In response to last week's accusation by the military that Pakistan's Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) has been receiving funds from Afghanistan's and India's intelligence agencies, its leader, Manzoor Pashteen, blamed the country's most powerful institution of turning the war on terror into a lucrative business in their region.
Pashteen alleged to VOA in a telephone interview from Islamabad that Pakistan's military has been trying to sow confusion among people about PTM.
"These are baseless accusations that we receive funding from foreign intelligence agencies. They cannot produce a single evidence," Pashteen said. "There is an English saying that if you cannot convince them, confuse them. That's exactly what the military has been doing against us.
"They [military] train militants here and then the militants carry out attacks in my country and other countries of the world. With PTM's emergence as a movement, the military can no longer operate with impunity to do that and their so-called business has been faced with difficulties," he added.
Last Monday, Major General Asif Ghafoor, director general of Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) and the spokesperson for the military, accused the PTM of receiving funds from Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security (NDS) and India's Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), and advancing their agendas inside Pakistan.
"On the PTM website, they have got a number that states the amount of funds they have collected from Pashtuns around the world. But tell us how much money did you get from the NDS [Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security] to run your campaign? How much money did RAW [India's Research and Analysis Wing] give you for the first dharna [sit-in protest] in Islamabad?" Ghafoor asked.
"We want to do everything for the people [of tribal areas], but those who are playing in the hands of people, their time is up. Their time is up," Ghafoor added, implying that PTM members are serving as foreign agents.
But Pashteen charges that it's the military that gets funding from foreign countries, not his movement.
"They [military] want to end PTM so that they could continue nurturing militancy and then attack them here and there and receive funding for it from the international community," Pashteen said.
"It was not us. It was them who have received about $33 billion from foreigners," he added.
Pakistan has received more than $ 33 billion in U.S assistance since 2002 including more than $14 billion in Coalition Support Fund (CSF) which is a U.S. Defense Department program for reimbursing allies that incur costs while supporting the U.S-led counter-insurgency and counter-terror operations in the region.
Ghafoor urged Pakistan's Pasthun population not to be provoked by what he called "anti-state forces," which he used to describe Pashteen and his movement.
"Pakistan armed forces will not rest until your issues are resolved. We hope that you will not pay attention to their [PTM] rhetoric and instead stop these anti-state forces," Ghafoor said.
But Pashteen maintains that he respects the country's constitution and that the military has a tendency to label anyone who fights for constitutional rights as "anti-state forces."
"Whomever criticizes them [military] is anti-state. Those who demand respect to constitution are labeled as anti-state. Those who demand a republic are called traitors and anti-state," Pashteen said.
"You tell me, isn't it constitutional to demand due process for missing persons? We simply say that if someone committed a crime, punish him, and if someone is innocent, release him. How is that unconstitutional?" he asked.
Pashtuns, who are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan but a minority in Pakistan, have felt neglected and targeted in Pakistan for some time. That long-simmering anger boiled over in January 2018 with the death of Naqeebullah Mehsud, a 27-year-old shopkeeper-turned-model, at police hands in Karachi.
Police said at the time that Mehsud had been killed in a shootout with members of the Pakistani Taliban, but an internal inquiry cast doubt on that claim, saying Mehsud had no evident link to any militant group.
The killing sparked days of protests and a weekslong march in Pashtun-dominated northwestern Pakistan. It also prompted the establishment of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, or Pashtun Protection Movement, that has since held dozens of rallies across the country demanding basic rights for ethnic Pashtuns.
The movement demands an end to extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, removal of military checkpoints, and the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission.
The government says that measures have been taken to address those concerns.
Pashteen, however, denies they have and vows his movement will continue to hold rallies and push the government for meeting those demands.
Pashteen has increasingly relied on social media to get his movement's message across to supporters, complaining that local Pakistani media have not covered the group's activities.
He claims after he held an interview with Khyber TV a month ago, "When they wanted to air it, soldiers went in to the station and confiscated the very computer that the interview was stored in."
Editors from Khyber TV deny this.
“This is totally wrong and fabricated. No Pakistani soldiers ever entered our premises nor anyone forced the station not to air the interview,” Hassan Khan, the group editor at the Khyber TV told VOA.
The interview was not broadcast because Pakistani security officials contacted and informed “us giving media platform to anyone trying to fuel ethnic or religious troubles in the country is against the government policy,” Hassan said.
He said he has been added to the Exit Control List, banning him from travel abroad.
Pashteen said the military has been harassing and intimidating him and his friends to get them to end the movement, but he vowed that the movement would continue to operate until their demands are met.
"The military even warned us in its recent press conference. We have been nonviolent and we would continue to be nonviolent in the future. We believe in humanity and we would serve humanity. We would never harm anyone. But our movement will continue," Pashteen said.
Ayaz Gul contributed to this report from Islamabad