Challenges in re-integrating the Bay of Bengal region

Challenges in re-integrating the Bay of Bengal region

By P.K.Balachandran 

Colombo, April 13 ( The Bay of Bengal region, comprising Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand is marked by commonalities. The linguistic, religious and cultural similarities which run through the peoples of these countries provide a solid foundation for cooperation. In fact, in ancient times, this area was also closely knit by trade with vessels traversing the length and breadth of the Bay of Bengal carrying goods, merchants, workers, artisans, religious preachers and soldiers which eventually led to a cross fertilization of culture, religion, modes of production and the arts.

But the era of peaceful commerce and easy cultural exchange ended with the advent of the Portuguese whose trading methods and approach to people of different cultures were at variance with established practices. Ultimately power flowed from the barrel of the gun and European dominance tool firm roots hindering traditional forms of interaction. In later years, after de-colonization, the emergence of nation states with nationalism as their ideology only widened the gaps and divides.

However, attempts are being made to bring the region together partly for its own sake, as regional groupings are the order of the day, partly on account of India’s geopolitical need to keep the Bay of Bengal under its control without the interference of either Pakistan or China.

One of the institutions tasked to bring about integration in the Bay of Bengal is BIMSTEC – the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation.

BIMSTEC comprises the seven countries in the rim of the Bay of Bengal, namely,  Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand.  Admittedly there are problems between these state too, and yet there is scope for re-integration.

“There was great trade in this region. There is no reason why that cannot happen again,”  Sumith Nakandala, Secretary General of BIMSTEC, told a one-day conference organized by BIMSTEC and the Indian think tank, Consumer Unity and Trust Society (CUTS) in Dhaka, on Tuesday. reports that speakers at the conclave were not so sanguine confronted by the enormity of the challenges involved. They pointed out that the region still remains the least integrated in the world and that is due to the political agendas of the member countries.

Syed Monowar Hussain, former Director of the Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority did not mince words when he spoke of Indian domination of the region.

“When you talk about connectivity with India, the perception is that it is only for the benefit of India,” he pointed out.

Retired Sri Lankan navy chief, Adm.Dr. Jayantha Colombage, Director of the Centre for Indo-Lanka Initiatives in the Colombo-based Pathfinder Foundation, spoke of travel restrictions, among other issues bedeviling the region.

“When I applied to the US, I got a five-year visa with multiple entries, for the UK, I got two years. But when I applied to Bangladesh, the Bangladesh High Commission in Sri Lanka gave me a visa to stay for only four days. How can we enhance connectivity when we have such a strict visa regime?” he asked.

“BIMSTEC to look into these issues. For peace and prosperity, we need connectivity,” he stressed.

Adm.Colombage noted that  the Indian Ocean has become the most militarized and nuclearized zone in the world due to Big Power competition.

“That creates an adverse impact on regional cooperation and affects groupings like BIMSTEC,” he said.

Bay of Bengal region

Sudip Dey, Secretary of Calcutta Customs House Agents Association decried the politicization of relations.

“We share common values but we are less integrated for political reasons. Now time has come to say enough is enough. What we need is the connectivity of mindsets. We distrust each other for political reasons. We have fears within us. There is a lot of research on trade and connectivity, but now we need research on the whole issue of how to address this distrust,” Dey said.

Set up in 1997, BIMSTEC connects South Asia with Southeast Asia which account for 21 percent of the world population, providing a huge potential for trade.

But the intra-regional trade is so negligible that it is not even documented.The BIMSTEC Free Trade Agreement was signed in 2004 to establish a free trade area in the region, but it is not implemented yet.

CUTS Executive Director, Bipul Chatterjee, said national development plans to develop connectivity within the member-nations should be in sync with larger plans for regional connectivity within the Bay of Bengal region.

Chairing the first session of the conference, Senior Editor Subir Bhaumik said the BIMSTEC grouping should collaborate with other regional groupings such as Bangladesh, Bhutan, India , Nepal (BBIN); Bangladesh,China, India and Nepal (BCIN) and ASEAN.

Bhaumik also said that connectivity is multi-dimensional and not just physical. There are financial, cultural and social dimensions to it. Land corridors and maritime connectivity are both important for making BIMSTEC a success, he added.

“There are countries like Nepal and Bhutan in BIMSTEC which are landlocked. Other countries like India and Myanmar have deep inland regions, so land corridors are as important as sea linkages.”

Takayuki Kawakami, first secretary of the Japanese embassy in Dhaka, said that his  country’s funding of the physical infrastructure in Bangladesh is compatible with larger plans for regional connectivity in the Bay of Bengal region.

“Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s BIG-B concept, Bay of Bengal Growth Belt, is very much relevant to BIMSTEC,” Kawakami said.

Adm Dr.Jayanath Colombage

U Kyaw Myaing of the Myanmar Institute of Strategic and International Studies (MISIS) argued that peace building and restoration of normalcy hold the key to developing land connectivity in BIMSTEC.

“If the frontier regions of Myanmar or Northeast India remain disturbed, how can land corridors be developed through these regions? That is why the Aung Sang Suu Kyi government is giving so much importance to the peace process in Myanmar,” he said.

Chandan Kumar Dey, Joint Secretary of Bangladesh’s Road Transport and Highways Division, detailed Bangladesh’s national plans for roads and highways development and how they are they are being developed to link with regional highways.

“But we have some missing links in Myanmar. We want to work with them to create roads in these missing links so that we can reach Bangkok from Bangladesh,” Dey said.

Syed Monowar Hussain, former Director of Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority, said that river transport offers great prospects for regional connectivity in the Bay of Bengal region.

“Bangladesh, with its huge river network and its links with South and South-East, holds the key to connectivity in BIMSTEC,” Hussain said.

Alternative to SAARC

The seven-country BIMSTEC grouping is now being seen as an alternative to SAARC by some think-tanks following India-Pakistan tension that resulted in postponement of last year’s summit in Islamabad.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi hosted BIMSTEC leaders at an outreach meet in Goa last year during the BRICS summit.

The grouping is promoting 14 priority sectors of development and common concern including trade and investment, transport and communication, tourism and people-to-people contact.

(The featured image at the top shows Sumith Nakandala, Secretary General of BIMSTEC)