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bimstec-Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation.

Bimstec summit Opportunities for Bangladesh

bimstec-Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation.The 3rd Bimstec Summit is being held at the Myanmar capital Nay Pyi Taw from March 1-4. The first summit was held in Bangkok in 2004 and the second in New Delhi in 2008.
A new sub-regional group came into being in June 1997 when state/deputy ministers for foreign affairs of four countries — Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand — met in Bangkok and styled themselves as BIST-EC. Later, when Myanmar joined in December 1997, the group came to be known as BIMST-EC. Then Nepal and Bhutan joined as full members in 2004. The Bangkok summit agreed that the acronym Bimstec shall stand for Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation.
The 7-nation group had identified 14 areas of cooperation, each led by a member. The areas are Trade-Investment and Climate (Bangladesh); Transport, Tourism, Counter-Terrorism and Environment (India); Energy and Agriculture (Myanmar); Technology (Sri Lanka); Fisheries, Public Health, People to People contact (Thailand); Poverty Alleviation (Nepal); and Culture (Bhutan).
According to the Bangkok Declaration, the aim of the group is to create an enabling environment for rapid economic development of the sub-region. Some observers see this group as a marriage between Thailand’s “look west” policy and India’s “look east” strategy. Others feel that impotence of Saarc had driven five South Asian nations to team up with two South East Asian nations and tie the littoral states around the Bay of Bengal.
Significantly, this group of nations has built a bridge between South Asia and South East Asia, despite diversity in religion, language, culture and ways of life. Bimstec links 1.5 billion people — more than 21% of world population — and has a combined GDP of nearly $ 2.5 trillion. The members have immense potential to enhance trade and investment among themselves.
The 3rd Summit comes in the wake of unstable political atmosphere in the region. India, the largest member of the group, is fast approaching Lok Sabha election in April 2014. The question, who will rule in New Delhi after the elections, remains pretty wide. Nepal has just emerged from national elections in November 2013 and new Prime Minister Sushil Koirala has a daunting task of drafting the new constitution for the Himalayan Republic. Thailand is in the midst of a political upheaval. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is fighting for her political survival. Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse’s government is still waging a battle against international criticism over alleged war crimes. The international community has strongly sanctioned Myanmar for ethnic violence, which made the Rohingya Muslims take refuge in neighbouring countries. Bangladesh also has had its share of political violence leading to the elections in January 2014. Only Bhutan seems to have escaped political instability in recent times.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will lead a 40-member delegation to the Summit. She is expected to meet her counterparts for bilateral exchanges. Her meeting with outgoing PM Manmohan Singh will be routine and unlikely to bear any tangible result. Bangladesh feels deeply aggrieved that two agreements — Land Boundary Agreement and the Teesta Water sharing — have not been signed by India. Of course, Hasina will no doubt thank Manmohan for Indian support to Bangladesh’s bid to host the Bimstec Secretariat in Dhaka.
Hasina’s meeting with President Thein Sein will most likely dwell on boosting bilateral trade and commerce. Though the issue of persecution of Rohingya Muslims needs firm handling, it is unlikely that the Bangladesh leader will broach it.
The Summit will be preceded by Preparatory Meeting on March 1, Senior Officials’ Meeting on March 2 and Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on March 3. The heads of governments and states will meet on March 4. What will the leaders of these member countries take home from this summit?
The most important item on the agenda is no doubt “trade and connectivity.” To achieve this, the Free Trade Agreement (FTA), which has been under negotiations since the inception of Bimstec, needs to be completed now. All the other areas of cooperation will follow once the members are connected and trade and commerce flourishes. All eyes will be on the Summit to see what progress is achieved on the FTA.
MOUs on energy, agriculture and tourism are likely to be signed. The MOU on permanent Secretariat in Dhaka will also be signed. The decision to set up the Secretariat and give the group an institutional structure was taken in January 2011. Bangladesh’s bid to host the Secretariat was supported by the members. Sri Lanka also offered to host the Secretariat.
The cost of the Secretariat will be shared by the member countries. India will be the largest contributor with 32% of the cost. It is most likely that the post of the first Secretary General of Bimstec will go to Sri Lanka as recompense. The Bangladesh government has already selected the site for the Secretariat in Dhaka and funds have been allocated to build the complex.
Now that the Secretariat is coming up, Bimstec will need a charter to run the organisation. So far, decisions regarding the areas of cooperation were taken by the Summits and Foreign Ministerial Meetings. Bimstec Working Group (BWG) in Bangkok coordinates the activities of the organisation. Once the Secretariat starts operating, BWG will cease to function.
The charter should not allow a member state to prevent or impede any programme of the organisation, as is the case with Saarc. The Saarc Charter requires “unanimity” of members for any programme to be implemented. Because of political rivalry, India and Pakistan have on occasions conveniently disagreed (lack of unanimity) to stymie Saarc programmes and activities.
The Asean Charter has obviated this problem by instituting the principle of “consensus” of members for all programmes. That way a member can disagree with a programme, but it goes on because of consensus. Bimstec would do well to follow the Asean Charter. Fortunately, no political conflict bedevils the members of Bimstec, though they have bilateral issues to resolve. The charter should also allow the leaders to meet as frequently as possible.
As of now, people in general have little knowledge about this organisation. The setting up of the Secretariat will make it more visible within the region and without. Bangladesh will feel proud that it is going to host the Bimstec Secretariat.
by :Mahmood Hasan ,former Ambassador and Secretary.

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