Beyond parochialism and pettiness: Setting a regional agenda for actual cooperation

Beyond parochialism and pettiness: Setting a regional agenda for actual cooperation

By P.K.Balachandran/Daily Express

Colombo, June 8: South Asia has a plethora of regional cooperation institutions, but their performance has been dismal. Parochialism, petty nationalism and mutual suspicions have been the bane of these institutions, though they have been around for decades and have been holding meetings frequently to ritualistically express sentiments of brotherhood and signing agreements.

SAARC came into being in 1985, but plagued by the perennial India-Pakistan conflict and fear of Indian domination, it is virtually moribund. An Indian External Affairs Minister, Yashwant Sinha, had even dubbed it an utter failure.

BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) was born 20 years ago. The members of BIMSTEC are Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand. But till date, it’s achievements have only been “modest” as its Secretary General Sumith Nakandala put it.

In fact, it was only very recently that the BIMSTEC  Secretariat was set up and Nakandala became its first Secretary General.

Trade among the SAARC countries remains dismal despite the conclusion of the South Asia Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) in 2006. Total trade within the region is less than five per cent of the region’s total commerce. In services, it is 0.2 per cent as compared to 26 per cent in ASEAN.

The reasons for this appalling performance were identified by BIMSTEC Secretary General Nakandala, at the organization’s 20 th.anniversary celebrations at Dhaka on Wednesday.

“ Political commitment alone will not help regional cooperation succeed.  What is more necessary is a non-parochial mind set; and a transcending of pettiness supplemented by a deep understanding of the pluralistic values of the region,” Nakandala said.

He pointed out that a non-parochial mindset, broad mindedness and pluralistic values have been the “intangible heritage” of the peoples of the Bay of Bengal region for centuries.

In the past,countries in the BIMSTEC region have been trading intensively and extensively, and have had been interacting in the cultural, linguistic and religious spheres too. So much so that the region had common threads running through it. If these values are revived, the BIMSTEC region will come together again and even be a model for the rest of the world, Nakandala said.

“Let us rededicate ourselves to that noble cause, which is essentially a social justice project for the people in the Bay of Bengal,” the Sri Lankan diplomat exhorted.

Bay of Bengal region

On BIMSTEC’s achievements in the last 20 years, Nakandala said that these have been “modest” but the energetic diplomat has made the member countries put their shoulders to the wheel to a remarkable extent.

“One of the most important achievements is the establishment of the BIMSTEC Permanent Secretariat. In this regard I express my deep gratitude to the Government of Bangladesh as well as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh for its commitment and leadership in operationalizing the BIMSTEC Secretariat,” he said.

The other important achievement is the conclusion of the Headquarters Agreement between the Government of Bangladesh and the BIMSTEC Secretariat which reiterated the continued commitment of the Government of Bangladesh to promoting regional cooperation and integration in the Bay of Bengal region.

For the last two years, the Secretariat has facilitated 56 Meetings in different sectoral cooperation, which gave added momentum to the organization. As of  June 1, 2017, the BIMSTEC Secretariat has acquired its full strength comprising three directors from Bangladesh, Bhutan and India. India deputed its Director to the Secretariat.

The BIMSTEC Transport Infrastructure and Logistics Study (BTILS) Updating and Enhancement” has  been concluded and the Inception Meeting of the BIMSTEC Transport Connectivity Working Group was convened in 2016.

“We will continue to work with the Asian Development Bank in terms of preparing the BIMSTEC Master Plan for Connectivity, as proposed by Thailand,” the Secretary General said.

In the Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime sector, the BIMSTEC Convention on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters is ready for signature. Currently,  BIMSTEC is negotiating the BIMSTEC Convention against Trafficking in Persons.

In the Energy Cooperation sector, the Memorandum of Understanding for the establishment of a BIMSTEC Grid Interconnection is ready for signature.

“I have held the view that no regional groupings will succeed without effective leadership. We are extremely grateful to the Honorable Prime Minister of India for providing that leadership and hosting the BIMSTEC Leaders’ Retreat in Goa, India on 16 October 2016. The Leaders’ Retreat provided added political commitment and momentum which are necessary for achieving the desired goals of the organization,” Nakandala said.

“ The Leaders at the Retreat agreed to conclude, the Motor Vehicles Agreement for the Regulation of Passenger and Cargo Vehicular Traffic between and among BIMSTEC Member Countries, the BIMSTEC Trade Facilitation Agreement, and the BIMSTEC Coastal Shipping Agreement, among others,” he said.

The other important landmark event was the convening of the First Meeting of the BIMSTEC National Security Chiefs in March 2017. This provided a rare opportunity for BIMSTEC Member States to look at the Bay of Bengal as a strategic security space and to address perennial problems related to human security.

In the People-to-People Contact sector, the BIMSTEC Secretariat, in collaboration with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Thailand and the Chulalongkorn University, hosted a successful International Conference on “Strengthening Cultural Linkages in the Bay of Bengal Region.

“The third decade is extremely crucial for achieving the goals set by our Leaders at the Retreat held in Goa in 2016. One of the key goals  is the early setting up of the BIMSTEC Free Trade Area,” Nakandala pointed out.

But for all this to happen, countries in BIMSTEC will have to shed parochialism, petti-mindedness and revive the pluralistic values of the past, he stressed.

(The featured image at the top shows BIMSTEC Secretary  General Sumith Nakandala making a point at a seminar in Dhaka)