South Asia is home to the some of the poorest nations in the world. The region desperately needs greater integration to marshal its resources and help stimulate development that will offer its citizens better lives. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was created to do just that, but the organization has been stymied by the region’s politics. The postponement of a summit scheduled for this week is the latest blow to South Asia’s hopes.
SAARC was founded in 1985. Its members include India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan and the Maldives, whose citizens constitute about one-fifth of the Earth’s population, and they live on less than 3 percent of the world’s land, making the region the most densely populated area of the planet. More than 40 percent of the population lives on less than $1 a day. Adult literacy is only 55 percent. Intra-SAARC trade is just 4 percent, and the region accounts for a mere 1 percent share of world trade.
The dream of greater cooperation has been the foundation of SAARC. The reality of long-standing enmity has been an unyielding obstacle to its progress. The decision to postpone this week’s meeting is yet more proof of the many difficulties posed by regional politics.
The summit was originally scheduled for early January, but it was delayed because of the Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunami, which battered the region. Earlier last week, India decided that the situation in Bangladesh, which is hosting the meeting, was too unstable to allow the summit to go ahead. Delhi was concerned by the assassination of former Bangladesh Finance Minister Shah AMS Kibria and reports of three explosions, one of which was apparently close to the meeting venue. India has another beef with Bangladesh. It has charged Bangladesh with providing refuge for Indian rebels, a charge that the government in Dhaka denies; it says there are no rebels on its territory. The SAARC charter requires all members to attend the annual conference; India’s withdrawal means the meeting has to be canceled.
Relations with Bangladesh are not the only factor influencing Delhi’s thinking. The recent turmoil in Nepal is another concern. The Maoist insurgency there has been accelerating in recent years; by one estimate, the guerrillas have killed over 10,000 people since 1996. Earlier last week, Nepal’s King Gyanendra dismissed the government, declared a state of emergency and assumed power himself as head of the Cabinet. Under the state of emergency, he suspended civil liberties, including press freedom, and placed many leading politicians under house arrest. The king claimed his government would aim to restore multiparty democracy within three years.
Not surprisingly, the Maoists called a three-day strike to protest the move. That is a cynical gesture since the guerrillas have refused to negotiate with the previous government, arguing that the king held real power in the country. The new home minister has said that the government will move to resume talks with the Maoists.
India is Nepal’s biggest trading partner and looms large over the country’s politics. Delhi, along with many other countries, has condemned the change of government. Having India’s prime minister attend the SAARC summit alongside Nepal’s king would have legitimated the dismissal of the government. In this sense, the decision to hold off on the SAARC meeting makes sense.
Unfortunately, the delay also blocks progress on relations between India and Pakistan, the relationship that has traditionally frustrated SAARC’s intentions. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was scheduled to hold talks with his Pakistani counterpart, Mr. Shaukat Aziz, to review progress in their two countries’ peace process. While the talks have encountered long-standing difficulties, most notably the disputed territory of Kashmir, most observers have been surprised by the momentum they have acquired.
Distrust still dominates relations between the two parties, and every face to face encounter among top leaders is helpful. That is why the Indian decision to pull out of the SAARC meeting is such a disappointment: It deprives the Delhi-Islamabad talks of an opportunity to instill yet more momentum to the peace process. It is unclear when the summit will be held or when the two leaders will have another chance to meet. That disappointment is shared by all the citizens of South Asia, who yearn for peace and stability and are continually battered by events, both natural and man-made, beyond their control.
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