Lyonchoen explains that an event that is not going to happen cannot be boycotted 

Region: Bhutan’s decision to pull out of the 19th SAARC summit was a “responsible measure” to recognise and highlight the deteriorating security situation in the region, Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay said at the Meet-the-Press, yesterday.

The SAARC summit was scheduled for next month in Islamabad, Pakistan.

However, uncertainty looms over the regional summit as more than half of the eight-member countries have withdrawn from the summit.

According to the SAARC process, Lyonchoen said a summit cannot take place if one member does not participate. “So, whether Bhutan says it will participate in the summit or not has no meaning actually because the summit will not take place,” he said.

Lyonchoen Tshering Tobgay added that rather than just being a “quiet observer”, the government as an active member believes that the situation is such that the summit cannot take place. “The environment is not conducive for a successful summit due to security concerns in the region,” he said.

The members would be violating their own agreement if the regional summit cannot he held in November. The heads of the SAARC member states had agreed in Kathmandu in 2014 that the SAARC summit would be held every two years or earlier if necessary.

According to the Kathmandu Declaration, it was agreed that 30 years after its existence, it was time to rejuvenate SAARC’s regional cooperation and revitalise the regional body as an “effective vehicle” to fulfill developmental aspirations of the people in the region.

Bhutan joined India, Bangladesh and Afghanistan in announcing their withdrawal from the summit. Sri Lanka also decided yesterday not to attend the summit, attributing the prevailing environment in the region is not conducive for holding the summit, according to foreign media reports.

Lyonchoen said Bhutan has taken a “responsible decision” to join the other nations in not attending the summit and because it shares the concerns of its neighbours.

“You know that there is alleged cross-border terrorism in some of our neighbours,” he said. “You know that these allegations have been made repeatedly on several instances culminating in the September 18 Uri attack in Jammu and Kashmir.”

On Thursday, Lyonchoen said the Indian government announced that they conducted “surgical attacks” within Pakistan. These incidents, he said, goes to prove definitely that the security situation in the region is not conducive to hold the SAARC summit.

“Now not holding the SAARC summit does not mean that we are not committed towards the SAARC process,” he said. “Not holding the SAARC summit this time because the environment is not conducive does not mean that we are not committed to regional cooperation,” he added.

Lyonchoen also said that Bhutan was not toeing any country’s line in withdrawing its participation. “I take it that you have thought about the question deeply, and I take it that you strongly feel that the government may be, in your words, toeing India’s line,” he said to a reporter who asked the question.

Given the allegations of cross-border terrorism and escalation of military tension in the region, and that Bhutan sees them as “acts of terrorism”, Lyonchoen said there is no denying that the environment and atmosphere is far from conducive for holding the SAARC summit. “Calling a spade a spade does not mean that we are toeing any one country’s line. Please be careful,” he said.

That said, Lyonchoen added that India is Bhutan’s very close friend without a doubt. “As a close friend we are mindful of their security interests just like India is deeply mindful of Bhutan’s security interests,” he said.

“The fact that Bhutan recognises the deteriorating security situations with the SAARC region, and the fact that Bhutan takes a responsible measure to highlight the deteriorating security situation, should not be misconstrued as toeing any one country’s line,” Lyonchoen said.

The decision to pull out of the summit was not an act of boycotting. “Let’s understand that the SAARC summit is not going to take place. We cannot boycott a SAARC summit that is not going to take place,” he said.

Lyonchoen also assured that the cancellation of SAARC summit would not affect the regional body, saying that several SAARC summits had to be cancelled in the past. Many had to be postponed, he added.

According to Lyonchoen, a SAARC summit is just one part of the process and that other SAARC events continue to take place. “Even as we speak, there is a SAARC meeting happening in Kathmandu, (Nepal) and there are other events that will continue to take place,” he said.

Lyonchoen said, Bhutan as a founding member is committed to strengthening SAARC and ensuring cooperation among the member countries.

Maldives has not announced its withdrawal, while Nepal’s government has urged that a conducive environment be created soon to ensure the 19th SAARC summit is held.

What would be that “conducive environment” for Bhutan to attend the SAARC summit? Lyonchoen said there should be an atmosphere where the countries won’t have mistrust and that such an atmosphere should be free of tension and misgivings.

Only in such an environment, Lyonchoen said, a summit would yield successful outcomes.

“This is obviously going to be absent from the summit,” he said.

MB Subba