South Asian nations launch bid for greater unity

United by a desire to forge a distinct regional identity, the heads of seven south Asian nations meet here tomorrow to formally launch the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. The festive air that has crept into the Bangladeshi capital presages the first-ever meeting of the leaders of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, and the Maldive Islands. Although it can perhaps ill afford it, the Bangladesh government has reportedly spent more than a million dollars on elaborate preparations.

But it is not only critics of the Bangladeshi President, Lt. Gen. Hussain Muhammad Ershad who question the wisdom of such expenditures. Few analysts here and in India believe that the new association will play a crucial role in resolving the major differences -- security, border disputes, and nuclear weapons -- that divide its members.

``The idea of an organization being used to ease regional tension has no strong precedent anywhere,'' Indian analyst Bharat Wariawalla says. However, says one Western analyst, ``the fact that they're meeting together is a big accomplishment by itself.''

What will prove more important this weekend are the bilateral talks that are likely to be held behind the scenes, outside of the formal agenda. Many observers believe that any developments on the bilateral level will greatly influence the scope and substance of regional cooperation through the new association.

Much will depend on how far India is willing to cooperate with its neighbors. Within the region, India so dominates all the others not only in size, but also as a political and economic power, that regional relations revolve around India. ``India could make or break the organization,'' one analyst says.

Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi is reportedly intent on improving regional relations.

Mr. Gandhi is expected to hold talks with Pakistan's President Muhammad Zia ul-Haq on longstanding disputes such as the issue of nuclear weapons capability. Both sides appear to have edged toward a conciliatory approach recently.

Gandhi will also have talks with Sri Lanka's President Junius Jayewardene in an attempt to stem the heightening conflict between Tamil guerrillas and the Sri Lankan government.

Bangladesh and India are also likely to meet to try and resolve their biggest problem: the dispute over sharing the water of rivers in the border areas.

Some progress is expected on the technological and economic fronts. Most of the countries are afflicted by rural poverty and rapid population growth. Officials have identified several areas of interest for technical cooperation, including population, health, rural development, transport, and telecommunications.

Cooperation in the economic field will be more difficult because of India's dominant presence. ``There is so much distrust of India's big lead in economic areas,'' says one Indian analyst, that any discussion of free trade within the region becomes a highly sensitive issue.

``The levels of poverty here suggest that South-South cooperation cannot progress too far, too quickly, '' says a Western analyst.

But, at the moment, there is restrained optimism that the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation marks an important beginning for the region.

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