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Sri Lanka's move and the SAARC spirit

Published : Friday, 16 September, 2016 at 9:44 PM  Count : 180

Somewhere the SAARC spirit, if ever there was such a spirit, has gone missing. With the Sri Lankan authorities putting a sudden end to on-arrival visas for Bangladeshis --- and the action was apparently taken without informing Dhaka --- the very legitimate question of whether regional cooperation in South Asia actually means anything arises. It is saddening to know that Colombo did not deem it necessary to explain its act to Dhaka or explain why it thought that a refusal to grant visas to Bangladeshi citizens on arrival was in order. Its move put a whole lot of families and individuals travelling to Sri Lanka from Bangladesh in deep trouble. They had to spend a night at the airport in Colombo. Worse is the fact that the Sri Lankan High Commissioner to Bangladesh, when summoned by the Foreign Office in Dhaka to explain her government's move, seemed equally to be at a loss to explain the matter.
So much for the SAARC spirit, a fundamental principle of which originally was the development of people-to-people links among the member states of the organization. That has not happened. And where Bangladeshis are concerned, they seem to be a particular target of suspicion in a number of SAARC capitals for reasons that the authorities in those countries have not cared to explain. That is one reason why we appreciate the decision by Dhaka to take retaliatory action against the Colombo move. What we need now in Dhaka, especially from the Foreign Office, is a strong message sent out not only to SAARC nations but also beyond that any failure to treat Bangladeshis with respect in their countries will be met with an equally strong response. The message ought to be simple and clear: Bangladesh will not have its citizens travelling abroad treated in cavalier fashion. Hopefully this message will seep into the psychology of the Sri Lankan authorities and will also be heard in other capitals around the world.
As to the question of SAARC, more than three decades after its emergence, the regional body has remained stymied by the failure of its member states to subsume their individual interests to the larger goal of a politically and economically unified South Asia. Moreover, a huge stumbling block to the growth of SAARC has been its inability to raise bilateral issues at its meetings, a failure which has reduced the body to something akin to a social club where niceties are on display and matters of serious note are pushed under the rug. That is not the way a regional body goes forward. An observation of some other instances of regional cooperation in our times will show how and why they have been able not only to sustain themselves but also could make a mark on the lives of the people of the regions they have operated in. With SAARC, conditions have been the reverse. In recent years, bilateralism has been at play and SAARC has declined progressively into being a rather toothless body. That is sad indeed.
Let Bangladesh, in conjunction with other SAARC nations, take a fresh initiative to revive the idealism which went into the creation of the organization in the mid-1980s. The fact that Sri Lanka has now stopped issuing on-arrival visas to Bangladeshis speaks of the depths to which regional cooperation in South Asia has sunk. It is not a pretty sight.

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