Already, three or four days before the SAARC Summit on 29-31 July, Colombo residents were experiencing grave disruption in their lives as the traffic police went about practising the fine art of blocking roads and diverting traffic. It got worse once South Asia’s collection of sorry excuses for democrats and leaders actually landed at Katunayake Airport. We would probably have somehow survived this phase of conferencing and media frenzy better had the 84,000 deities of the Sinhala pantheon been in a good mood. But the offerings of fretful Buddhist commuters did nothing to assuage these deities and the streets of Colombo reeled from the devastating impact.
One of the things that was going on in the minds of the thousands who were stuck for hours by road closures near and far from the conference venue of Bauddhaloka Mawata was, why on earth did we bring this upon ourselves? After all, this summit was to have been held in Nepal, and this traffic horror would have been Kathmandu’s problem. Alternatively, the Nepalis could have airlifted this bunch of politicos to some mountain resort in a remote corner of the Himalaya. There, they could have been made to eat momos.
But no, that was not to be. The Sri Lankan government actually asked for special consideration to be able to hold the conference out of turn in Colombo in order to show off in the 50th year of Independence. I suppose the Nepalis happily agreed so that they could keep their own hills unpolluted by the presence of South Asian nuclear thugs and their apologists. Or, more likely, since the Nepali government is not known for its own principled positions on anything that is worth having a principle about, they perhaps agreed simply to avoid the nuisance.
On the other hand, perhaps it was a good idea to have the summit in Colombo to mark the nation’s 50 years of Independence. For one thing, the siege conditions under which the conference was held, restricting the ability of citizens to move around freely, closure of major highways or parts of them, ad hoc holidays declared for some individuals because they could not come to work, were all indicative of Sri Lanka’s failure as a nation-state, a country at war with herself, where chaos has become routinised.
But forget the commuters for a moment. What about the conference itself? Were any major decisions made? Will we be able to travel across the region without visas within the coming year, can we carry out regional trade without encountering unfriendly taxation? Did we convince the nuclear thugs to throw away their dangerous toys? If there was any real advance, it has been a well-kept secret.
In the final session, however, I do remember the Maldivian president saying that the food and hospitality were excellent. Personally, as a Sri Lankan nationalist, I am relieved. At least now we know, and the rest of the world knows, that we are good cooks, and are also capable of making beds for people to sleep comfortably on.
Other than being adequate cooks and bed-keepers of South Asia, Sri Lanka achieved very little out of the SAARC jamboree; neither the average person, nor certainly the government. On the other hand, Indian journalists and officials who descended upon Colombo swarmed the duty free shops in the airport looking for electronic items and booze. The duty-free merchants were pleased as punch: no rupees please, and to hell with SAARC!
Now to discuss for a moment the all-important summit itself. As we all know one of the handicaps of SAARC is that bilateral issues cannot be discussed; issues to be discussed must be important to all countries in the region, i.e. of “multilateral significance”. That was the reason why the Indo-Pakistan nuclear thuggery was not discussed at the conference. It was bilateral. For instance, if some nut in the Indian or Pakistani nuclear establishment pressed the red button because he had had visions or a bad day, the mushroom cloud and the radiation poisoning would be a strictly bilateral affair. This is because in South Asia, unlike elsewhere, radiation poisoning strictly recognises state boundaries.
It was because bilateral issues cannot be discussed in SAARC that, as the host and the new chairman of the organisation, the Sri Lankan president suddenly became an apologist for the Indo-Pakistan nuclear rivalry.
There is only one way to bring the nuclear question into SAARC, and that is by getting every country which does not yet have the bomb to make one, so that we could finally notch this multilateral proliferation into the summit agenda. So, Colombo must now invent its own Buddhist bomb to match the capabilities of the Hindu and Muslim bombs of New Delhi and Islamabad. Nepal, Bhutan and the Maldives too would have to build their own little atomic toys.
To be so close to the SAARC summit was a humiliating experience because, because one got to view at close quarters the dubious intellectual capabilities, skills and political positions of the individuals in whom the destiny of South Asia has been vested. And all this has been done using vestiges of democratic practices, such as elections. Purely on matters of aesthetics and finesse, the Indian prime minister was a scary sight. In the opening session, he made a rather unimpressive speech, reading haltingly from crumpled papers. Is this the leader of a country which touts itself as a regional (and now ‘nuclear’) superpower? Everyone clapped politely, except a Sri Lankan parliamentarian who was sound asleep in the audience.
The parliamentarian was indicating his boredom with the exercise of annual or biannual summit meetings of an organisation which has its head buried firmly in the sand. Here was a regional organisation, the parliamentarian was saying if you read his snoring correctly, which has no credibility because it does not look at the most serious and contentious issues of South Asia.
Just as SAARC is nowhere in the picture when it comes to the Indo-Pakistan nuclear rivalry, it was inactive when India trained Sri Lankan Tamil insurgents to fight the Sri Lankan government, or when Pakistani intelligence trained Kashmiri rebels to fight the Indian forces.
Good at little else, SAARC at least excels in one thing, the creation of roadblocks and traffic jams. Fortunately, Colombo has already suffered this privilege and it is Kathmandu’s turn next!