Friday, June 14, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

OP-ED: South Asia needs a replacement for Saarc

Could Bangladesh take the first step in this venture?

Update : 24 Jun 2021, 03:52 AM

By the time intimations of a new world war began to come through in Europe, the League of Nations, so assiduously put in place in the aftermath of the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, had begun to unravel.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the resultant demise of communism in Eastern Europe, the Warsaw Pact became irrelevant and died a natural death.

By the late 1960s, the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) and the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), conceived in the 1950s to contain communism, were on their way to oblivion, with no one missing them.

The Regional Cooperation for Development (RCD), shaped by Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey in 1964, is now history, with hardly any mention of it.

And there has been the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc), born in the mid-1980s but never growing to full, purposeful maturity. Perhaps it is time to put it out of its misery?

The biggest drawback for Saarc has been its failure to have an impact on the region it was supposed to speak for. With the last summit of South Asian heads of state and government -- scheduled to be held in Islamabad in 2016 -- aborted, it became obvious that a mortally ill Saarc could not be restored to health. Besides, it suffered from an ailment at birth when the charter of the organization precluded any discussion of bilateral issues at its various meetings, including summits. In the end, Saarc summits were reduced to being social get-togethers by the region’s leaders, interspersed with huge dollops of entertainment in the form of music and dance.

Saarc did not reduce the level of conflict, at various strata, which has bedeviled the South Asian region. Which is good reason today for governments in South Asia to take the lead in considering the formation of a new, meaningful regional body able to speak for the region in the way ASEAN speaks for Southeast Asia, the European Union speaks for Europe, and Nato speaks of integrated defense for the West.

There are all the reasons why a new South Asian grouping of nations is the need today. Consider the situation in Afghanistan, where a resurgent Taliban are on the march, towards Kabul. With the last American and Nato troops making their way out of the country by September, it will be the Taliban that will be in power again. 

The re-emergence of the Taliban will pose a big problem for South Asia. In the first place, it will spawn the growth of subsidiary extremist factions in Pakistan, a danger that could well spill over into other countries in the region. In the second, the return of the Taliban will be an invitation to al-Qaeda, weakened though it might be, to regroup in the mountains of Afghanistan and perhaps even in the country’s urban centres. IS, having wrought so much damage around the globe, will for its part look to having a piece of the Afghanistan cake, with consequences that will be horrendous.

It is a prospect that ought to have every country in South Asia worried.

And then there is the other part of the story. In Myanmar, with its army once again in the saddle and chances of democracy once more banished into the woods, there is every reason for South Asia to feel the tremors arising in Myanmar and coming all the way to disturb politics in the region. The Myanmar army, having pushed more than a million Rohingya into Bangladesh and little inclined to reaching a deal on their return, will likely force more Rohingya out of their homes. For the future, the Myanmar army remains a danger for Bangladesh, a concern for Dhaka.

What has been happening in Myanmar, therefore, should be quite unsettling for South Asia.

And let no one ignore the possible ramifications of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, given that nations like Sri Lanka and a host of countries in Africa are already weighed down by worries of debts they owe Beijing. Hambantota in Sri Lanka is a reality not to be replicated in the times ahead.

And all of this calls for a common, coordinated response from South Asia as a whole. The first step in that direction ought to be a dismantling of the Saarc edifice, the better to put in place a more viable and responsive organization whose overall objective will be to bring South Asian nations into a meaningful partnership. The new organization will avoid the weaknesses of Saarc and be empowered by its charter to deliberate on all issues related to the region as a whole and also of a bilateral nature. The cosmetic nature of Saarc discussions did not take it anywhere, so to speak. It is a mistake any new South Asian regional body must avoid.

The structure and autonomy of a new South Asian regional organization is a job all member-states of the existing Saarc can undertake through a series of meetings, bilaterally and multilaterally, before a draft charter is finalized. It will be a difficult job, given that India and Pakistan have a legacy of issues dating back to the partition of the sub-continent in 1947. There are too such destabilizing factors as the growth of religious prejudice in the region, which have kept South Asia fettered to the past despite all the charming platitudes regarding cooperation mouthed over the years.

Again, with levels of poverty preventing the growth of happy societies in the region, with education taking a backseat, with politics too polarized to prevent a strengthening of democracy in the region, with global issues that the region can ignore at peril to its future, South Asia is in grave need of an organization that will present its unified position before the international community.

The new organization, in order to have credibility and substance, will need to have its charter discussed and debated by the parliaments of the constituent states before it is ratified. Nothing is more enduring than organizations that have the stamp of popular approval in the countries and region they are meant for.

Could Bangladesh take the first step in the making of this new venture? That could be a distinct possibility, given the will and intellectually-powered diplomacy. 

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.

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