SAARC the path ahead
Yet another SAARC (South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation) summit began and ended this week without much fanfare or fuss in New Delhi, the capital of the largest of the now eight 'sisters' of the region.
The summit saw Afghanistan, or the Government in control of its capital Kabul, being admitted to full membership of SAARC.
Arguably, the only other new feature of the summit this time was that countries like China, Japan, Korea and the United States of America and regional groupings like the European Union were admitted as 'observers'. This signalled an end to the long-standing American-phobia among Governments in the region.
SAARC decided to also admit Iran as an observer next time to maintain its non-aligned posture, but clearly, the inclusion of these observers indicates that the political leaders of South Asia have at last realised the grim truth; that one of the biggest, if not the biggest task ahead of them is the upliftment of the living standards of the 1.5 billion people in the region and that, sans the support of the economically powerful nations of the world, these nations will not be able to undertake this onerous task.
Much of SAARC and the theme of regional co-operation could be described by the local saying that loosely translated means 'talk is by palanquin, but the walk is by foot'.
At the first SAARC Summit in Dhaka the then Sri Lankan President Junius Jayewardene warned of the pitfalls the fledgling grouping would face as time went by. He said the SAARC ship has set sail in turbulent waters faced with stormy weather and possible mutineers, but he hoped it would enter harbour safely. Quoting from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar he said; "or such a full sea one we now afloat, and we must take the current when it serves, or lose our venture".
Those were difficult early days at a time when Sri Lanka was having a testing period in its relations with India, which in turn was having strained relations with almost all its neighbours.
Economic development issues seem to have been prioritised in the final declaration that has come from the concluded summit, with India attempting to lead the way in offering duty-free access for several items to the less developed neighbouring countries.
The Free Trade Agreement SAFTA, and the bi-lateral FTAs have painfully come into place now, and despite the hiccups, old fashioned trade barriers in the region are giving way to a freer flow of goods across frontiers.
The perennial problem of Kashmir still remains a major stumbling block in South Asian regional co-operation, but to Pakistan's and India's credit, they have managed to move forward despite this outstanding issue which revolves around each country's honour, so to say.
But for a country like Sri Lanka, economic development is strapped by the issue of terrorism, and the joint declaration seemed not to focus enough on regional co-operation on this score.
There is much common benefit that could be derived to all the nations of the region by co-operation and collaboration, but the emphasis and the impetus to help each other on a host of subjects ranging from cross-border terrorism to poverty alleviation, from narcotics control to education to health care and natural disaster mitigation, and greater freedom of access to information, seemed to be absent.
Eventually, SAARC must telescope its interests with ASEAN, the grouping of the economically stronger South East Asian nations. The existing SAARC-ASEAN Partnership Programme on matters relating to technical and scientific cooperation must expand to a more substantial level of cooperation between the two sides of the same continent. It is most unfortunate that ASEAN did not seek observer status when SAARC opened its doors to observers for ASEAN is a natural appendage to SAARC, and vice-versa.
It must be remembered that when ASEAN was first mooted in the mid-1960s, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) was invited to join, but the domestic political compulsions of the time forced us out of that union.
Something like an ATECO (Asian Trade and Economic Cooperation Organisation) must be the ultimate objective of both ASEAN and SAARC -- to make Asia -- the currently fastest growing continent in the world in terms of economic growth -- become an equally influential and prosperous powerhouse in the world -- along with the US and the EU -- and that the multitude of people living therein face a better and brighter future than they do right now.