A South Asian grouping without Pakistan is not a viable option

indo-pakistan-borderCross-border terror risks killing the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe warned today, the first regional leader to air concerns over the Saarc’s future after its November summit in Islamabad was put off.

Wickremesinghe, who said his country shared with Prime Minister Narendra Modi the objective of defeating cross-border terror, also deftly reminded New Delhi that tensions between India and Sri Lanka, also over terrorism, had haunted the grouping’s birth.

Wickremesinghe, the first Saarc leader to visit Delhi since the Uri attack on September 18 that triggered the latest spiral in tensions, also cautioned that neither a war nor disbanding the Saarc just yet were options.

In 1985, when the first Saarc summit convened in Dhaka, Colombo and New Delhi were locked in diplomatic spats over the Liberation Tigers for Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Then, it was Sri Lanka that was accusing India of sponsoring and supporting the LTTE, which was battling for a separate nation. Colombo had wanted the subject of cross-border terror on the Saarc agenda – a move New Delhi had successfully defeated.

“Let’s see how we handle core issues like cross-border terrorism, otherwise there is no future for Saarc,” Wickremesinghe told reporters after a two-hour meeting with Modi.

“That (terrorism) is definitely a question on the table now. Let’s look at going back to a situation where there is no cross-border terrorism. Otherwise, Saarc will become non-functional.”

India, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Bhutan had a week after the Uri attack decided to boycott the Islamabad Saarc summit. Sri Lanka backed the boycott after last week’s surgical strikes. The meet was eventually postponed.

The serial boycott suggests a growing view beyond India that the summit could not go ahead amid cross-border terror emanating from Pakistan.

Germany today justified India’s right to launch cross-border strikes against terrorists. “There is a clear international norm that every state has the right to defend its territory from international terrorism,” German ambassador Martin Ney said in Hyderabad.

Wickremesinghe said he, like Modi, was keen to end cross-border terror in the region, and to focus South Asian resources in “making life better for our people”.

He repeatedly referred to the “restraint” Modi had maintained following the Uri attacks, and the Indian Prime Minister’s efforts at reaching out to Pakistan.

But Wickremesinghe also hinted that the “restraint” Modi had so far maintained must continue, citing his decades of experience as a senior politician from a country recovering from 30 years of war.

“I don’t think war is an option and I think your Prime Minister has handled it well so far,” he said. “I know it is hard when you are attacked, but India has to decide – what do you want India to be like 10 years from now?”

Wickremesinghe confessed that Sri Lanka was exploring other multilateral groupings as alternatives to Saarc.

But creating a South Asian grouping without Pakistan is not a viable option, he said. “Well, if any member leaves the group, it won’t be a South Asia organisation any more.”

Killing Saarc would not solve the challenge of cross-border terror either, he argued. “Even without Saarc, cross-border terrorism may continue. In fact, it may increase.” (The Telegraph)

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