The panel of speakers comprised of several high profile Sri Lankan and Pakistani experts including Secretary Defence Eng. Karunasena Hettiarachchi, Former Secretary General of SAARC Ambassador Nihal Rodrigo, Director General of INSSSL Asanga Abeyagoonasekera, Dr. Syed Rifaat Hussain, Mr. Ikram Sehgal and His Excellency the High Commissioner of Pakistan Maj. Gen. (R) Syed Shakeel Hussain.

The event was attended by a cross section of diplomatic corps, senior military officers, members of academia and other dignitaries, Pakistani community in Sri Lanka and media personnel.

The speakers at the panel discussion urged the South Asian states to provide all individuals with the opportunity to live in dignity, and to realise their full potential as enshrined in the SAARC Charter. They said, in an increasingly developed world, the objectives of peace, freedom, social justice and economic prosperity are best achieved in the South Asian region by fostering mutual understanding, good neighbourly relations and meaningful cooperation among the member states which are bound by ties of history and culture.

In his opening remarks, the High Commissioner of Pakistan Maj. Gen. (R) Syed Shakeel Hussain underscored that unless strong commitment was shown by all nations in the region towards respecting and honouring sovereign equality, the progress of SAARC will keep getting hampered. It is imperative that India and Pakistan being the biggest economies must solve their bilateral issues, he added. He emphasised that “the road to peace and prosperity in SAARC lies through Srinagar”.

Secretary Defence and Chairman INSSSL, Eng. Karunasena Hettiarachchi, in his keynote address, stated that as one of the poorest regions in the world, with the number of people below the poverty line rising every year, we are a long way from reaching the target of poverty alleviation. Thus, it is imperative for member states to cooperate and prioritize the Sustainable Development Goals and further the development agenda. He further highlighted that in South Asia, Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan are the worst victims of the affliction of terrorism and given the severity of this issue, it is important to continue and strengthen the relationships among the member states of SAARC to combat terrorism. SAARC needs to expand its vision and be more inclusive and open to establish new linkages with interactions among private and informal sectors being important, he stated.

Former Secretary General SAARC, Amb. Nihal Rodrigo said it was very unfortunate that the SAARC Summit which was scheduled to be held in Islamabad in 2016, was first delayed and then cancelled due to bilateral issues between Pakistan and India although, it is mentioned in the SAARC Charter that the organisation should not be hostage to bilateral problems. He further stated that SAARC should adopt a global approach and should focus on a wide range of activities like poverty alleviation, improvement of the health sector, trade and commerce in the region.

Director General of INSSSL, Mr. Asanga Abeyagoonasekera began his presentation with a quote from Late Lakshman Kadiragamar whose foresight is evident in the unfolding of recent events in the region. He also said that the first challenge at the face of South Asia is apprehending the volatile global order. Bringing to the fore a novel concept, Technocracy he said, can be argued to be a viable model in resolving the issues besetting the region as Liberal democracy has proven to be a model that does not deliver efficient results. Asia could drift towards a technocracy – a model operated by technical experts and expert government servants which deliver quick results, he stated. When considering the greatest problem plaguing the region which is poverty, he quoted H.E. President Maithripala Sirisena who has rightly declared 2017 as the year of eradicating poverty in Sri Lanka.

Head of Department of Government Policy and Public Administration NUST University Pakistan, Dr. Syed Rifaat Hussain, while elaborating on the Indus Water Treaty between Pakistan and India, said that in spite of this Treaty which was signed in September 1960 to settle the issue of water distribution between the two countries, remains a contentious issue. He highlighted that South Asia is a water scarce region and it could be the cause of future conflicts with a possible nuclear war between India and Pakistan on the Kashmir issue itself. Therefore, SAARC countries should cooperate with each other to ensure equitable and efficient utilization of water.

Senior Analyst and Chairman Pathfinder Group, Pakistan, Mr. Ikram Sehgal in his presentation, underscored that among the unresolved problems in the region, the core issue of Kashmir must be addressed to ensure the smooth functioning of SAARC and prosperity of the whole region. He stressed that we have to look at the positivities and emerging economic opportunities in the region and beyond.

There was a very interesting and fruitful discussion that followed with many questions being directed at the panelists. Among them was a statement which brought to the fore that the agenda of the BJP had hegemonic designs not only in respect of Kashmir but would like to extend India’s borders from Afghanistan to Thailand. The panelists duly noted the concern, however suggested that a party does not represent the view of an entire state. This marked the conclusion of a very productive event.