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South Asia in 2011: A Concise Account (III)

Part 3 – The Innate Stalemate

Also Read –

Part 1: Many Barrels of a Gun
Part 2: Mood on the Ground

Another SAARC Summit, Another Round of Nothingness

Amid a general socio-political churning brought about by rising expectations of people in many South Asian nations, the 17th SAARC Summit in Maldives in November culminated with the ‘Addu Declaration’ (named after Addu city, the second most populated region of the country) that proposed to build further and better maritime and rail linkages among member-nations, with tangible goals set for the present.

The declaration is seen as a step in the direction of the long-discussed idea of integrating the South Asian economies on the lines of the European Union.

Aiming at that, the ‘Addu Declaration’ dwelt primarily on speedy implementation of the South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) and reduction of ‘sensitive lists’, of items that are kept away from bi or multilateral trading because of the dependence of local traders on those items for their livelihoods. The more the items of the sensitive lists between two trading nations, the lesser is the free movement of goods and services between the two markets.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in his address on November 10, suggested India’s intent on the subject by declaring that “the government of India has issued a notification to reduce the sensitive list for the least developed countries under the South Asian Free Trade Area Agreement from 480 tariff lines to 25 tariff lines. Zero basic customs duty access will be given for all items removed with immediate effect.”

Echoing Singh, the ‘Addu Declaration’ outlines the provision of directing the SAFTA Ministerial Council to intensify efforts to fully and effectively implement SAFTA, while seeking an early resolution of non-tariff barriers and hasten the process of harmonising standards and customs procedures.

Currently, the intra-trade between SAARC nations is clipped at 5 per cent of their gross domestic product.

Unfortunately, neither the ‘Addu Declaration’ nor the verbal intent of India stood for anything more than oft-repeated desires that SAARC, the organisation, has been airing since its inception 26 years ago.

Moreover, as ever, the 17th Summit too chose to ignore any radically new suggestion – irrespective of passing a judgement on the merits of the same here – that may have been proposed by the leadership of any SAARC nation.

For instance, the ‘Addu Declaration’ chose not even to mention a forward-looking suggestion by the Sri Lankan President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, for a ‘South Asian currency’ – inspite the fact that Maldives, for one, has discussed with India and Sri Lanka about direct exchange of its rufiyaa against currencies of the two nations.

Apart from the trade issues, the summit talked of resolving operational issues related to the SAARC Food Bank, which was mooted in the August 2008 Summit in Sri Lanka towards building a stock of food grains to help nations facing food shortage in emergency situations, working on climate change and rooting out terrorism from the region.

In other words, the summit said everything that all summits have been saying over the years!

The collective stagnancy of the region also reflected in the practices of individual administrations in 2011.

Nepal, which has been struggling to draft a new constitution for more than two years continued to move around in circles, even as the people in the Himalayan nation, one of the poorest country in the world, watched in disbelief the bickering politicians of all hues.

Just as the year was about to bid goodbye to the sameness, the Nepali government and the judiciary looked set to lock horns over another extension to the Constituent Assembly (the Nepalese legislature) term.

The Supreme Court of Nepal mooted three options if the Constituent Assembly failed to draft a new Constitution before May 28, 2012: Holding a referendum, conduct fresh polls to elect a new body to draft the constitution, or seek some other alternative.

The court rejected petitions for another extension should a draft of the new constitution fails to emerge in May 2012.
In 2008, the legislative body was given two years to draft Nepal’s new constitution, but despite four extensions, the task is no closer to completion than it was when the CA was given its mandate.

The bright spot in an otherwise despondent year was provided by the beginning of the process of rehabilitation of Maoist cadres into the Nepali mainstream. Called ‘regrouping’, the process marked the beginning of the armed cadre of Maoists choosing between voluntary retirement and integration with the national army. The armed fighters have been lodged in 19 camps across the nation since the signing of peace treaty between the Maoists and the mainstream political parties.

But if international analysts were looking for a better promise from Sri Lanka, they found none in 2011. President Rajapaksa Mahinda’s ruling coalition, which has been offering fire for fire on charges of war crimes committed by it in the final days of the civil war in May 2009, finally got ‘its own document’ when the government-backed Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Council (LLRC) submitted its report on the subject and exonerated the government of any wrong-doing.

The LLRC had long been rejected by almost all international observers and hence is seen as a body that would merely speak the stated.

The government’s firm stand on the issue has been met by an equally resolute – and typical – stand by its opponents. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), an umbrella group of parties that are said to represent the Tamil community in the island nation, called for an ‘international inquiry’ on the conduct of government forces in the civil war.

Further, the TNA also asked for police powers to provincial governments, amid decentralisation talks in a bid to find a political settlement to the grievances of the minority ethnic community. It was, predictably, soundly rejected by the government.

The present discourse can be seen as the non-armed conflict between the nation’s two largest ethnic communities, the Sinhalas and the Tamils, of the kind that the nation had experienced during the 26 year insurgency. And quite like that period, the two sides seem to be feeding of each other even now.

Again, one may talk of individual nations or go for the entire region, the year 2011 illustrated all over again that there seems to be a certain innate stalemate about the SAARC region.

And we aren’t even talking about the India-Pakistan relations.



Anshuman Rawat
Anshuman Rawat

Author of Conflicts, Geopolitics and Asia Volume 1: 2010-12 – A Short Diary of Notes from the Region, Anshuman Rawat is a geopolitical/international relations journalist, communications specialist and serial media entrepreneur from India. Founder-Director of a media company, he spends much of his professional calendar as an editorial, management and communications consultant. He is also the founder of 'League of India', a news action tank that is committed to the idea of shaping a progressive India by fostering centre-right liberal governance, a free economy and an open society.