In a simple ceremony, Bhutan marked the 37th SAARC Charter Day yesterday by lighting symbolic butter lamps. The day was observed to raise awareness about the member states’ commitment to the SAARC process and to highlight the major achievements of the association. 

Looking back at the regional body of which Bhutan is a founding member, the low key event yesterday was reflective of the achievement of one of the oldest organizations in south Asia.

As we celebrate the 37th year of SAARC’s existence, it is a good time to remind ourselves about the success of the body. SAARC began with a grand vision – to promote peace, stability, and prosperity and collaboration and mutual assistance in the economic, social, cultural, technical and scientific fields.

Ironically, we need celebrations to remind us that there is a regional body. SAARC, as a regional cooperation body, failed to live up to the aspirations of the founding members. Critics say SAARC is a dead body. 

The founding members envisioned that the vast natural resources, the manpower, and the cultural and historical ties among nations were a strength to uplift the socio-economic lives of the people,  about 21 percent of humanity. The reality is that SAARC is overshadowed by regional politics and conflicts overshadowing its potential. This is evident from the fact that SAARC couldn’t hold a Summit for years.

Security reasons or conflicts may be a reason for not being able to hold SAARC Summits where important decisions are made, but the fact that eight nations cannot come to a discussion table speaks volumes of the inefficiency. The grand speeches made in past Summits is outweighed by the deep-rooted tensions among member states.  A striking characteristic of SAARC is the bilateral rifts, which have dominated regional efforts. In short, SAARC countries cannot get along.

Critics have already written off SAARC. Some are blunt to say it is a dead organization. To put into context, 15 years ago, SAARC met in Delhi to sow the seeds of a free trade area in line with the aim to accelerate economic growth. The World Bank today states that South Asia is the least integrated region in the world. Intra-regional trade is less than 5% of total trade, dwarfed by East Asia’s 35% and Europe’s 60%.

 Beyond trade, the common legacies of similarities in art and culture in the region, that leaders are quick to note in their speeches, has created more division than harmony. SAARC’s growth is stunted by the political problems to the extent that bilateral rifts, not cooperation, is characteristic of SAARC.

Meanwhile, other regional groupings are taking over SAARC. If it is not the groupings, the indifference to SAARC or member nations is forcing countries to look for alternatives. As SAARC tries to find a way out of the quagmire, most members are looking at regional powers to achieve its ambitions. A Brookings study notes that China had increased its exports to SAARC countries from $8 billion in 2005 to $52 billion in 2018, a growth of 546 per cent. SAARC members are trading more with other countries, including Sub-Saharan countries than their neighbours.

Bhutan has stayed true to SAARC commitments. It is an important forum to resolve regional issues, political, social or economic. There is a lot that the SAARC Summit can help landlocked countries like ours. Clean energy is a good example. Our energy cooperation could be expanded to power-hungry Bangladesh. The irony is that everybody acknowledges this without getting anything done.

Many Bhutanese think SAARC is saag, a withering vegetable losing its freshness and nutrition.