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Tue, 02 September 2014 08:25:16
Outgoing Kumaratunga gets South Asia summit send off -- and dubious honour
09 Nov, 2005 00:00:00
Sri Lanka's outgoing president bids farewell to regional politics at a South Asian summit this week but retains the honour of being the longest serving head of a regional body that scored high marks for failure.
Sri Lanka's outgoing president bids farewell to regional politics at a South Asian summit this week but retains the honour of being the longest serving head of a regional body that scored high marks for failure.
President Chandrika Kumaratunga, 60, will attend the 13th summit of the seven-member South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in Dhaka as her final foreign outing before the November 17 election here.

Asian diplomats believe Kumaratunga will use the occasion to stage her swan song but for those who have worked closely with her, the scion of the Bandaranaike dynasty is not going to fade away that obediently.

"There is no such thing as a swan song for her," said Jayanath Rajepakse who accompanied Kumaratunga as her international relations advisor to her first SAARC summit in New Delhi in 1995.

"This summit will be an emotional one for her. She will no doubt project it as such."

Sources close to Kumaratunga had speculated that she may take up an international role in a UN agency or may return to parliamentary politics after her second and final term as president ends this month.

She has no SAARC laurels to rest on except the dubious title of having served the longest period as the regional grouping's head because India-Pakistan squabbling prevented the staging of a summit.

Rajepakse said he could not identify anything the regional body had achieved during her term as its chairwoman from 1998 to 2002, the longest time served by a SAARC chief, or since the regional grouping's inception in 1985.

The grouping of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka has had difficulty even in arranging summits and what should have been annual meetings never took place because of bilateral bickering.

Kumaratunga herself has been highly critical of the regional body and she wanted more dynamism injected into a body where the charter precludes discussions of contentious bilateral issues.

During the ninth summit in the Maldives in 1997, she suggested having "off the record" bilateral discussions but the initiative failed to attract widespread support.

Instead, India and Pakistan went on to stage tit-for-tat nuclear tests that cast the threat of weapons of mass destruction over the world's poorest region.

Former Sri Lankan foreign secretary Nanda Godage said the timing of the 13th summit was inauspicious because of the Sri Lankan elections and the country was being represented by a leader who is set to retire this month.

"There was no urgency to have the summit, especially since it had been postponed so many times," Godage said. "This is going to be nothing but a farewell tea party to President Kumaratunga.

"I can't see any fresh initiative by her, she can only recall the past. Her only initiative was to call for informal bilateral talks at the summit level, but even that did not fly."

Sri Lanka's foreign office said she would lead the Sri Lankan delegation together with her brother, Anura Bandaranaike, who is foreign minister.

"Member states are expected to focus on regional cooperation on poverty, economic matters, especially South Asia Free Trade Agreement, terrorism, environmental challenges, natural disasters, a South Asian development fund and a vision for SAARC in the third decade," the ministry said in a statement.

Asian diplomats here, however, do not pin much hope on any real progress from SAARC which tried to establish a free trade area by 1998 but is still talking about it.

However, a SAARC diplomat said during a previous summit that reports of an early demise of the South Asian body were premature. "Even to close down SAARC, they will take years to decide, that is if they get round to it at all." - AFP

-Amal Jayasinghe: win98win@gmail.com 

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