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SAARC: A pipedream of assassinated leaders

December 08, 2012

It was supposed to transform South Asia the same way other charters of regional cooperation did in East Asia, Europe, and North America. SAARC, however, failed to live up to the bloated dreams of its founding fathers, some of whom met violent deaths, while others faced and succumbed to coups d'état.

The association for regional cooperation in South Asia, SAARC, failed to achieve a meaningful success in bringing the South Asian economies and societies together. Twenty seven years since its inception in December 1985, the association has not much to show for its success or utility. Apart from issuing endless communiqués and holding ministerial and other meetings for the bureaucrats, the association has largely remained irrelevant to the welfare of the people in the region.

SAARC: A quick history

Kishore C. Dash writing in the Pacific Affairs in 1996 observed that the first concrete idea for SAARC was circulated by President Ziaur Rahman of Bangladesh in May 1980. He was interested in setting up an ASEAN-like entity for South Asia. He tried to convince the Indian Prime Minister, Morarji Desai, of the benefits of a regional collaborative regime during his visit to India in December 1977.

Ziaur Rahman had an early success in convincing the leadership of Bhutan, Nepal, Maldives, and Sri Lanka. However, the Indians and Pakistanis remained suspicious of his plans thinking that Bangladesh was promoting the idea to undermine their respective influences in the region. India wanted to avoid a multilateral platform where she could be cornered into discussing matters that she wanted to resolve only bilaterally. Pakistan thought of the proposal for regional cooperation an attempt by India to control the South Asian markets. SAARC had to be negotiated in this environment of mutual mistrust that plagued the biggest players in the region, namely India and Pakistan, and was finally negotiated in December 1985.

SAARC’s assassinated founding fathers

Apart from the fact that SAARC countries lacked the necessary ingredients to promote inter-regional trade, i.e., competitive advantage, the other factor contributing to its failure is the fact that SAARC was signed into existence by heads of state who were either not popular or lacked legitimacy in their respective countries. Their dubious bonafides perhaps contributed to the lacklustre performance of SAARC over three decades.

While some like Maumoon Abdul Gayoom of Maldives and General Ershad of Bangladesh became unpopular and dictatorial over time and were forced out of their offices, others met with a more drastic end. President Ziaur Rahman, the principal architect, did not live long enough to see the fruits of his efforts and was assassinated in May 1981. General Ziaul Haq of Pakistan, another SAARC signatory, was assassinated in a midair explosion in August 1988. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi of India was assassinated by Tamil Tigers in May 1991. Years later, King Birendra of Nepal was gunned down along with his family in June 2001.

Whereas President Jayawardene of Sri Lanka and Jigme Singye Wangchuk, the King of Bhutan, avoided a fatalist end, President Jayawardene however came eerily close to a violent death in August 1987 when two grenades hurled at him bounced off the table and instead killed another member of his cabinet leaving the President and his prime minister unharmed.

While SAARC’s potential may have been undermined by the lack of legitimacy or popularity of those who negotiated the Charter, other more substantial limitations also contributed to SAARC’s dismal performance. More importantly, given that most SAARC states are quite similar in their endowments, they lack the competitive advantage necessary for the economies to trade with each other, thus limiting the potential for economic cooperation. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that in 1994, nine years after SAARC being in existence, the intra-SAARC trade represented only 3.5% of the total trade by the SAARC countries.

Another limiting factor has been the lack of mutual curiosity amongst South Asians. While Pakistanis show immense curiosity for the Middle East, Europe, and North America, they remain oblivious to what lies hidden in Maldives and Bhutan. This mutual apathy amongst the SAARC people has contributed to the lack of inter-regional people-to-people contacts, which are further hampered by a visa regime that does not facilitate free mobility of South Asians.

While it may require significant changes to tariff structures in SAARC countries to incentivise regional trade, it would take much less effort to promote people-to-people contacts amongst SAARC nations. For SAARC to become a success, the agenda for mutual collaboration has to be owned by the people and not only by the government functionaries. This would happen if there is significant increase in people-to-people contacts in the region.

Facilitating people-to-people contact may require abolishing visa requirements for the SAARC nations. The free flow of trade will thus be an organic by-product of the free flow of the people whose ancestors never required visas to visit each other in South Asia.

Murtaza Haider, Ph.D. is the Associate Dean of research and graduate programs at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University in Toronto. He can be reached by email at

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