Indefinite delays to hold summits could see South Asia in peril

The impasse over the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) remained unresolved in that no date was announced for the summit that was to be held in Kathmandu in November 1999. As is widely known, this was not a situation that could have been taken lightly given the importance of the annual summit being the lifeline of the association.

SAARC cannot claim an impressive track record over its decades’ existence since much of its promise has remained unfulfilled. This has been primarily due to inhibitions – structural and institutional limitations – that have made it difficult for SAARC to act freely in the manner of other regional associations such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

So its existence, let alone progress, hinges precariously on the summit that’s the decision-maker and conciliator; and where the association truly comes to life is through the combined efforts of the heads of states.

SAARC summits have lived up to this reputation and expectations when they’ve been held annually, according to a given sequence of capitals. And some of these summits have been the highlight of the association.

One recalls that the Dhaka Summit – being the first and taking place in the land of its father-figure Ziaur Rahman – was a resounding success. Subsequent meetings in Islamabad, New Delhi, Malé and Colombo maintained this reputation.

Of course, there were misadventures too like the failed summit of 1992 but somehow appearances were maintained through the determination of the Sri Lankan president who staged a mini-summit of sorts with the heads of state who were present at the time.

The real test was the Colombo Summit of 1998 that came on the heels of the fallout due to nuclear tests by India and Pakistan threatening to make it another failed meeting. But
it was steered credibly by the determined leadership of Sri Lanka’s then president. This was indeed a great achievement for the association while the Kathmandu non-summit came as a rude shock.

As for the latter, the immediate reason for the summit not being held was the express request conveyed by India. It would seem that this decision represents the culmination of a chain of events that began with the Kargil operation. These were primarily twofold – namely the conflict and coup, followed by the establishment of a military regime in Pakistan.

It was an opportunity for the then recently elected and somewhat controversial BJP government to prove itself, and it rose to the occasion with its victorious Kargil operation that strengthened India’s position politically.

The Pakistani government thought it prudent – on the advice of the United States – to cease hostilities and negotiate a ceasefire. This was of course a military setback and probably the reason for the military coup that was led by General Pervez Musharraf.

There was no formal denunciation or disapproval of the coup by India and in fact the latter was interested in holding constructive talks aimed at resolving differences. Therefore, the decision not to hold the summit was deplored by Pakistan. There is no doubt that for whatever reason, the decision aggravated tensions at a time when it seemed as if a negotiated settlement was a possibility.

This is the context of the crisis that arose over the hijacking of an Indian Airlines aircraft from Nepal. Indian political and press circles were open about their allegations that the hijacking was the work of Pakistan. Therefore, it was viewed as being related to Indo-Pakistan tensions that were ongoing in Kashmir. Pakistan had its own views on the affair and suspected the hand of India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW).

However, the more important question was the future facing the two countries given the inflamed tensions of the time that – as demonstrated by the hijacking – can magnify an incident into a crisis. This was not only a threat to the two countries concerned but to all of South Asia where problems of security can be divisible.

Herein lies the merit of SAARC summits because they provide a forum for face-to-face talks, so the need for them was never greater than during this crisis. What these summits also offer is scope for the good offices of other heads of states to be exercised.

What South Asia needs urgently is another SAARC summit – because anymore indefinite delays could be fatal to the future of the region.

Herein lies the merit of SAARC summits because they provide a forum for face-to-face talks, so the need for them was never greater

BY  The late Deshamanya Dr. Vernon L. B. Mendis