DHAKA, Bangladesh— Four presidents, two kings and a prime minister representing about 20 percent of the world’s population gather in Dhaka this week to launch South Asia’s first attempt at Regional cooperation.
The two-day summit will be the first if its kind and the fact that all seven leaders of the most populous and impoverished area of the globe will sit down in the same room has been hailed as a major achievement.
“We are gradually moving from confrontation to conciliation” in South Asia, said Bangladesh President Hussain Muhammad Ershad, host of the Southern Asian Regional Cooperation summit that begins Dec. 7.
But given the distrust with which the other countries view the regional superpower, India, experts warn against too high expectations recalling SARC almost died prematurely in May because of strains between New Delhi and Sri Lanka.
Joining Ershad will be Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, Pakistani President Mohammad ZiaulHaq, Sri Lankan President Junius Jayewardene, President Mamoon Gayoom of the Maldives, King Birendra of Nepal and King Singye Wangchuk of Bhutan.
It will be the most prestigious international gathering held in Bangladesh, which despite being one of the world’s poorest countries, is spending some $2 million on a facelift for its capital.
Dhaka was chosen because SARC was the brainchild of former Bangladesh President Ziuar Rahman, assassinated in a 1981 coup attempt.
Rahman was influenced by the six nation Association of South East Asian Nations, and proposed SARC as a way South Asian nations could pool scant resources and cooperate to improve the region’s quality of life.
Political experts, however, say the plan was viewed with apprehension by Gandhi’s late mother, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who saw a potential for the six le,’ Powerful states to “gang up on India.”
Mrs. Gandhi reservations were not without reason. India has fought three wars with Pakistan since 1947, the last resulting in the creation of Bangladesh.
Tensions also stem from Pakistan’s ties with the United States and India’s pro Soviet lean, a dispute over sovereignty of the northern Kashmir region and efforts by both to gain military superiority and allegedly, nuclear arms capability.
Indian relations with Bangladesh ebbed over the diversion of water from the Ganges River and illegal immigration of Bangladeshis into Indian Border States.
The insurrection in Sri Lanka by minority Tamils fired friction between New Delhi and Colombo, which accused India of supporting the Tamils for political gain among its own Tamil population.
The dispute almost wrecked SARC when Jayewardene decided to boycott the foreign ministers meeting in Bhutan in May at which the Dhaka meeting was set. Only intervention by Zia, Ershad and Gandhi persuaded Jayewardene to reconsider.
As for the other three nations, political observers say, their apprehensions about India are only natural given their sizes.
But, one Western diplomat said, the leaders realize “SARC is nothing without India,” because of its greater economic capability.
The areas of cooperation agreed to in preliminary meetings are essentially noncontroversial, reflecting the nations’ continuing apprehension about dealing with each other: telecommunications, tourism, culture, agriculture, urban development, meteorology, health and transportation.
There will also be no attempt to create a trade block like Europe’s Common Market, and discussions of bilateral disputes are prohibited.
Yet there have been hints of thaws as the summit approaches. India and Bangladesh and his government is considering new Pakistan proposals for normalizing trade. He has also been working to mediate an end to the fighting in Sri Lanka.
The only products of the summit will be a SARC charter and political declaration.
Experts say more importantly, the meeting will afford the leaders opportunities for informal discussions. They said if progress can be made in the areas of cooperation, eventually the organization might be expanded to include trade.
Meanwhile, they said, SARC could serve as a vehicle for dialogue that might keep political tensions somewhat cooler.