Economic Development | Speeches

Bridging trust and building network of regional co-operation necessary for South Asian development

Rotary South Asia Goodwill Summit

New Delhi, India

February 12, 2007

Mr. Chairman, Your Excellency, Mr. Gujral and the dignitaries at the Head Table.

Your Excellencies and distinguished friends,

I wish to express my appreciation to His Excellency Shri I. K. Gujral and to Rotary International for inviting me to the Rotary South Asia Goodwill Summit. I am grateful for the opportunity you have given me to meet with so many eminent persons from South Asia and to engage in a dialogue with them on important issues related to development in our region. This also presents me with the additional attraction of visiting one of my favourite cities – the bustling, vibrant, multicultural New Delhi.

This Summit is meant to bring together a large number of South Asians engaged in various fields of activity to exchange ideas on how we may create synergies between countries and across borders, in order that we build networks of Cooperation for Development, within our region.

It is a most laudable task undertaken by Rotary International.

I propose to speak on “Why Only Talk of Differences – What about the Commonalities? Building Bridges Across South Asia” to place some ideas before you, in the hope of creating dialogue leading to positive action.

South Asia is a sub continent of considerable size. It is home to one fourth of the world’s population. It possesses massive quantities of natural and human resources. Yet, the majority of its people live and die in abject poverty, the region is riven with political conflict within and between Nations.

What do we see, if we are to list the most significant trends in the history of South Asia after independence from colonization?

Vicious and bloody conflicts within Nations, conflicts even leading to wars between States, abject poverty, Corruption, Human Rights violations and malgovernance.
On the other hand, there appear some rays of light – democratic governing systems, highly educated intellectual, professional and administrative elites and now massive efforts at economic and social development.
We are aware that our peoples, as well as the governments could help each other to resolve the major problems that obstruct our march towards progress. We created SAARC with the noble objective of reaching consensus and formulating a network of intergovernmental cooperation.

Yet, inter State mistrust and conflicts have doggedly pursued us, preventing effective action.

The new States that emerged out of post colonial India were seeking to establish separate national identities. Religion and language were employed among people of the same ethnic origins, in order to draw lines of identification between one State and another.

The conflictual emotions generated by the partition of India and Pakistan, followed by that of Pakistan and Bangladesh compounded the divisions created along religious and language lines.

We are thus served up with a steaming hotpot of violent conflict.
How do we move on?
I believe we all know what needs to be done.

Why can’t we set aside the differences that may exist between us and start looking at all commonalities we share as South Asians?

We can take encouragement in the experience of Western Europe. The numerous Nations and communities of Europe were at war with one another for well over 10 centuries, in fact from the time of the decay of the Roman Empire.

Yet, after the 2nd World War, the peoples of Europe decided that enough was enough. They together formulated a noble vision for a Europe – at peace with itself and united in working for the prosperity of its peoples. They implemented, with much success, multifarious programmes to bring together and cause understanding between peoples hostile to each other for many long centuries.

This has resulted today in the world’s strongest, regional organization – the European Union, comprising of 27 Nations and a populace of 450 million.

Let us reflect here, upon our shared commonalities.

Our common inherited history, our civilization ethos and cultures, the common roots of our languages our common social practices and traditions and the reality of inhabiting a distinct geographical region, common to us all.
Then we have the common challenges we face today – that of poverty, terrorism, climate change and pollution, access to Education and Health Services for all our citizens, the empowerment of Women, gainful employment of our youth, protecting our Women and Children from abuse and domestic violence, Combating the problems of Drug, Alcohol, Tobacco abuse and so on.
Our regional organization – SAARC has moved little to implement programmes of regional cooperation through action to address these issues. Even bi-lateral cooperation leaves much room for improvement.

If I may express my views frankly, as a senior citizen of a sister Nation, – the obstacles to effective cooperation in South Asia have mainly stemmed from inter-State conflicts and distrust.

To overcome this dilemma, I cannot see any alternative to building on factors common to us all. India is a secular State. But we know that there exist differences between the diverse communities leading to flashes of violence from time to time. Similarly in Pakistan and Bangladesh. My country, Sri Lanka, too has undergone far too long, such travails in a more acute form.

I propose that we now undertake positive programmes of Action to build bridges across the differences, based on the common heritage and challenges – among women, youth, professionals, educationists, writers, poets and artists, journalists and media persons, religious leaders of all religions, may be even retired politicians. These are a few of us here.

India recently celebrated the birth centenary of the launch of Mahatma Gandhi’s Satyagraha Campaign. Gandhiji was a champion of the concept that there are many identities other than that of religion that are important for a person’s identity and for his or her relations with other citizens of diverse groups. He believed in the richness of diversity and advocated a policy of equal rights and inclusion of peoples of all groups in the process of Government. Gandhiji was faithful to the continuum of the great traditions of understanding and tolerance in a multicultural South Asia.

King Akbar the Great, many centuries ago encouraged a multicultural Bharat. He took much interest in the various religions of multicultural India, then being himself committed to “the pursuit of reason and the rejection of traditionalism”. Akbar arranged for dialogues between Hindus, Muslims as well as Christians, Jews, Parsees, Jains etc; The King himself would discuss the various aspects of each religion, accepting or rejecting them, at these dialogues.

Following these traditions, people’s organizations could today undertake actions that governments cannot, due to political compulsions. For instance, we on our part could engage in many actions to address common challenges.

In the sphere of Education, I dare say, the problem of lack of resources to give education to all the children has to be handled by governments. Yet citizens groups could help by setting up Model Schools open to children of all communities and providing modern facilities and focusing on the teaching of English, Science, Electronics and Vocational Training, in addition to the usual curriculum. These schools will hold regular programmes of performing arts, where pupils of diverse groups will participate in the arts and activities specific to each group. The school curriculum will contain subjects that teach the common heritage possessed by all South Asians.
Secondly, we can promote and strengthen the regional organizations of professionals such as lawyers, doctors, engineers and intellectuals, who will share knowledge and even participate in joint projects.
Thirdly, a South Asian Women’s Organization could be created to undertake programmes to empower women in various ways.
Fourthly, youth organizations could be set up similarly. Multicultural festivals of Performing Arts may be organized in one South Asian country at a time, to which hundreds of youth from all South Asian countries would be invited to participate. The people living in the region where the festival is held must be brought in as active participants and coordinators.
Next, literacy festivals of writers and poets from all South Asian countries could be organized and effectively.
Sixth, the South Asian Business Forum which exists already could be made more dynamic through various annual events. A south Asian Trade Fair organized by the forum, where buyers from other continents would be invited could prove to be popular.
Seventh, some organizations could undertake national and cross border programmes for;
the Prevention of Drug, Alcohol and Tobacco Abuse.
as well as for the Prevention of Child abuse and Violence against Women.
In this area, the experience gained in some of the countries could serve as models. For instance g Sri Lanka implemented special programmes for the Prevention of Drug, Alcohol and Tobacco Abuse, as well as for the Prevention of Child abuse and Violence against Women during the period 1994 – 2005. These could be undertaken by the Women’s organization proposed earlier.

Eighth, we could create a forum of Media Persons to share differing perceptions and to provide a platform for dialogue and finally,
A regional organization of experts and activists committed to Sustainable Development and Protection of the Environment.
That’s a long list of things to do. The participants of this Summit are mainly Rotarians from South Asia. You are committed to action as Change Agents of Society. I am aware that Rotary has successfully implemented excellent programmes in our countries. Sri Lanka is today Polio –free, thanks to the leadership given by Rotary. The activities I propose could be led by you, together with leaders in various fields from other countries. But we will have to obtain the active assistance of many other groups and of course the blessings and support of the governments.

My experience during over 12 years of governance in Sri Lanka is that bridges could be built even across the sharpest divide and that dialogue and positive demonstration of goodwill, are the only means to resolving conflict. The modern communications revolution has brought the furthest point of the world to the feet of the smallest man living in the remotest village. This gives dialogue the prime role in human communications. Do we still require weapons to resolve problems between people?

The efforts of my government to take development to the conflict ridden areas of the country and to relentlessly pursue the path of negotiations resulted in several years of a Ceasefire and the conclusion of a landmark agreement between the Government and the rebel organization – the LTTE, for joint action to reconstruct the Tsunami damaged areas.

I believe there is no better moment than this to achieve positive results in South Asia. Both India and Pakistan have governments that have enunciated a Vision that is both progressive and modern and are committed to its effective implementation. I have no doubt that their respective governments, as well as all others in the region will give us the support we need.

In conclusion may I state that I personally will be ready to extend every assistance for programmes of positive action that would lead to the progress of South Asia – Our peoples deserve this and dream of a better tomorrow led by a united, strong family of South Asian Nations.

Thank you