The Daily Star

Securing South Asia

Dhaka is a cleaned-up city; security at the airport has been noticeably updated; the airport facility itself is uncharacteristically spotless. The country is in a battle to prove itself against words from the international community, which has labeled it a "safe haven" for terrorists, while expressing doubts on its administration's ability to assume the considerable responsibility of hosting a conference of this magnitude.

The size of the conference is substantial only relative to the current state of South Asia. A meeting of high-level officials of the seven member states (India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Nepal, Maldives, and Bangladesh) may go unnoticed in many places, such as New York or Brussels, which are accustomed to such events. However, in the wake of the recent suspension of India's Foreign Minister, bombings in the Indian capital before the high religious festivals of Diwali and Eid, Pakistan's uneasy recovery from the recent earthquake, Sri Lanka's rebirth in the aftermath of the tsunami, as well as Nepal's continuing Maoist insurgency, regional cooperation -- underlined in an era of the global war against terror, for the region that hosts the worlds most dense population of Muslims -- could never have been more timely.

Bangladesh is ready to host the 13th Saarc meeting, a meeting that has been postponed twice, first due to the tsunami, and subsequently the Indian Prime Minister's refusal to attend. However, one of the founder's of the concept of Saarc is the present Prime Minister Khaleda Zia's deceased husband, former President Ziaur Rahman. Because the country was recently attacked by simultaneous bombings in 63 of its 64 districts within a forty-five minute time span and evidence of rising Islamic militancy is now beyond reasonable doubt, the Prime Minister is on a personal mission to recover Bangladesh's once admirable reputation as a nation that has hosted record progress, not the least of which has been in the area of opportunities for women.

Yet in this fury of insuring all the security loopholes have been measured, the agenda for the conference is unarguably one: developing anti-terror measures for the region in the global war against terror. High level officials who have served in past Bangladesh administrations openly criticize the government in having lost the forest to see the trees: every ministry is overwhelmed with insuring that no terrorist acts -- now observed in almost every member state -- seep through its security blanket. In fact, the capital looks like it is under siege. Starting five days before the inauguration of Saarc, 80,000 special forces, including military troops, will be deployed in the nation's capital.

If there is a possibility, or even a slight chance that somewhere there has been a security measure unattended, Bangladesh will be accountable. Its Prime Minister is chairman of the conference this year, its role is insurmountable. If, under the sharp eyes of almost 300 international journalists, who have been granted special permission to cover the story, there is a slip -- the Prime Minister herself will be personally accountable. The possibility of a security leak has created an unforgiving pressure on Bangladesh; failure will place into stone the country's image as a headquarter of South Asian terror.