India must avoid blame game

"Pakistan supports the unity, territory, integrity and sovereignty of Sri Lanka. We consider that the Sri Lankan nation can resolve all its problems without outside interference. We hope that a lasting and durable peace in Sri Lanka would be achieved soon."

by Sonali Samarasinghe

(August 03, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) As most of Colombo head to the peripheries on holiday to avoid the traffic nightmares in the city due to the SAARC Summit, tense relations are brewing between Sri Lanka's two largest neighbours, India and Pakistan.

If the Kabul bomb that ripped through the Indian Embassy prompted Indian National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan to immediately point fingers at Pakistan's Spy Agency ISI, calling it an 'Agency of Evil that must be destroyed,' India's covert Research and Analysis Wing has been viewed with no less animosity in many parts of the region.

Neither will the people of SAARC expect much from the 15th Summit which has as its theme "SAARC Partnership for People."

The food crisis, the rising price of oil, terrorism including state sponsored terrorism and a level playing field among the members as equal partners - these are the issues that SAARC leaders should get their teeth into. However India is in turmoil as more deadly bombs blister through its cities and its Prime Minister Manmohan Singh faces a formidable election.

Pakistan's Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani has domestic problems of his own. He must work with President Musharraf - a leader largely condemned by the world. Musharraf's only political sponsor, President George W. Bush will be back in his Texan home come January.

That said, Gilani's government is facing increasing challenges at home and President Bush in the twilight of his presidency has called on Gilani to deal sternly with rogue elements in the ISI. According to US media, American intelligence agencies have also concluded the ISI helped plan the deadly July 7 bomb. The officials also said there was information showing ISI was increasingly providing militants with details of the American campaign against them, allowing militants to escape American missile strikes in Pakistan's tribal areas.

In the backdrop of the US-India Nuke deal these concerns have not only strained Pakistan-US relations but fueled tension between Pakistan and India.

There is also growing tension as Pakistan's commitment to take on the Taliban/al-Qaeda combine is being questioned and the stability of Afghanistan is in the balance.

Rising tensions in Kashmir, deadly bombs blistering through Indian cities with speculation that Muslim militants are behind the series of blasts, issues of nuclear power and prestige, these, rather than poverty alleviation of a third of the world's population who call this region their home, will most likely dominate the talks even as the summit winds down today.

The SAARC region has one of the highest number of people living under the poverty line. And let's face it, SAARC is one of the weakest forums in the world. One is entitled to suspect that it is the very nature of this region's people and its selfish leaders that often make it so.

In negotiations it is more a focus on the differences rather than the similarities that hold sway. Its non cooperation is best reflected by the fact that intra-regional trade of SAARC is still said to be only approximately 5.5% of the total trade of the member countries.

Meanwhile both Pakistan's Premier Yousuf Raza Gilani and his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh are likely to hold talks on the sidelines of SAARC even as their bristling relations will be the focus of media attention. It would be their first face to face meeting.

Some in Pakistan are of the view India should consider surrendering sovereignty back to the struggling and dying Kashmirs and that Kashmir should join SAARC as a full member.

Be that as it may, as the two countries circle each other in a quiet diplomatic war the greater issues facing the SAARC region are unlikely to be addressed effectively as the talk show ends tomorrow.

Manmohan Singh in his previous meetings with Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, had sought to push the peace process even though other experiments like the joint mechanism on terrorism have predictably failed. However Indian analysts feel that given the recent terror attacks and the apprehension of more to follow Premier Singh may be pressurised into conveying a stern message to Prime Minister Gilani.

Diplomatic sources earlier told the writer Pakistan did not want to make Sri Lanka a playground for regional issues. Be that as it may, even as India reacts with anger over Pakistan's continuous military support for Sri Lanka's war Prime Minister Gilani in a written interview answers some questions put to him by this journal.

Q: India has repeatedly expressed concerns over Sri Lanka obtaining military support from Pakistan and China which they say is of national security concerns to New Delhi. How do you respond to these Indian concerns?

A: Being a sovereign country, it is up to Sri Lanka to make decisions in its best interest. Our relations with Sri Lanka are based on respect for sovereignty, territorial integrity and non- interference in each others internal affairs. This time tested relationship is free from outside interference.

Q: There is a view in India as well as among several political parties in Sri Lanka including that of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) that Sri Lanka has to look to India for support to resolve its ethnic conflict. Does Pakistan accept this fact despite the Muslim dimension to the conflict that India is the principal actor from the international arena in this conflict?

A: Pakistan supports the unity, territory, integrity and sovereignty of Sri Lanka. We consider that the Sri Lankan nation can resolve all its problems without outside interference. We hope that a lasting and durable peace in Sri Lanka would be achieved soon.

Q: The recent bomb attack on the Indian diplomatic mission in Kabul has prompted the tightening of security in the Indian Mission in Colombo as well. Now the National Security Advisor to the Indian Government M.K. Narayanan has blamed Pakistan's intelligence agency ISI for the attack. He has even gone so far as to call the agency 'evil' and an agency that should be destroyed. Given this development how do you see the prospects for South Asian regional cooperation in the fight against terrorism?

A: First of all, it may be recalled that we have condemned the incident in the strongest terms. Against this background, the Indian statement is not only surprising but shocking too. There were also bombing incidents in Pakistan subsequently, but we have not pointed fingers at anyone as we believe in carrying out investigations before laying responsibility. It is important that the blame game is avoided, as both countries have an institutionalised counter terrorism mechanism which is working satisfactorily.

Secondly, Pakistan is against terrorism in all its forms and manifestations as this menace negates the very essence of human values. We reject the Indian allegations levelled against our intelligence agencies and armed forces. Such baseless accusations serve no purpose other than vitiating bilateral atmosphere. We feel that such incidents urge us to strengthen cooperation in the fight against terrorism at the regional level too.

Pakistan has signed and ratified the SAARC Regional Convention on Suppression of Terrorism. We stand ready to fulfil our obligations in this regard and hope to see similar commitment from other countries of South Asia.

Q: There is a view, that states which have little respect for human rights gang up together in the international arena. Zimbabwe being a good example. Sri Lanka too has come under severe criticism for human rights violations as has Pakistan under President Musharraf. Do you see this as a Western conspiracy against poorer nations?

A: Pakistan has always opposed politicisation of international human rights fora. We have also opposed country specific mandates in the Human Rights Council.

In our view, human rights issues should be addressed through purely human rights angle. Only a positive approach to issues will help eradicate violations of international human rights standards.

Q: Pakistan and Sri Lanka have a Free Trade Agreement. How effective is the agreement in mutually beneficial economic terms and does Pakistan have any concern over the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) to be signed between India and Sri Lanka?

A: Sri Lanka is the first country with which Pakistan entered into a Free Trade Agreement (FTA). Since its operation, bilateral trade received a boost. To enhance bilateral trade, the two countries are closely working together. Pakistan's expertise in banking, finance and insurance, gas and petroleum exploration, road development, IT and telecommunications, higher education, pharmaceuticals and Sri Lanka's capability in the hospitality, retail marketing and apparel sectors can be combined for collaborative linkages and joint ventures. We would welcome economic cooperation among the South Asian countries which takes into account the principles enshrined in the SAARC charter and its various declarations.

Q: There have been international concerns on Iran's development of nuclear technology. How do you view these concerns given that both India and Pakistan are nuclear enabled states? Do you think each country has a right to develop its own nuclear technology?

A: Pakistan recognises Iran's right to peaceful use of nuclear technology. At the same time, we are confident that Iran will fulfil all its international obligations under the NPT. Pakistan supports peaceful resolution of Iran's nuclear issue within the framework of IAEA. We also support negotiations being carried out with the P 5 + 1 and oppose any coercive measures that could escalate tensions in the region.

However Prime Minister Gilani chose not to answer the following questions put to him by this journal.

(1) What exactly is the relationship between Sri Lanka and Pakistan on defence. Is it confined to training personnel or the supply of weapons as well?

(2) Both Sri Lanka and Pakistan face the threat of terrorism. Do you see the struggle of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka in the form of terrorism similar and akin to the threat of terrorism faced in Pakistan?

(3) Some political analysts have opined that India has concerns about a possible Pakistan sponsored Muslim militancy emerging in the east of Sri Lanka. What is your response?
- Sri Lanka Guardian