While South Asian nations were trading with countries in the West whose citizens had won trade freedoms and had high living standards, intra South Asian trade was weak.
"The understanding of the primary importance of trade is absolutely essential to fully leverage the power of Asia," Asad Umar, senior vice president of Pakistan's Tehreek-e-Insaaf, a political party started by cricketer Imran Khan told a business forum in Colombo.
"Guess who is the laggard in Asia, in terms of regional trade? While global trading opportunities are critical one of the most important drivers of development - even of trade - is trade within a region."
Umar, a former chief executive of Pakistan's Engro petroleum group which grew out of a management buyout from an Exxon unit, was speaking at Sri Lanka's Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA) Business Leaders' Summit.
The lowest share of intra regional trade in the world was South Asia at one percent. The East Asian Association of South East Asian nations, which were rapidly moving out of poverty was 27 percent.
ASEAN was bringing down trade barriers and also allowing free movement of people through visa free travel.
Some analysts have pointed out that South Asian leaders have been quick to use tools developed in the West, including trade barriers, oppressive and discriminatory laws based on nationalism, against the people, but reluctant to allow freedoms.
After gaining self determination from Britain, South Asian citizens had lost many freedoms to nationalism, as rulers transplanted oppressive legislation including economic nationalism and expropriation, to the region, as has happened in Eastern Europe.
In East Europe promoters of nationalism dehumanized other people who had different attributes to one's own group, long before South Asian nations became independent from colonial rule.
With the end of feudalism in an environment where rulers are elected by a majority vote, linguistic, religious and economic nationalism was the easiest path the power. The most extreme form was national socialism.
Meanwhile Umar said there were greater attributes that were common to the peoples of South Asia than the differences.
Expropriation, which reversed newly developed property rights in Europe, became a tool of rulers to rob property rights of citizens with the emergence of Marxism in Germany.
Umar said in the 1970s Pakistan had expropriated a large number of citizen-built private businesses, which had emerged after independence in 1947, when the country had two percent literacy rate and was one of the 10 poorest in the world.
"From there within a matter of 30 years we created one of the most exciting private sector led growth anywhere in the world," Umar said.
"South Koreans tell me that their planners in the 1960s went to Pakistan study what had happened. And what did we do with that private sector? In the 1970s we nationalized it."
"I hope that all our collective governments have understood the lesson. You cannot have a great economy without great companies. Therefore great companies are an interest to the state, not a threat."
Sri Lanka which expropriated in the past and killed an emerging private sector soon after independence from British passed a new law to expropriate as late as last year.
Umar said knowledge was key a prosperity all over the world, and India's trade in services was driven by knowledge.
He said in the 1960s India's state has invested in a clutch of technology institutes which had created knowledge based professionals that had fanned the world. Large knowledge based firm like Wipro, Infosys and Tata Consultancy Services had emerged.
The cost of setting up Indian Institutes of Technology were much smaller the than the billions poured into the military.
"What do you think was the total expenditure the government of India made in IITs?", Umar asked.
"I can assure that it would be significantly less, a fraction, of what India would spend on its nuclear arsenal or military hardware.
"In may humble opinion what it has given to India in terms of economic security and political clout already overshadows anything that military might has given.
"It is a very very strong reminder when how when a state's priorities are correct and a state invests in its people how it get paid back in spades.
In Sri Lanka state investments in tertiary education has been misdirected to create large number of unemployable graduates who demand tax payer financed jobs.
In addition tertiary education freedoms had been denied to citizens by making degree awarding a state monopoly.
However analysts say in areas like accountancy where rulers have given citizens freedom Sri Lanka is producing professionals who even working in other countries and also engaging in services exports through knowledge process outsourcing.