Thursday, February 10, 2005

SAARC: Jinx continues on regional summit

+ For a change, the summit has not been held hostage by the perennial rivalry between India and Pakistan and indeed the leaders of both nations were actually looking forward to meeting each other in Dhaka to follow-up on peace talks that started at the last Saarc summit in Islamabad in January 2004. But to even a casual observer it would be obvious that India - often accused by other members of playing "big brother" to its smaller neighbours that are strung around its borders like satellites - is usually the one that throws the spanner in the works. +

10/02/2005

Jinx continues on regional summit
Ranjit Devraj


NEW DELHI: When India backed out of Sunday's summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) citing 'developments' in Nepal and the host country Bangladesh , the future of the seven-nation grouping looked bleaker than ever before in its chequered 20 year-old history.

It was almost as if a variety of events ranging from tsunamis and assassinations to political coups and bilateral hostility somehow conspired to postpone or scuttle the annual summits of the grouping that includes India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and the Maldives.

This year the summit had to be postponed first because of the Dec 26 tsunami which devastated the coasts of India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Then, it was India's withdrawal as a reaction to last week's "royal coup" and suspension of civil liberties in Nepal.

And for good measure, India's Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran also cited "the continuing and developing situation" in Bangladesh - the host of the summit. There are continuing nationwide strikes in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka in protest at a deadly grenade attack on an opposition party rally more than a week ago.

For a change, the summit has not been held hostage by the perennial rivalry between India and Pakistan and indeed the leaders of both nations were actually looking forward to meeting each other in Dhaka to follow-up on peace talks that started at the last Saarc summit in Islamabad in January 2004. But to even a casual observer it would be obvious that India - often accused by other members of playing "big brother" to its smaller neighbours that are strung around its borders like satellites - is usually the one that throws the spanner in the works.

"It is regretted that once again a Saarc summit has been postponed at the last moment because of a decision by the Government of India," complained Bangaldesh Foreign Secretary Shamsher Mobin Chowdhury at a press conference in Dhaka.

In case anyone needed a reminder, Chowdhury said such postponements ran counter to the "letter and spirit of the Saarc charter which precludes member-states from raising bilateral and contentious issues."

Pakistan Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz took the view that events in Nepal were a "totally internal affair."

A state of emergency was declared in the Himalayan nation by King Gyanendra on Feb 1, after he gave an address on state television accusing the government of Sher Bahadur Deuba of being incompetent in holding elections and failing to quell a violent Maoist insurgency that has killed more than 10,500 Nepalis.

Indian news agencies reported that after king's state address, all telephone lines and mobile phone networks were shut down and air traffic suspended, sealing the country off from the rest of the world. Commented an editorial in the 'Indian Express' on Saturday: "India's position on democracy in Nepal may not get unanimous consent at Saarc but that forum could have been used more effectively to communicate India's position to its neighbours."

Besides not wanting to accord any legitimacy to King Gyanendra as head of government in Nepal, India, too, had an equally big bone to pick with Dhaka as well.

New Delhi has been voicing concern over the security situation in Bangladesh well before the dramatic dismissal of the Deuba government in Nepal.

It had roundly condemned the assassination of former Bangladesh Finance Minister Shah Abu Mohammed Shamsul Kibria at a political rally held by the opposition Awami League that is seen as pro-India.

"All right thinking people must join in condemning such violent acts of terrorism, which constitute a direct attack on the fabric of democracy that the people of Bangladesh are striving to create for themselves," said the Indian Foreign Ministry statement. "The perpetrators must be identified and due justice seen to be meted out," India demanded.

Whatever the reason for the postponement, the inescapable fact is that Saarc has not quite taken off, for example, in the way that the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) or the European Union has. There are many explanations to why this is so.

In recent times Pakistan has been identifying itself more with the oil-rich Arab states to its west and even repudiating its deep historical and cultural ties with the sub-continent.

India on its part has been pursuing a 'Look East' policy and trying to engage with the booming economies of East and South-east Asia in the belief that there was nothing but trouble to be gained on its western front.

The long-standing dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir and the several wars they have fought over the territory does not help. And neither does the fact that both declared themselves as nuclear powers in 1998.

Kashmir may have wrecked Saarc summits more than any other single issue.

There have been other causes for bilateral tension between India and its neighbours, such as the question of large-scale migration of Bangladeshis and water sharing problems with Nepal that have affected the smooth functioning of Saarc.

Attempts at economic integration have also not taken off in the same way as in the European Union with India's sheer size being a major factor that intimidates its smaller neighbours.

Intra-regional trade within Saarc accounts for less than six percent of total foreign trade of all the countries compared to say 22 per cent for ASEAN and 64 per cent for the European Union.

According to the economist Prem Shankar Jha there is even a case for South Asian countries playing dog-in-the-manger which has seen Pakistan and India unable to agree on building a gas pipeline from the Iranian fields that would enormously benefit both countries.

Similarly Bangladesh has refused to sell its abundant gas to energy-hungry India although the Dhaka summit was to have seen the finalization of a deal to build a pipeline from Myanmar to India through Bangladesh at no capital cost to Dhaka.