Colombo, Peace and Conflict

The tamasha that is SAARC – Who really cares and benefits?

An interesting advertisement by a tour operator caught my eye in a daily paper last week. It said “Get away during the SAARC summit” as a part of an advertisement promoting overseas holidays costing between Rs. 38,000 to Rs. 70,000 to get away from the country or more aptly the city between July 23rd to August 3rd, the scheduled days for the ministerial as well as Heads of State summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC). The idea that people must get away from the country or more aptly form the city of Colombo has been prompted by the extreme security measures that the Government is planning to put in place as its hosts eight Heads of State or Governments from South Asia. Ensuring their security is no mean task and no one will begrudge the mammoth task that the members of the security apparatus will have to perform so that the summit winds up without any hitches.

The Government is putting side a staggering Rs. 2.8 billion to make the event a success and all Sri Lankan will want it that way. But what good is an event which is intended to raise the country’s international profile if the City of Colombo and surrounding areas are going to be turned into a virtual prison crippling the everyday lives of the people? The hard reality is that bad news, not good news makes the headlines and it is this aspect of the summit as well as the massive expenditure incurred on account of it that will get highlighted. It is highly doubtful that the positive publicity the Government hopes to attract will be forthcoming.

The timing of the event is what has also drawn criticism from some quarters. The security situation in the country leaves much to be desired, the economy is more or less dwindling, people are facing hardships in their day-to-day existence and generally the mood in the country is one of despondency than one of merriment to want to be hosting a big event like SAARC.

One can argue that if we wait for the perfect conditions in the country then no such summit can ever be held because some of the issues that we are   facing have been around for a long time and will probably will be around for a long time as well.

Maldives was to host this year’s summit but wanted to forgo the turn. Sri Lanka took upon herself the task obviously keen to show that despite the increasingly volatile situation in the country, it can successfully host eight world leaders. Deputy Foreign Minister Hussein Bahila says the reason we took the turn was because it coincides  with the 60th anniversary of Sri Lanka’s independence but really that is not a good enough reason to spend a couple of billions on a week long event with little tangible benefits for the people of Sri Lanka. The country has many more pressing needs than hosting a summit.

The regional grouping has since its inception in 1985 is today largely a talk shop. In the absence of a consensus among its members, trade, travel and others concessions cannot be enjoyed on the same level by all its member states. Most agreements signed are done on a bi-lateral basis and some unilaterally with little or no reciprocity.

Take a simple case in point. Sri Lanka unilaterally decided to grant visa on arrival for Indian nationals a few years ago. But Sri Lankans need to get a visa prior to visiting India. It is true India has security concerns when granting entry for Lankan nationals but there are thousands of locals who visit India each year purely as pilgrims. All these persons need to come to Colombo, stand in an along queue outside the Indian High Commission and spend a whole day or even two days to obtain a visa. This matter may sound trivial but if regional relations are to improve for the better, they must benefit the ordinary citizens in a way that they feel the sense of camaraderie when visiting each other’s countries.

In the Dhaka Declaration in December 1985, the Heads of State or Government present acknowledged that the countries of South Asia that constituted one-fifth of humanity were faced with the formidable challenges posed by poverty, underdevelopment, low levels of production, unemployment and population growth compounded by exploitation of the past and other adverse legacies. They concurred that regional cooperation provided a logical response to these problems.

More than two decades later, these countries along with its newest member Afghanistan are still very much mired in these problems. A summit of eight leaders of the region makes for a nice photo opportunity. As is evident by the manner in which Sri Lanka is preparing for the summit, none of the leaders seem to want to acknowledge that things are far from perfect in their own nations. The Government wants to have the beggars in Colombo moved out during the summit as their presence would spoil the landscape. Other SAARC capitals that hosted the Summit on pervious occasions adopted similar tactics.

But in a regional where poverty is a very visible problem, isn’t trying to hide the beggars away for a week only trying to deny a very real problem we all face? The potted plants, the hurriedly done up roads and painted walls all look very nice but isn’t what is being created only an illusion by which we are only fooling ourselves.