Opinion Article

Making SAARC meaningful

[TamilNet, Monday, 14 July 2008, 11:42 GMT]
The South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation, which incorporates India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives and now Afghanistan, is a logical process, not just because of geographical contiguity, shared cultures, legacies of British imperialism, elite use of English language etc., but because of the region’s common aspirations and problems, first of all in ensuring secure and quality life, and then seeking the rightful place for one fifth of humanity in the contemporary world. What went wrong with the noble concept of SAARC, while similar regional formations such as the EU and ASEAN are successful elsewhere, discusses Opinion Columnist Chivanadi.

Sri Lanka is tensed before the fifteenth SAARC summit scheduled to take place by the end of this month.

Sri Lanka Army denies permission to the people of Jaffna, who live in an open prison, to travel outside, alleging security threat to the summit. There are unconfirmed reports of expected arrival of Indian troops to Colombo to provide security. Earlier, news reports speculated, linking the visit the Indian National Security Advisor and two Secretaries of the Defense and External Affairs, with security issues of the summit.

The reports, whether true or camouflage, at least make it obvious that there is something wrong with the whole exercise of SAARC.

The South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation, which incorporates India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives and now Afghanistan, is a logical process, not just because of geographical contiguity, shared cultures, legacies of British imperialism, elite use of English language etc., but because of the region’s common aspirations and problems, first of all in ensuring secure and quality life, and then seeking the rightful place for one fifth of humanity in the contemporary world.

What went wrong with the noble concept of SAARC, while similar regional formations such as the EU and ASEAN are successful elsewhere?

Disparity is the main issue. When SAARC was initiated in 1985, someone called it as Snow White and the Six Dwarfs while another saw it as the Big Bully and Six Dwarfs.

Right from the beginning there were two different perceptions behind the idea of regional cooperation in South Asia: the Indian ambition to bring the neighbours under its fold to address it security concerns and the neighbours’ outlook to make a forum to check India interfering into their affairs.

SAARC was doomed at the outset by such a dichotomy in perception.

Considering its size and gravity, India has to bear the bulk of the blame, for failure in coming out with the vitally needed leadership and statesmanship in forging feasible and conducive models to make SARRC successful.

India has allowed the differences between it and her neighbours to be manipulated deftly and subtly by forces that wanted to block the successful emergence of the region.

The situation witnessing a growing tendency among the peoples of the neighbouring countries that why should they care for the security of India when India doesn’t care for their security is going to be fatal to India and the region of South Asia in the long run.

It is alarming to note that five, out of the eight South Asian Countries, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal are listed as failed states.

This accounts for the misery of one fourth of the South Asian population. Not to mention the downtrodden masses of the other South Asian countries, including India, facing political and social injustices.

While there is an urgent need for the people of South Asia to join hands in asserting to their security, livelihood, rights and good governance, one can easily see that their governments, run by forces of vested interests, are the foremost impediment in forging the South Asian unity.

A typical demonstration is the way and timing of signing the Mannaar Basin oil agreement between an Indian corporate outfit and Sri Lanka, and the connotations behind it, while Eezham Tamils, the traditional shareholders of the sea space of the Mannaar Basin, facing genocide.

‘Grab what is possible from a burning house’ (Eriki’ra veeddil pidungkinathu michcham) is a saying in Tamil, characterizing the attitude.

While such greed is also evident in the acts of the so-called International Community, it is not expected from India that has a responsibility for the region.

It is a SAARC irony that while large-scale Indian investments and spatial occupations are taking place in the Eezham Tamil areas of Trincomalee and the Mannaar Basin, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu is concerned about petty holdings of Eezham Tamil individuals in Tamil Nadu.

India rightfully deserves addressing its security and economic interests in the region and no one can deny them. But it needs political farsightedness, sophistication and an altogether different outlook. Imitating the collapsing model of some world powers will not help. The issues involved are not merely to be viewed as Indian interests but as interests of South Asia.

Unfortunately, common people of South Asia are not concerned with the foreign policies of their governments. Illiteracy in the region is a reason. Unlike in some of the successful democracies in the world, foreign policy is never an election issue, influencing the choice of a government in South Asia.

In a region where political parties keep people engrossed in petty domestic issues to come to power, it becomes easier for a few individuals who are not responsible to the people, to decide the foreign policy in order to serve the forces of vested interests inside and outside.

For more than twenty years now, the SAARC governments have failed in making any headway and are beating around the bush. The fact that SAARC affairs are largely handled and decided by Security Advisors and intelligence officers indicates the gravity of the problem that it has not moved an inch from the precincts of security.

The various subsidiaries of SAARC, initiated with a slogan ‘people to people contact’, are bogus outfits only to reflect the governments and to accommodate people in the service of those governments. They never reflect the real people and seldom go beyond the South Asian capitals. In fact, the peoples’ contacts have very much shrunk today than it was in the days without SAARC.

The South Asian countries have to boldly think of new theoretical frameworks and models to pursue regional cooperation, if the present one has failed. South Asia needs to invent something to suit its heritage.

There was no political India or South Asia in the past. But homogeneity of the region was always there in its peoples and cultures.

Imperial unity in this region was achieved only on a very few, short-lived occasions, before the colonial empire: Asoka’s empire collapsed after him and Aurangzeb’s empire crumbled with the rise of the Marattas.

The strength of unity and regional cooperation in South Asia lies not in its political units of today, but in its peoples and cultures.

Any attempt to make SAARC a meaningful reality should therefore begin from exploring ways of allowing the peoples of South Asia their rightful public space, recognition of their identities and allowing their right to peacefully interact.

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa is hopeful on focusing the issue of 'terrorism' in South Asia in the forthcoming summit.

Failure to address the aspirations of people and responding to them with state terror are the root cause for all forms of violent conflicts.


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