Thimphu: South Asian leaders Wednesday admitted their mutual differences, particularly those between India and Pakistan, failed SAARC to overcome key challenges of poverty, climate change and terrorism in the region as they met for their 16th summit in the Bhutan capital on Wednesday.
At the opening of the two-day South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit, heads of the eight member nations pitched for empowerment and close connectivity of South Asia to help in meeting numerous challenges of the region that is home to a fourth of the human race.
Opening the summit in this environmentally-conscious country for the first time with the motto of "Towards a Green and Happy South Asia", Bhutan Prime Minister Lyonchhen Jigmi Thinley said the bloc should now take critical look at itself after 25 years of its existence.
Thinley said: "SAARC`s journey has not been one of outstanding success" since it was created in 1985 to encourage development and raise the living standards of the poverty-stricken people of the region.
He said the bloc was "losing focus" because of prevailing tensions between the member states. "Fractious and quarrelsome neighbours do not make a prosperous community," he stressed, watched by leaders from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Afghanistan, Banglades and Nepal.
Experts attribute SAARC`s failure to uncertain relations between India and Pakistan, the region`s two dominant powers, that prevent the bloc from achieving its full potential of regional cooperation.
The leaders attending the summit besides the Bhutan prime minister are Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Pakistan Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Sri Lanka President Mahenda Rajapaksa, Nepal Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal and Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed.
Manmohan Singh admitted that SAARC had indeed failed in meeting its aspirations.
"In looking back at these two-and-a-half decades, we can claim the glass is half full and compliment ourselves, or we can admit the glass is half empty and challenge ourselves," he said.
Pitching for greater regional cooperation, he shared the "vision of inclusive growth in South Asia both within our countries and for the region of South Asia as a whole".
"The 21st century cannot be an Asian century unless South Asia marches together," he said.
Unusual for any SAARC summit, Maldives President Nasheed openly talked about bitter India-Pakistan relations.
Mentioning about a scheduled meeting between Manmohan Singh and his Pakistani counterpart Gilani Thursday, Nasheed, who was speaking extempore, said he hoped the "conversation will lead to greater dialogue" between the two countries.
His comments came amid a common feeling that the relations between India and Pakistan have always overshadowed SAARC summits.
Gilani in his address stressed that peace was imperative for South Asian development.
Stabilising the region are Pakistan`s "top priorities", he said, adding that terrorism had become a regional and international phenomenon affecting South Asia the most.
The SAARC countries will have to fight the menace together, Gilani said.