branding the P.T.M. a tool of foreign intelligence, in private Pakistani military officials seem divided about how much the movement owed to instigators from abroad and how much came from “emotional youth protesting for genuine grievances,” one senior retired official said.
Pakistan’s human rights commission and international rights bodies have expressed alarm over the use of military force and have demanded investigations.
What happens to the P.T.M. will be an indication of whether Pakistan will regain some of its lost space for dissent, or fall further into military control.
Omar Waraich, the deputy director for South Asia at Amnesty International, said Pakistan’s human rights situation has sunk to its lowest since the 1980s rule of the military dictator Gen. Zia ul-Haq.
“What was once space for a vibrant civil society and a lively if raucous media has progressively shrunk to the point of suffocation,” Mr. Waraich said. “P.T.M. has been the boldest attempt yet to hold the state accountable for human rights violations, especially against Pashtuns. The crackdown is the latest demonstration by the state, and particularly the military, that it will not tolerate dissent.”