Reviving SAARC will be difficult but it can be done, says the former Foreign Secretary of Bangladesh. This time, however, government must play facilitator and let business and civil society get on with the job of advantageous regionalism.
Since the first meeting in Dhaka in 1985, the ten SAARC summits thus far have been fairly predictable occasions. They have been heavy on ritual, with the inevitable speeches singing the glories of regional cooperation and lamenting the slow progress thus far. Meanwhile, don’t we know it, everyone else has marched forward, leaving us poor South Asians simply getting poorer. So much for the eradication of poverty by 2002. While everyone readily understands that in this age of globalisation there is no alternative to building a strong regional grouping, we South Asians will insist on doing everything possible to ensure that we remain a divided region. Who will our leaders blame this time? Years of misgovernance have come home to roost; there is no one other than ourselves to blame for the sorry mess we find ourselves in; the heads must wake up to the fact that they must join hands to give the 1.3 billion people of the region a better future.
True, 11 September 2002 and the global recession will make life infinitely more painful for all our countries, although more so for some than for others. But the WTO ministerial conference at Doha nearly two months ago made it clear that there are certain things South Asia must do to get ahead— we must work more closely together as a regional grouping and move swiftly to a free trade area; we must develop our infrastructure on a collective basis; we must remove all the existing barriers to trade and investment; and we must function as a single economic market if we are to survive and escape from this quintessentially South Asian poverty trap.
No longer, therefore, can we afford to let this be yet another SAARC Summit that is heavy on ritual and poor on substance. The people do seek a miracle, and that is to see bold and imaginative leadership. Of course we are all painfully aware of the many bilateral differences that exist. We cannot wish these away, but we cannot any longer afford to wait to resolve all these difference in order to make progress on a regional basis. This, then, should be the first decision of the Summit- that, come what may, SAARC will be put on the fast track. Or, to be more precise, the process of regional cooperation will be put on the fast track, but there will be some differences this time around. Governments will simply play the role of the facilitator; they will join hands to remove the bottlenecks that impede cooperation in all spheres, and provide the infrastructure. And, rather than government, it will be the private sector, civil society groups and NGOs that will be encouraged to move forward, undertaking joint projects and developing new networks.
Let the SAARC heads of state/government meet at Kathmandu separately or even collectively with business leaders, civil society representatives and the media for a free-flowing dialogue on breaking barriers and moving forward. If this should not be possible now, in Kathmandu, let the heads agree to such a dialogue in the near future. The heads must recognise that the past mechanisms have failed. The Technical Committees, the Standing Committee, even the Council of Ministers, have so far shown very little capacity for imaginative thinking, and even less so for action on the ground.
Implementation, implementation, and one more time implementation…should be the mantra for the revival of SAARC itself. The organisation, thus far, has been the cumulative reflection of this regional handicap, which is our inability to implement and convert pious words into action. We all talk about delivering good governance and corruption-free societies, and thus far talking seems to have been sufficient. In the new world order as it is evolving, we simply cannot afford the luxury of doing things in our own traditional South Asian way. We must all change, and this of course applies to SAARC and South Asian regionalism. We cannot perform miracles with a half-baked Secretariat and a Secretary General who is little more than a messenger between the capitals and their foreign ministries. To be truly effective in a region such as ours, the SAARC Secretary General must be at the level of a former foreign minister, with access to the top-most echelons in each country. And he must be allowed the freedom to take a variety of initiatives, to be proactive.
One of the first things the seven country heads of state/government should do when they arrive in Kathmandu is to sit down together in a closed door meeting, foreign ministers included. At that meeting, they must acknowledge the fact that SAARC is facing a serious crisis, one which requires several bold decisions of them. The heads and the foreign ministers need to generate not only political will but also economic will, which comes from an understanding of the economic tasks that lie pending before the entire region.
In other words, miracles are needed at the Kathmandu summit. A little bit of South Asian magic, or jadoo, is what is required, for there is no way but ahead for SAARC and South Asian regional cooperation, and the quicker each country wakes up to the fact the better. Once the magic has worked, and the heads and the ministers do decide to take some genuine action towards reviving SAARC, they may consider the following specific measures to emanate from the summit:
- Issue a strongly-worded statement reaffirming commitment of the member countries to SAARC and, in reflection of this, pledge to undertake some specific measures on a priority basis.
- Announce a programme for the implementation of the convention to combat terrorism.
- Announce dates for a meeting of SAARC finance minister to re-examine the strategy to combat poverty.
- Sign the convention to prevent Trafficking of Women and Children, including setting up a task force that would monitor implementation of the convention.
- Set up a task force to prepare a draft SAFTA treaty that would be presented to the next summit for signature.
- Set up a task force made up of both government and non-governmental experts to prepare a draft South Asian investment treaty.
- Announce dates for a meeting of ministers of civil aviation and tourism that would put forward a plan of action to promote tourism and further air links between the countries of the region.
- Arrange an annual dialogue between the SAARC heads of state/government and the regional civil society leadership to exchange views on improving people-to-people contacts and strengthening regional cooperation.
- Announce the holding of an annual business summit in the Maldives along the lines of the Davos sumit, to be jointly organised by the business and academic communities.
- Announce dates for the completion of work on a South Asian Social Charter.
- Examine ways and means to strengthen infrastructure and communication links in the region.
- Agree to strengthen the Secretariat, including upgrading the post of SAARC Secretary General.
- Emphasise energy cooperation in the region.
- Strengthen SAARC’s cooperation with the European Union, ASEAN, the United Nations and its specialised agencies.
- Stress the importance of presenting a common platform or position at crucial international conferences, particularly those related to economy and commerce, culture, environment, and the many social issues.
In order to ensure implementation of these measures, as well as to outline specific other measures to strengthen the Secretariat, the heads should announce a special summit, to be convened six months from now, to review the implementation of the above decisions and to consider adopting a specific plan of action covering all of the above. A special task force made up of eminent scholars and experts along the lines of the Group of Eminent Persons should be constituted within ten days of the end of the Eleventh Summit to prepare for this special summit.
This task force of eminent persons and experts would complete its work in three months and present its report to the SAARC Standing Committee. However, on this occasion, the task force members would be invited to attend and participate in the work of the Standing Committee and subsequently in the work of the Council of Ministers, and then eventually at the SAARC Special Summit itself. Since the pro forma meetings of the ministers and bureaucrats have already been tried and found wanting in the past, this involvement of the eminent persons and experts would provide some chance for success of the new initiative to revive SAARC. It is definitely time to try new formulae.
The summit attendance sheet
Though General Ziaur Rahman of Bangladesh was behind the idea of SAARC regionalism, he was assassinated by the time the organisation met for its first summit in Dhaka on 7-8 December 1985. The frequent changes since in the participation at summits by the heads of state and government is a reminder of the fickleness of political careers and, indeed, life itself (see schedule below).
Looking back, the first four SAARC summits (1985- 1988) are remarkable for having been attended by the same leaders each time, with the exception of Pakistan. Islamabad was represented at the fourth summit by Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, following the death of Chief Martial Law Administrator General Zia ul-Haq in an aircraft sabotage. In the fifth summit, India, Nepal, Pakistan iai Sri Lanka sent new leaders. In the ensuing six summits, there were only two occasions when the leadership of all seven countries remained constant.
As the 1990s progressed, and as the attendance chart shows, the leadership of South Asian nation-states became more and more unstable. SAARC itself began to miss annual summit dates as the vicissitudes of bilateral relations took their toll, and as the original leadership which had invested more time in developing the SAARC concept moved along— till today (as the off-again, onagain Eleventh Summit prepares to finally, perhaps, to meet) when there is only one leader among the seven who has been here from the start. He is Maumoon Abdul Gayoom of the Maldives, the smallest SAARC country with a population of 300,000.
King Jigme Singye Wangchuk of Bhutan (population 2,000,000) and President Gayoom are the only two of the ‘Original SAARC Seven’ alive and in power. However, King Jigme does not attend the summits any more, preferring to send the Foreign Minister to the summits. After losing power in 1990, Bangladesh’s Hussain Muhammed Ershad— the host of the first SAARC Summit in Dhaka— spent six years in jail on corruption charges and is now a leader of a second rung party. The rest of the founding leaders are all gone. Rajiv Gandhi, leader of India’s 1985 delegation, was struck down by an assassin’s bomb in 1991, within two years of leaving office. Gen. Zia ul-Haq of Pakistan died in a plane explosion in 1988. King Birenda, the constitutional monarch of Nepal, met a bloody end with most of his family in the June 2001 royal massacre. Only Junius R Jayewardene of Sri Lanka, who handed over power through the democratic process, had a natural death, in 1996.
There have been, on average, 3.5 leadership changes between each of the last four summits, meaning that there was exactly a 50-50 chance that any particular prime minister or president would still be in office when the next summit rolled around. During this period, Nepal sent a different representative to each summit. Indeed, attendance recently has been so fractured that the evident weaknesses of the organisation may be due to the lack of camaraderie which has emerged as a result.
HM Ershad was the president of Bangladesh from 1982 to 1990, and hosted the 1985 inaugural summit. After losing power in 1990, Ershad faced over a dozen corruption charges brought by the new Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-led government of Begum Khaleda Zia, eventually being convicted on three counts and imprisoned. Begum Zia made way for the leader of the Awami League (AL), Shiekh Hasina, in July 1996 to form a government with the support of Ershad’s Jatiya Party. This alliance with Shiekh Hasina’s AL secured Ershad released from jail after six years of imprisonment. Khaleda Zia returned to power after the BNP-led alliance won a two-thirds majority in the elections of October 2001.
Jigme Singye Wangchuck became the Druk Gyalpo (Dragon King) of Bhutan in 1974 and is, at age 41, the world’s youngest reigning monarch. In 1998, the king devolved executive powers from the throne to an elected cabinet, though he remains a powerful monarch. In 1998, Lyonpo Jigmi Y Thinley represented Bhutan at the 1998 SAARC summit as the Minister of Foreign Affairs, breaking the chain of the king’s attendance since SAARC’s launch. Khandu Wangchuck of the Royal Ministerial Council is scheduled to attend the Kathmandu summit.
After Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984, Rajiv Gandhi succeeded his mother as head of the Congress Party, and was sworn in as prime minister. He attended all the summits until he left office in 1989, when he allowed a rump government led by Chandra Shekhar to be briefly installed in power. In the 1991 elections, the Congress emerged as the single largest party and the government of PV Narasimha Rao lasted its full term. However, in the 1996 elections, the Congress had to be content with supporting a coalition of parties led by HD Deve Gowda of the Janata Dal. Deve Gowda was pulled down by the Congress in 1997, replaced by Inder Kumar Gujral who led the same coalition until 1998. In the elections that followed in the same year, Atal Behari Vajpayee, leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, forged an alliance with some of the constituents of a previous coalition and formed a government that is still in power. He has been sworn in to office on three occasions, having been prime minister for 13 days in 1996.
Maumoon Abdul Gayoom has been president of the Maldives since 1978 and was elected to his fifth fiveyear term in 1998. In addition to being president, Gayoom is Minister of Defence and National Security as well as Minister of Finance and Treasury.
King Birendra ruled as an absolute monarch for eighteen years before the people’s movement of 1990 led him to lift the ban on political parties and hand over sovereignty to the people. KP Bhattarai became Prime Minister in 1990 and represented Nepal in the 1991 SAARC summit after the king became ‘constitutional’. That same year, GP Koirala became Prime Minister but lost power shortly thereafter in the mid-term elections, though he has bounced back to power three times since for short periods. Manmohan Adhikari of the United Marxist-Leninists became Prime Minister for nine months in 1994, replaced by Lokendra Bahadur Chand of Rashtriya Prajatantra Party in 1995. Sher Bahadur Deuba entered office in July 2001.
PakistanMohammed Zia ul-Haq came to power in 1977 and established martial law. Following his death in August 1988 and the elections three months later, Benazir Bhutto of the Pakistan People’s Party, daughter of Zia’s executed political rival Zulkifar Ali Bhutto, became the first female prime minister of a Muslim nation. She lost power within twenty months, to be succeeded by Mian Nawaz Sharif. Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif alternated three times as Prime Minister between 1990 and 1997, although President Farooq Ahmad Khan Leghari attended the 1995 summit. Sharif’s government was overthrown in a coup in October 1999 by Gen. Pervez Musharraf. This coup as well as Gen Musharraf’s involvement in the Kargil developments of June 1999 led India to scuttle the November 1999 scheduled meeting of the Eleventh Summit in Kathmandu.
After briefly serving as prime minister, Junius R Jayewardene became president in 1978 and stayed in office until 1988, when he retired of his own volition. Ranasinghe Pramadasa was elected President in 1989 but was assassinated in Colombo on 1 May 1993. DB Wijetunga, who was then prime minister, succeeded the slain leader. He was followed by Chandrika Kumaratunga, who became president of Sri Lanka in November 1994 after becoming prime minister three months earlier. President Kumaratunga surrendered her prime ministerial office to Ranil Wickremesinghe following her defeat in the December 2001 elections, though she is expected to attend the Eleventh Summit.