Boycotting SAARC Summit Vs Sri Lanka’s Foreign Policy

by Ifham Nizam

Renowned diplomats believe that Sri Lanka should remain committed to the sustenance and strengthening of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). They say the government’s decision to withdraw from the SAARC summit in Pakistan, against the backdrop of some tensions between India and Pakistan, will not go well for the country or the regional bloc. Some experts say the principle should be that the collective interests of the SAARC region should be always upheld. This principle should in no way be compromised.

While in India last week, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had said that the failure of the regional grouping to deliver “acceptable results” for all members would spell a “bleak future” and compel his country to find other “viable options”.

pakistanAccording to the Indian media, Wickremesinghe’s remark assumed significance as Sri Lanka was one of the four SAARC member States which sided with India in pulling out of the summit scheduled in Islamabad on November 9-10 over an attack on an Indian army base in Uri on September 18 by Pakistan-based terrorists.


Dr. Jehan Perera – Head, National Peace Council of Sri Lanka

The government was being practical and pragmatic. Prior to Sri Lanka’s decision not to attend SAARC, four other countries had pulled out. This made attending SAARC meaningless as the basic purpose of this association is to promote goodwill and camaraderie amongst the neighbours. Besides, the SAARC rules say that all countries must attend if there is a summit.


Ranga Pallawala – Chief Executive Officer, Janathakshan GTE Ltd.

SAARC is the only South Asian regional platform, but it has very less enforcing power. Though we are sharing lots of cultural similarities, South Asia is with very high diversities. The boycott of 2016 SAARC Summit by Sri Lanka and some other counties is a result of this diversity, especially diversities in economic and political powers. I cannot say whether it’s a good or a bad decision to boycott the summit, but Sri Lanka is also trapped in the reality of economic diversity.

India may have advocated other members to make the decision to boycott. If not the decision is to attend the summit would have created another rivalry with India. Comparing the two options, I believe we have made the most appropriate decision. Rivalry with India is highly likely to have higher economic pressures on us. However, Sri Lanka is the best country in position in the region to mediate between India and Pakistan. If Sri Lanka does not play that role, the diplomacy of Sri Lanka will be questioned.




Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka – Former Ambassador

When you have a faithful friend who unfailingly helps you in trouble, and a huge neighbour who does help occasionally and sometimes actually harms you, you must balance your national interest. You must not antagonise your neighbour and you must not let down your friend either. Sri Lanka has just stabbed one of its best friends in the back by joining in with the boycott of the SAARC Summit. What Sri Lanka should have done was to remain silent or used the Summit to denounce all forms of terrorism including cross-border terrorism or played a role of constructive intermediary on the sidelines of the Summit. Instead, we simply and conspicuously sided with India.

Pakistan supported us with military advisors in the early years of the war when the UNP was in office under President Jayewardene. This was a time when Sri Lanka was the victim of large-scale vicious cross-border terrorism and no one came forward to sell us weapons, including those Western powers which now denounce us. In the 1990s, India boycotted the SAARC Summit when Sri Lanka was to take over it as chair; Pakistan came to Sri Lankan President Premadasa’s rescue, with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif heading a delegation to a mini-summit which the Bangladeshi leader also attended.

In 2000 when the Tigers had secured Elephant Pass, President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s urgent request for military assistance, communicated through Foreign Minister Kadirgamar to Delhi, was politely refused, but Pakistan’s President Musharraf, responding to a personal request from Deputy Defense Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte and High Commissioner Gen. Sirilal Weerasooriya, opened his country’s military stocks and gave us brand new multi-barrel rocket launchers (MBRL), which prevented the Tigers from reoccupying Jaffna.

It is after such consistent support of UNP and SLFP administrations that this joint UNP-SLFP government has so blatantly betrayed a firm friend. The Pakistani State and people would have felt very hurt and they will not forget this betrayal. As a small country, our reputation is of great use to us and it must be guarded. With this betrayal, our country’s standing as a good and grateful friend was harmed.

In the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, we enjoyed the support of Pakistan and India but even then India changed its position and Pakistan remained our firm and vocal friend, and this is the thanks it gets!

It must be recalled that sagacious leaders of Sri Lanka, beginning with D. S. Senanayake always tried to balance off our great neighbour, because of the threat from Tamil Nadu. Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike was anxious about the precedent set by India’s role in the setting up of Bangladesh and in 1971, she actually permitted aircraft with Pakistani troops in civilian clothes to transit through Katunayake on their way to East Pakistan.

It is not that Mrs. Bandaranaike was a less than firm friend of India and its leader Mrs. Indira Gandhi; it is that she was more concerned about Sri Lanka’s national interest and in maintaining a balance. This is also why in 1962, during the war between India and China, she played a neutral role and was a peacemaker, who mooted the summit in Tashkent, instead of simply taking the side of India.

As for our foreign policy in general, the political stability of post-war Sri Lanka and of the present government will depend to a very great extent on whether or not the 2015 Geneva resolution, which the government so ill-advisedly co-sponsored, is sought to be fully implemented. If the government chooses to try to fully implement the Geneva resolution on the ground here in Sri Lanka, I believe that the political stability that we require for foreign investment, reconciliation and a stable peace will be seriously jeopardised by this act. The crises will be exacerbated and we may enter a renewed cycle of political conflict. The government must find a way to re-negotiate the Geneva Resolution of 2015 or the voters of Sri Lanka will have to eventually to come up with an administration that will roll back the resolution. This resolution cannot be implemented domestically without causing very serious consequences.”




Chandra Embuldeniya – Past President, National Chamber of Commerce

Both Pakistan and India have got their traditional rivalry that keeps destabilising the relationship that has a meek chance of sustenance. The non-State actors do the needful to keep them apart due to various geo political concerns. The regional grouping has lost its realisable value due to staleness and otherwise useful regional platform to discuss common issue of current economic, social, cultural and political relevance. When four countries have said they would not attend because of various concerns, should we not take a position?

I think PM’s visit to Delhi and meeting Mr. Modi is a wise move to illustrate our faith in the SAARC movement. The threats aimed at each other and the firing across will continue.

I seriously think there will be no escalation as everyone on either side now knows the heavy cost. Both sides know the consequences and the heavy losses. We should ride soft on this dispute without taking a position and adopt a wait and see attitude but preach peace to both sides. Both India and Pakistan leaders have immense political issues that will prevent them from agreeing on a common platform to make peace.

It is a matter that will remain unresolved for a very long time due to the non State interventions. Particularly the terrorists want to see the two leaders kept apart. All other countries in the grouping should take a neutral stand and seek a neutral venue to meet if at all they have such important issues to discuss.




Professor Rohan Samarajiva – Founding Chair, LIRNEasia

This was a correct decision. SAARC rules require all countries to participate in summits. Before Sri Lanka, several others had announced they would not attend. Attending out of some false sense solidarity with Pakistan would be outright silly.

The more important question is why we do not make a concerted effort to end this useless regional organisation. Given the Prime Minister’s repositioning of Sri Lanka as an Indian Ocean country, more than a South Asian country, we should shift our focus to the productive possibilities of a regional organisation pulling together the littoral States of the Bay of Bengal.

This exists in inchoate form, in the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), headquartered in Dhaka and with a permanent secretariat since two years back. This international organisation is made up of Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bhutan, and Nepal. Ideally, it will invite Laos, Cambodia, and Malaysia to join and also invite China to participate, at least as an observer.

This USD four trillion plus market includes six of the fastest growing economies in the world. This new generation organisation is similar to the highly effective APEC. At APEC, the focus is on economic cooperation (the EC in both APEC and BIMSTEC) and little energy is wasted on other things. They take decisions and implement them.

That is what we need, not the proven failure that is SAARC. The only thing that is working in the SAARC region is sub-regional: The Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, and Nepal (BBIN) Initiative. It meets through official representation of member States to formulate, implement and review quadrilateral agreements across areas such as water resources management, connectivity of power, transport, and infrastructure. We should learn from it.

India and Pakistan are locked into a dysfunctional relationship that will not allow SAARC to progress. After decades of trying, it is time to accept the truth, let SAARC atrophy, and find a regional arrangement that will work. That is BIMSTEC or BIMSTEC+.




Hemantha Withanage -Executive Director, Centre for Environmental Justice

The potential of SAARC to become an active regional platform similar to ASEAN was never taken seriously by the South Asian nations. I believe it’s not due to the differences of the people but due to the less strong leadership that does not bring them together.

SAARC comprises 3 per cent of the world’s area, and 21 per cent of the world’s population. People in the region suffer multiple crises in economic, social and environmental terms. Sri Lanka has better social and environmental dimensions in the region compared to other nations. Since Sri Lanka is an island nation, we have less conflict with the countries. I believe Sri Lanka could have a better foreign policy to bring them together as a regional group.

Due to lack of such regional grouping at the global discussions, we only act as individual nations or as G77. G77 can bring a strong voice since it includes highly developed nations as well as less powerful smaller countries. During the Climate and other UN summits, I always thought why SAARC as a region not bargain together our regional positions. Melting glaciers in Nepal and India will bring the sea level rise to Sri Lanka, Maldives, and Bangladesh. That is one reason for the region to act as one body. Realising suitable development agenda is also a big challenge for the SAARC nations. Dumping solid waste in the Indian Ocean, unsustainable fishing, increased number of natural disasters and many other topics require joint actions. In my understanding, they are much bigger threats compared to the little differences among the nations.

We expect our governments to bring a joint solution for these threats; as the civil society, I believe, therefore, postponement of SAARC is not a good foreign policy of the SAARC nations.




Lynn Ockersz – Senior Journalist and Foreign Affairs Columnist

One of the most salient and positive aspects of policy making in Sri Lanka since the Yahapalanaya government under President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe coming into power, is the steady rectification of certain glaring imbalances that manifested themselves in the sphere of foreign policy formulation and implementation during the tenure of the former administration.

During that time, it could be said that Sri Lanka’s relations with the West were allowed to deteriorate while close links were cultivated with powers, particularly of the East, which are seen as traditional rivals of the US and the West for global influence and power. This amounted to diluting very considerably Sri Lanka’s policy of Non-alignment, which essentially stands for the equal cultivation of cordial ties with all States irrespective of their policy outlooks and position in the global power structure. The steady restoration of friendly ties with the US and the West while perpetuating our traditional closeness to States, such as, China, India, and Russia, is an outstanding foreign policy achievement of the present administration. The US is now cooperating with Sri Lanka in its national reconciliation effort and other areas of profound national importance, while cordiality and economic links are being strengthened with China, India, and Russia by Sri Lanka.

That said, it should be pointed out that Sri Lanka should remain committed to the sustenance and strengthening of SAARC. It did SAARC no good for the majority of its member States to decide against attending the Summit scheduled for November against the backdrop of some tensions between India and Pakistan.

The principle should be that the collective interests of the SAARC region should be always upheld. This principle should in no way be compromised.

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