The Daily Star (Dhaka)

The Future of SAARC; Between Promise and Reality

One in three Muslims worldwide is South Asian. One in two of the world's poor are South Asian. Yet when the heads of seven South Asian states congregate and discourse on fighting terrorism, no major international news channel is present to cover the issue. Perhaps the media predicted, alas correctly, that nothing of substance would be accomplished: the very day Saarc ended, reality went back to danger-zone as usual. Two judges, a Hindu, and a Muslim, were bombed to death in a southern district in Bangladesh. The already banned Islamic militant group, Jagrata Muslim Bangladesh, claimed responsibility for the bombings.

Did Western opinion makers, like most citizens of Saarc, know ahead of time that nothing of substance could possibly be discussed, or worse, that nothing of substance can be reported on. It was with the usual extreme difficulty that journalists shyly penetrated the red-tape bureaucracy that guarded the Saarc compounds like a fortress. Entry to each ceremony was monitored carefully, each newspaper was accorded scarce tickets. Still, the event ran unusually smoothly. Bangladeshi consulates abroad, known to obstruct visas for foreign journalists, might have maintained their usual stature. However, since the event was a media opportunity for the government to showcase its successes, a few local, and even fewer international journalists were permitted to file stories about the development and beautification of the host country.

Against the backdrop of brewing trouble, the meeting itself was almost surreal in texture: many saw in it echoes of a glorious South Asian wedding. Bangladesh proudly took this Saarc meeting to new and higher levels, not just of aspiration, but also of decoration. Major avenues and the whole skyline were outlined with white Christmas-like lights. A concerned Foreign Minister nervously inspected each event like a father-to-the-bride and made sure each detail was perfect. The lime-white gladiolas and locally cultured orchids framed the Saarc leaders almost angelically, their respective backgrounds notwithstanging. Street beggars were carried away by truck and ordered to beg in the newly allocated area. As an extension of the holiday spirit (Eid), citizens were given an extra day off as major roads were shut down, clearing Dhaka of its famous traffic jams, hiking the prices of essential goods to the level of ruining businesses. Against this oppulence, in a not-so-subtle move, the main opposition leader Sheikh Hasina made sure to be photographed surrounded by the victims of monga (famine).

Substance could hardly be found in the echoing verses of each individual presidential reflection of South Asia's future priorities. Afghanistan was admitted into the congregation of Saarc and China and Japan were given observer status, making Saarc 2005 ever so slightly more memorable than its predecessors. For Bangladesh, whose skies, river-highways and transportation networks were closely monitored to prevent any form of terrorism, the main accomplishment was in the Prime Minister's display of proud control: she successfully halted Bangladesh's usual suspects for almost an entire week. However, it was only a few hours after the Bhutanese Prime Minister departed, that militants were back to kill judges who implement the laws of man, and not of God.

Substance, not form, ought to be the agenda of the next meeting. Maybe then the Western media, and the rest of the world would recognise the importance of South Asia.