Event ReportsPublished on Mar 30, 2022
BIMSTEC Summit 2022: Conversations
As the Bay of Bengal returns to the limelight of strategic attention after years of isolation, its littoral countries are keen to re-engage with one another, to build a more collaborative future. A natural platform to reinforce these ties and develop avenues of cooperation is the Bay of Bengal Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation or BIMSTEC—the regional organisation exclusive to the Bay. Interest is, therefore, mounting as BIMSTEC hosts its 5th Summit Meeting on 30 March 2022, wherein it will rationalise its sectors of cooperation and adopt a Charter for the first time, since its inception in 1997. Keeping the significance of this event in mind, Observer Research Foundation under its Neighbourhood Studies Initiative curated a series of brief interactions under the banner of BIMSTEC Summit 2022. These eight video conversations, each dedicatedly covering one of the seven BIMSTEC member countries: India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Nepal, Bhutan, and the BIMSTEC Secretariat itself, was compiled into a two-hour long web series and broadcasted on 29 March. The agenda was to have focused discussions with domain experts on various key issues which the organisation must cultivate as it tries to regain its vigour in the Bay of Bengal region. The Bay is prone to frequent cyclones, wreaking havoc on its littorals. The worst sufferers and first responders are the local communities. Bangladesh, which had been devastated by Cyclone Bhola in 1970, consequently developed a Cyclone Preparedness Programme (CCP), under its government and the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society. Today, CPP has emerged as a global best practise in community-based disaster management. For Bangladesh, discussions were thus held with Ahmadul Haque Director, Cyclone Preparedness Programme & Deputy Secretary, Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief, Government of Bangladesh, on ‘Counting on the Community: Bangladesh’s Cyclone Preparedness Programme’. He pointed out that the lack of awareness and education had been the biggest obstacles in implementing CPP but the problem has become manageable over the years. The model can be replicated by other BIMSTEC members as although the local context differs, volunteerism is universal and it is time to use this social capital in successful disaster management. Following this strain of analysing security concerns, the episode on India focused on ‘Maintaining Maritime Security: India’s Multilateral Measures’, keeping in mind the country’s role as the lead for the BIMSTEC sector on ‘Security’. Sarabjeet Singh Parmar, Senior Fellow, National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi opined that, rather than ‘net security provider’, India now prefers to be called ‘Preferred Security Partner’ and ‘First Responder’ to maritime crises in the Indian Ocean Region. These terms reflect its aspirations of resolving issues in a collaborative manner and converges with its role in BIMSTEC of working closely with the ‘Shepherd Country’ designated for each security sub-group. As regards maintaining freedom of navigation, information sharing amongst the BIMSTEC countries can help to better gauge the positioning of vessels, ensuring their safe movement and identify vessels involved in criminal pursuits. It would thus also help curb the problem of sea piracy in the Bay. Though ‘Undocumented migration’ requires more sensitive handling. From maritime to food security, Manoj Thibbotuwawa, Research Fellow, Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka, provided views on Food Security and BIMSTEC: Lessons from Sri Lanka’s Smart Farming’. Sri Lanka was one of the first countries to adopt smart farming through an e-agriculture strategy in 2016. This refers to managing agricultural yield through digital techniques, to provide better quality and quantity of food with more sustainable usage of natural resources. Sri Lanka like other BIMSTEC countries, it faces four food security issues: Food availability, access, stabilisation, and utility. These issues combined with poverty and income inequality motivated it to promote smart farming by leveraging its Information Communication Technology (ICT) sector. Promoting a Public-Private-Producer-Partnership (PPP) was also an important aspect of this experience. Therefore, to assure better food security and improve poverty alleviation in BIMSTEC countries, the organisation under Sri Lanka’s lead, must promote more South-South cooperation, less technology protectionism along with research and development. However, no discussion on security in the Bay is complete without taking into consideration, the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, one of the most contentious issues of recent times. Responding to the question ‘Can Myanmar’s Rohingya Issue Block the Development of BIMSTEC?’, Robin Ramcharan Executive Director, Asia Centre, Thailand, threw light on the situation of the Rohingyas amidst the pandemic, highlighting their insecurity and difficult living conditions. From the BIMSTEC regional perspective, there is need for delicate handling of the issue, emphasising the value of connectivity which prioritises humanitarian concerns above developing technical links. BIMSTEC members need to ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol as without it, no concrete steps can be taken for safeguarding the basic rights of such stateless populations. BIMSTEC must also create a special fund whereby they can support the displaced communities including Rohingyas. Think tanks and civil societies can also aid in opening more channels of dialogue on this issue within the region. Moving on to connectivity issues, the discussion for Nepal, revolved around ‘BIMSTEC: A Viable Platform for a Prosperous Nepal’. Ghanshyam Bhandari, Division Chief and Joint Secretary, Regional Organisation Division, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Nepal, propounded that the motto “Prosperous Nepal, Happy Nepali” indicates a transition in Nepal’s foreign policy, where regionalism, economic diplomacy, and development are taking the centre stage. The ‘organic link between mountains and oceans’ in the BIMSTEC region offers several opportunities for Nepal to enhance its foreign policy goals. The ongoing work on promoting a master plan on connectivity, and grid infrastructure project holds further promise. Nepal is also contributing to BIMSTEC’s people-to-people contact by undertaking tourism initiatives. Speaking on behalf of Bhutan, on the issue of ‘High Value, Low Volume Connectivity Prospects’, Achyut Bhandari Co-founder, Centre for Research on Bhutanese Society, Thimpu, highlighted the country’s eagerness to participate in BIMSTEC, having identified its potential in the region as a bridge between South and Southeast Asia. Bhutan has been enabling avenues of enhancing connectivity prospects through infrastructural investments, like the South East highway, as an alternative to the Indian highways. If such projects are enhanced by BIMSTEC, it will be beneficial to Thimphu, connecting it with the wider Asian Highway. The Trilateral Highway between India, Myanmar, and Thailand will also entail similar connectivity benefits for the country. Bhutan’s customs regulations have also been revised with the Kyoto Convention and dry container ports instrumentalised to attract better trade with the neighbours— the BIMSTEC countries. Also highlighting the importance of connectivity networks and tourism in strengthening BIMSTEC, Anchalee Kongrut, Editor and Columnist, Bangkok Post, enumerated the ‘Prospect for Promoting Physical and Cultural Connectivity through Thailand’. As Thailand’s ‘Look West’ policy converges with its task of leading the BIMSTEC sector on connectivity, the country has reiterated its commitment to promote the economic and social development of people in the Bay of Bengal region. A master plan on connectivity promoted by the Thai government is to be signed at the upcoming BIMSTEC Summit, accelerating economic growth. The Port Authority of Thailand also plans to upgrade Ranong’s two ports to improve connectivity in the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal. This would increase cargo capacity and enhance maritime activities in the Bay, benefiting the region by providing an alternative to the congested Strait of Malacca. Building cultural connectivity, especially along the common thread of Buddhism that runs through many of the BIMSTEC member states is also crucial for the organisation. Taking cue from this note of cultural connectivity, it is to be remembered that since its inception, BIMSTEC has sought to consolidate its membership and validate its rationale by imbibing a sense of community within the organisation. Damaru Ballabha Paudel, Director (People to People Contact), BIMSTEC Secretariat, Dhaka, thus speaking on ‘Connecting People across the Bay of Bengal’ stated that BIMSTEC has proved itself to be a natural platform for promoting the growth and development in the region. Aiming to increase tourism circles, the BIMSTEC brand has been developing a common website through a virtual tourism centre and an annual travel plan with safety protocols. In this regard, the role of the private sector utilising the economic diplomacy of the respective countries is vital in attracting tourists. Similarly, the archaeological significance of member countries has also received focus in working group and ministerial meetings. Similarly, the Visa protocols have also been relaxed, in the post COVID period in light of health tourism. The Visa Experts Group is trying to realise BIMSTEC Visa facilitation to make connectivity more organised. Additionally, there are engagements on the academic exchange programs for think tanks at the Track II dialogue and also the engagement of parliamentarians with policy feedback. In conclusion, it may be observed that cooperation in security and connectivity is intrinsic to coalescing a fundamental framework for better engagement within BIMSTEC. Confidence building amongst member countries through exchange of information, best practices, and technologies is key to regional development. Addressing humanitarian concerns, particularly those affecting marginalised communities is also essential for BIMSTEC’s inclusive growth. Such are the expectations from BIMSTEC beyond its fifth Summit Meeting.
This event report has been compiled by Sohini Bose (Junior Fellow, ORF Kolkata) with contributions from Sreeparna Banerjee (Junior Fellow, ORF Kolkata), Sohini Nayak (Junior Fellow, ORF Kolkata) and Aditya Gowdara Shivamurthy (Research Assistant, ORF New Delhi).
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