Financial Times

SAARC – Waking up a sleeping beauty

By Trevor Jayetileke
The main objective of SAARC was aimed at accelerating the process of socio/economic development in the member states through an integrated action plan in numerous areas of co-operation such as agriculture, communication, education, culture, sports, environment, health, population services, meteorology, prevention of trafficking/drug abuse, rural development, science and technology, tourism, transport and women in development.

The moulding of SAARC, launched in 1985, to meet the challenges of the 21st century over the past 23 years could be seen to be lacking in leadership and direction when one compares it to other similar regional bodies such as APEC which was formed in 1989. One of the main reasons for the little progress can be attributed to the post-colonial baggage these countries carried till recently such as the Kings and Dynasties responsible for not alleviating the suffering and poverty of its masses for obvious reasons.

Sri Lanka is the main driving force behind the implementation of the South Asia Free Trade Area (SAFTA), so far without much success because of intractable political differences between India and Pakistan. But this has not dettered Sri Lanka from signing free trade agreements with both India and Pakistan.

The forthcoming Summit in Colombo to be held shortly would be a timely opportunity to infuse the dynamism SAARC needs if it is to play a role in the 'Grand Vision.' Australian Prime Minister Kevin Ruddhas proposed in creating an "Asia Pacific" Community by 2020 bringing together countries as disparate as the US, China, Japan, India, Indonesia and Australia which together with others will generate regional co-operation to freeing up trade and ensuring long-term security of energy, food and resources supply and also security from terrorism/piracy, and as an entity will account for almost half of global GDP and one third global trade.

The modernisation and reform of SAARC should begin with the Secretariat moving from land-locked Katmandu to Colombo which is central to the sea lane of the world with world class ports such as the Colombo Port, Trincomalee Natural Harbour and the Hambantota Port coming up shortly.
We have to find lasting solutions to our terrorist problems both in Sri Lanka and India that will see a peaceful and harmonious co-existence of all our 1.5 billion people in South Asia.

The SAFTA has to become operational if we are to lift the economic profile of the South Asian Region and it will be critical to increase the number of members such as new entrant Afghanistan.
It would be appropriate to invite Iran, the second biggest crude oil producer in OPEC, to become a full member of SAARC that will ensure the energy security of this body. The Indian Ocean is no more the forgotten ocean but the oyster of our region and Sri Lanka it’s most precious Pearl.

(The writer is a Founding and Life Member of the Australia-Sri Lanka Council Inc. in Melbourne.)

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