Image credit: Asian Marxist Review - Photo: 2016

SAARC Falling Prey to Bilateral Disputes

Viewpoint by Sugeeswara Senadhira*

COLOMBO (IDN) – The Indian way of sabotaging the fragile regional cooperation in order to express hostility towards a neighbour due to a bilateral issue is causing concern to the friends of South Asian regional cooperation.

India, not for the first time, ensured that the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Summit in Islamabad would become a non-event. In the early 1990s India took similar actions to sabotage Dhaka and Colombo SAARC Summits.

On those two occasions what New Delhi did was to get a dependable South Asian friend – Bhutan – to announce its inability to attend the Summit, thus leading to the cancellation of the event as the SAARC Charter is specific on consensus of all seven, now eight, Member States.

When the King of Bhutan announced, in the eleventh hour, his inability to attend Colombo SAARC Summit in 1992, President Ranasinghe Premadasa was furious. He telephoned the leaders of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Maldives and asked them not to cancel their scheduled visit to Colombo and held a mini-South Asian Summit to show open displeasure to New Delhi.

This time India did not use a proxy, but while announcing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s withdrawal from Islamabad Summit, it organized Bhutan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh also to withdraw forcing the current SAARC Chair, Nepal to cancel the Islamabad event.

“There is no question of holding the Summit if four countries declare their unwillingness to participate. As the current SAARC Chair, Nepal has the responsibility of seeking a solution to such pre-Summit disputes but under the current circumstances nothing much can be attempted. We will do the due formalities and will declare the Summit of 2016 should be cancelled due to non-participation of Member States,” media quoted a Nepali diplomat.

Major differences

The atmospherics for the cancellation began building up after Bangladesh, Bhutan and Afghanistan sent formal official communications to Kathmandu on September 27 almost immediately after India expressed inability to participate in the Summit due to major differences with Pakistan and the situation in Kashmir.

Like India that cited ‘cross-border terrorist attacks in the region’ as a reason for boycotting the Summit, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Afghanistan too expressed concern about the same issue in their official notes to Kathmandu.

Sri Lanka, a country that strictly maintained a nonpartisan policy on Indo-Pakistan issue for over six decades, finally decided to issue a media release on the cancellation of the SAARC Summit.

Independent analysts are of the view that there was no requirement for Sri Lanka to issue any statement as the SAARC Charter clearly states the requirement for the participation of all the leaders for a Summit. Though Sri Lanka refrained from taking a side, the Foreign Ministry statement led to the interpretations that the statement was issued due to Indian pressure.

Mounting tension

There is no doubt that India’s neighbours are highly concerned about the mounting tension in Indo-Pakistan border. They all vehemently condemn terrorist attacks and deplore cross border attacks and all forms of terrorism.

However, they have a genuine desire for regional cooperation. They view SAARC as an institute, though slow in pace, gradually building regional cooperation in many areas such as education, tourism, archaeology and cultural relations.

Bangladesh also took India’s side due to its recent problems with Pakistan. “The growing interference in the internal affairs of Bangladesh by one country has created an environment, which is not conducive to the successful hosting of the 19th SAARC Summit in Islamabad in November 2016. Bangladesh, as the initiator of the SAARC process, remains steadfast in its commitment to regional cooperation, connectivity and contacts but believes that these can only go forward in a more congenial atmosphere,” stated a communication from Dhaka to Nepal which was published in Indian newspapers.

War of words

In recent years, the relations between Pakistan and Bangladesh suffered heavily. Bangladesh in recent months has been involved in a war of words with Pakistan over the war crimes trial, which led to the execution of a number of high profile political figures accused of crimes during the liberation war of 1971.

Bhutan, in a similar note to the SAARC Chair, made available to the media, stated that it ‘shares the concerns of some of the member countries of SAARC’ and its ‘inability’ to participate in the SAARC Summit.

“While reaffirming Bhutan’s strong commitment to the SAARC process and strengthening of regional cooperation, the concern of the Royal Government of Bhutan on the recent escalation of terrorism in the region, which has seriously compromised the environment for the successful holding of the 19th SAARC Summit in Islamabad,” the Bhutanese note said.

The Afghan case against Pakistan was made clear during President Ashraf Ghani’s latest visit to Delhi when he demanded more attention for the developments inside Pakistan that fuel violence in the region.

Not conducive

Answering critics, Minister Mangala Samaraweera said Sri Lanka expressed regret that the prevailing environment in the region, with several countries having stated their inability to attend the Summit, is not conducive for holding the Summit in November.

“We expressed hope that the steps required to ensuring our region’s peace and security will be taken to create an environment that is conducive for the pursuit of regional cooperation. At no point, Speaker, I would like to stress, did the government pull out of the 19th SAARC Summit; at no point did the government of Sri Lanka decide to boycott the SAARC Summit to be held in November. Those who made those allegations and accusations either did so through ignorance or lack of knowledge of the SAARC Charter,” he said in Parliament.

Following the cancellation, the future of SAARC has become uncertain. Some influential sections already talk about Sri Lanka’s possible entry to Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). Before SAARC was born, Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa openly canvassed for Sri Lanka to join ASEAN, but that was laughed off as a nonstarter.

Alternatives to SAARC

Sri Lanka seems to be looking at alternatives to SAARC. India’s decision to hold BRICS outreach together with BIMSTEC gives the impression that New Delhi also seriously looking at other options.

While President Maithripala Sirisena attended Asia Cooperation Dialogue Summit in Bangkok on October 8-10, he will attend the BRICS-BIMSTEC event in Goa.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe attended the Economic Cooperation Summit in Singapore earlier in October and now he is off to Brussels to have talks with the European Union. It seems the economic directions are gradually taking shape in accordance with the political affiliations.

*The writer is the Director (Research & International Media), Presidential Secretariat in Sri Lanka. This article first appeared in Ceylon Today on October 17 and is being reproduced by arrangement with the writer. It represents the personal view of the writer and not necessarily of IDN-INPS editorial board. [IDN-InDepthNews – 18 October 2016]

Image credit: Asian Marxist Review

IDN is the flagship of International Press Syndicate.

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