Dhaka, April 11 (www.bdnews24.com): The Bay of Bengal region, comprising Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand, was once connected closely through trade, religious and cultural ties. But these were torn asunder by sweeping political changes in the region and beyond with the advent of European dominance.
However despite persistent conflicts between the countries of the region, all is not lost, says Sumith Nakandala, Secretary General of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC).
“There was great trade in this region. There is no reason why that cannot happen again,” Nakandala told a one-day conference organized by BIMSTEC and the Indian think tank, Consumer Unity and Trust Society (CUTS) here on Tuesday.
However, speakers at the conclave pointed to the fact that the region still remains the least integrated in the world for political reasons, despite having so much in common.
Syed Monowar Hussain, former director of the Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority 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 Colombo-based Centre for Indo-Lanka Initiatives in the 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 said.
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.”
“We share common values but we are less integrated for political reasons,” pointed out Sudip Dey, Secretary of Calcutta Customs House Agents Association.
“Now time has come to say enough is enough. What we need is that 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 added.
Born in 1997, the BIMSTEC connects South Asia with Southeast Asia which account for 21 percent of the world population, providing 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, bdnews24.com Senior Editor Subir Bhaumik said the BIMSTEC grouping should collaborate with other regional groupings such as BBIN, BCIM and ASEAN.
“Connectivity is multi-dimensional and is not just physical. There are financial, cultural and social dimensions to connectivity,” Bhaumik pointed out.
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.
Selim Raihan, who teaches economics at Dhaka University, pitched for policy and growth integration rather than mere market integration.
He called for the close linking of the 100-odd special economic zones Bangladesh plans to develop to attract investment to facilitate both national economic growth and cooperation in the Bay of Bengal region.
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.
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 concerns including trade and investment, transport and communication, tourism and people-to-people contact.
(The featured image at the top is that of Sumith Nakandala, Secretary General of Bay of Bengal Initiative for Muli-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC)