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Worthless vanity of regional forum

Oped

Worthless vanity of regional forum

Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury

We no more feel encouraged seeing any regional forum emerging as it seems to be the fashion these days to set up regional forums to enhance economic cooperation among countries and raise the standard of living of the common man. But, in reality, most of such forums ultimately turn into an annual festival – more precisely a kind of recreational ceremony for the leaders of some countries. Nothing else! No one actually shows sincerity in doing some serious introspection and evaluate what these regional organisations have achieved. During the past decades, we have witnessed, how South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) finally embraced a sudden death when two of the member nations got indulged into severe hostility. There possibly now is no argument saying – SAARC is dead! Before the burial of SAARC, there was emergence of another regional forum – Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (Bimstec) – formed on June 6, 1997. A lot has been written and said about this regional organisation. Without being sceptical one can ask some relevant questions. What exactly is this organisation supposed to do?

The 14 main objective of BIMSTEC is technological and economic cooperation among south Asian and southeast Asian countries along the coast of the Bay of Bengal. Commerce, Investment, Technology, Tourism, Human Resource Development, Agriculture, Fisheries, Transport and Communication, Textiles, Leather etc. have been included in it. Provide cooperation to one another for the provision of training and research facilities in educational vocational and technical fields. Promote active collaboration and mutual assistance in economic, social ,technical and scientific fields of common interest. It also provides help to increase the socio-economic growth of the member countries.

According to Bimstec website, The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) is a regional organization comprising seven Member States lying in the littoral and adjacent areas of the Bay of Bengal constituting a contiguous regional unity. This sub-regional organization came into being on 6 June 1997 through the Bangkok Declaration. It constitutes seven Member States: five deriving from South Asia, including Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and two from Southeast Asia, including Myanmar and Thailand. Initially, the economic bloc was formed with four Member States with the acronym ‘BISTEC’ (Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand Economic Cooperation). Following the inclusion of Myanmar on 22 December 1997 during a special Ministerial Meeting in Bangkok, the Group was renamed ‘BIMSTEC’ (Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand Economic Cooperation). With the admission of Nepal and Bhutan at the 6th Ministerial Meeting (February 2004, Thailand), the name of the grouping was changed to ‘Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation’ (BIMSTEC).

The regional group constitutes a bridge between South and South East Asia and represents a reinforcement of relations among these countries. BIMSTEC has also established a platform for intra-regional cooperation between SAARC and ASEAN members. The BIMSTEC region is home to around 1.5 billion people which constitute around 22% of the global population with a combined gross domestic product (GDP) of 2.7 trillion economies. In the last five years, BIMSTEC Member States have been able to sustain an average 6.5% economic growth trajectory despite global financial meltdown.

The August 30-31 4th summit of the regional body had recently concluded in Kathmandu. In the summit declaration titled “Towards a Peaceful, Prosperous and Sustainable Bay of Bengal Region”, it said: We, the Prime Minister of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, the Chief Advisor of the

Kingdom of Bhutan, the Prime Minister of the Republic of India, the President of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, the Prime Minister of Nepal, the President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, and the Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Thailand, met in Kathmandu on 30-31 August 2018 for the Fourth BIMSTEC Summit; and Reaffirming the firm commitment to the principles and purposes of BIMSTEC as enshrined in the 1997 Bangkok Declaration; Recalling the Third BIMSTEC Summit Declaration (Nay Pyi Taw, 4 March 2014) and the BIMSTEC Leaders’ Retreat Outcome Document (Goa, 16 October 2016);

Affirming the solemn commitment to making the Bay of Bengal Region peaceful, prosperous and sustainable by building on our common strengths through our collective efforts;

Being convinced that geographical contiguity, abundant natural and human resources, rich historical linkages and cultural heritage present great potentials for promoting deeper cooperation in identified core areas in the region;

Recognizing that eradication of poverty is the greatest regional challenge in realization of development objectives and expressing firm commitment to working together for the implementation of the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development;

Acknowledging that enhanced inter-linkages and inter-dependence within the economies and societies in the BIMSTEC Member States provide greater opportunity to advance regional cooperation;

Underlining the importance of multidimensional connectivity, which promotes synergy among connectivity frameworks in our region, as a key enabler to economic integration for shared prosperity;

Taking into consideration the importance of trade and investment as one of the major contributing factors for fostering economic and social development in the region. Recognizing the special needs and circumstances of the least developed and land-locked developing countries in the region and underlining the necessity to provide meaningful support to their development process;

Recognizing that terrorism and transnational organized crimes continue to pose a great threat to international peace and security including in the BIMSTEC countries and stressing that combating terrorism and transnational organized crimes require sustained efforts and cooperation and comprehensive approach involving active participation and collaboration of the Member States;

Reaffirming strong commitment to making BIMSTEC a dynamic, effective and result-oriented regional organization for promoting a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable Bay of Bengal Region through meaningful cooperation and deeper integration;

Stressing the need for a fair, just, rule-based, equitable and transparent international order and reaffirming faith in the multilateralism with the United Nations at the centre and the rule-based international trading system;

Underscoring the importance of robust institutional arrangements to effectively steering the process of regional cooperation under BIMSTEC;

Taking Note of the participation and concurrence by the Chief Advisor of the Interim Government of Bhutan to the Summit decisions and its outcome documents on an ad referendum basis, as these are subject to endorsement by the next elected government;

Do hereby:

Recall the principles enshrined in the 1997 Bangkok Declaration and reemphasize that cooperation within BIMSTEC will be based on respect for the principles of sovereign equality, territorial integrity, political independence, non-interference in internal affairs, peaceful co-existence and mutual benefit.

Agree to intensify our efforts to realize the objectives and purposes of BIMSTEC as embodied in the 1997 Bangkok Declaration, and reiterate our pledge to work collectively towards making BIMSTEC a stronger, more effective and result-oriented organization for achieving a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable Bay of Bengal Region.

Resolve to achieve, leveraging on BIMSTEC’s unique position as a bridge linking South and Southeast Asia, an enhanced level of economic and social development in the region, and remain fully committed to consolidate and deepen cooperation among Member States towards transforming our organization into an effective platform to promote peace, prosperity and sustainability.

Deplore terrorist attacks in all parts of the world including in BIMSTEC countries and strongly condemn terrorism in all its forms and manifestations wherever and by whomsoever committed and stress that there can be no justification whatsoever for any act of terrorism. Affirm that the fight against terrorism should target not only terrorists, terror organizations and networks but also identify and hold accountable States and non-State entities that encourage, support or finance terrorism, provide sanctuaries to terrorists and terror groups and falsely extol their virtues. Reiterate our strong commitment to combat terrorism and call upon all countries to devise a comprehensive approach in this regard which should include preventing financing of terrorists and terrorist actions from territories under their control, blocking recruitment and cross-border movement of terrorists, countering radicalization, countering misuse of internet for purposes of terrorism and dismantling terrorist safe havens.

Repose our faith unequivocally in the principles and purposes of the Charter of the United Nations and strive to strengthen the multilateral system by reforming its rules, institutions and instruments to make it relevant to contemporary global challenges and agree to work together to present a collective voice to safeguard our collective interests for a fair, just, rule-based, equitable and transparent world order.

INSTITUTIONAL REFORM:

Decide to task the BIMSTEC Secretariat to prepare a preliminary draft of the charter for the organization, building on the 1997 Bangkok Declaration, defining a long-term vision and priorities for cooperation, clearly delineating roles and responsibilities of different layers of institutional structure and decision-making processes, for consideration by the BIMSTEC Permanent Working Committee (BPWC) and other higher bodies with a view to adopting it by the Fifth Summit; and agree to task the BPWC to develop the Rules of Procedure (RoP) for the BIMSTEC Mechanisms.

Decide to establish a BIMSTEC Permanent Working Committee to deal with administrative and financial matters of the Secretariat and the BIMSTEC Centers and Entities, as well as to prepare schedule of meetings, prioritize and rationalize the organization’s activities.

Direct the relevant Ministries/national agencies of our respective governments to explore the possibility of establishing a BIMSTEC Development Fund (BDF), at an appropriate time, with voluntary contributions from the Member States, which will be utilized for research and planning of BIMSTEC and financing of projects, programmes and other activities of BIMSTEC Centers and Entities as agreed upon by the Member States.

Agree to enhance the institutional capacity of the BIMSTEC Secretariat, including through financial and human resources, in order to enable it to coordinate, monitor and facilitate implementation of BIMSTEC activities and programmes; and initiate project proposals as agreed by the Member States as well as fulfil any other responsibility entrusted to it in an effective and efficient manner and agree to raise the numbers of Directors to seven, one from each Member State, in a staggered manner.

Acknowledge the importance of enhancing the visibility and stature of BIMSTEC in international fora by, inter alia, forging common positions, as appropriate, on issues of common interest and seeking group recognition in various multilateral organizations, institutions and processes.

Emphasize the need to accelerate progress in the core areas of cooperation and to review, restructure and rationalize the existing areas of BIMSTEC cooperation and streamline the operational modalities for activities, implementation of programmes and projects under BIMSTEC for bringing out tangible results. Welcome Thailand’s concept paper on the Reprioritization of BIMSTEC Pillars of Cooperation proposing to streamline to five pillars which will be subjected to further discussion in the BIMSTEC Permanent Working Committee.

Agree to take up on priority basis the legal documents and instruments that are pending for internal approval process for finalization and ratification.

Commend the role of Lead Countries for the progress made in the respective sectors, as annexed to this declaration, and encourage them to accelerate their efforts to make further progress.

Express our appreciation for former Secretary-General Mr. Sumith Nakandala’s valuable contribution in advancing the work of BIMSTEC during his tenure and welcome the appointment of Mr. M. Shahidul Islam of Bangladesh as the Secretary General of BIMSTEC.

Convey deep appreciation to Nepal for the able stewardship of BIMSTEC from March 2014 and welcome Sri Lanka as the new Chair of BIMSTEC.

Reiterate the commitment to timely holding of Summit and other meetings of the BIMSTEC mechanisms to intensify the process of regional cooperation.

Agree to make our directives, commitments and statements of our positions on sectoral review expressed at the Annexure as part of this Declaration.

Express our sincere appreciation to the Government of Nepal for the warm hospitality and the excellent arrangements made for the Summit.

According to experts, the declaration issued after the summit is a banal document which does not evoke any interest or hope. It dwells on the normative aspects of cooperation not on the actual positive challenges. Several issues figured in the declaration—connectivity, terrorism, poverty alleviation, trade, etc. These are the hackneyed issues that figure in almost every summit declaration. A similar declaration was made after the third summit in Myanmar in 2015. Unfortunately, nothing tangible came out of that document.

This declaration speaks about 16 priority areas. It would have probably been wiser to focus on two or  three doable areas and push them seriously for results that people can see. Though two decades have passed since its inception in 1997, very few people in the region have heard about this forum.

As Bhutan was not represented by either the king or the prime minister. Instead Chief Justice and Chief Advisor to the interim government Dasho Tshering Wangchuk represented Bhutan. Thus acceptance of the Summit Declaration by Bhutan is conditional on the new Bhutanese government’s approval of the document.

Trying to avoid meeting Bangladeshi Prime Minister?

Not surprisingly, Aung Saan Suu Kyi—head of the Myanmar government and also Foreign Minister of Myanmar—was absent from the summit. She has been attending regularly all Asean related meetings as head of government. Why did she skip this summit? Or doesn’t she anymore consider BIMSTEC as an important regional forum?

Clearly, Ms Suu Kyi was reluctant to face the Bangladeshi delegation led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. She has been under scathing international criticism for her silence about the genocide committed on the Rohingya Muslim community by her military leaders. After shamelessly propagating lies about Rohingyas in Singapore recently (August 21, Grand Hyatt Hotel), surely, she must have been mortally afraid that the Rohingya issue will come up for discussion if she faced Sheikh Hasina at the summit side-lines.

Sheikh Hasina did, however, meet the Myanmar President Win Myint for unofficial talks. Win Myint apparently informed Sheikh Hasina that Myanmar was willing to take back the Rohingyas. Win Myint is a show-case president without any powers. He certainly did not have any brief to say or do anything that his boss back home (Gen Min Aung Hlaing) did not approve.

What is depressing is that there was no reference to the Rohingya issue. But the fact is that a member of BIMSTEC (Myanmar) has created a massive refugee problem. Myanmar has launched a non-military aggression on Bangladesh. It is blatant interference in the affairs of Bangladesh—aimed at destabilising the socio-political, economic and ecological balance of the country. This development has undermined the first operative paragraph of the declaration which says,“…cooperation within BIMSTEC … is based on…non-interference in the internal affairs, peaceful coexistence and mutual benefit.”

It is true that summit declarations are drafted by Sherpas on the basis of unanimity. Naturally, Myanmar officials would have resisted any reference to the Rohingya issue. But Rohingyas are not the only refugees in Bimstec region. It is well known that over four million refugees fled to Thailand because of conflicts in Myanmar. Even if the Rohingya issue per se could not have been used, certainly a non-accusative general paragraph on quick rehabilitation of refugees or “displaced people” (term used by Myanmar) in the region could have been included in the declaration.

One of the peculiarities of Bimstec is its religious heterogeneity. Of the seven members, four are Buddhist-majority states—Bhutan, Thailand, Myanmar, Sri Lanka. Two are Hindu-majority states—India and Nepal. Bangladesh is the odd Muslim-majority country in the forum. For Bangladesh it was difficult, bringing up the Rohingya issue in the Bimstec summit at Myanmar enjoys silent support from India and many of the Bimstec nations and visibly no country in the Bimstec are with Bangladesh. That means, Bimstec, though being a regional body would actually be useless to Bangladesh, when any issue like the Rohingya refugee crisis arises. Bangladesh though has attained some success in drawing international attention of the international community, particularly the United States and the European Union to the Rohingya issue, it does not enjoy support from India, China, Russia and Japan in particular, which actually would play crucial role in resolving the Rohingya refugee crisis. In my personal opinion, India’s silence on this issue has multiple reasons. First of all, India is unwilling annoying Myanmar by speaking in favor of Bangladesh (on the Rohingya issue) as because there are signs of tremendous growth in India-Myanmar economic cooperation. The second reason is even much worrisome. By the end of this year, Indian government are going to send over four million Bangla speaking nationals from the north-eastern state of Assam into Bangladesh. This is one of the important electoral pledges of Bharatiya Janata Party and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Despite excellent relations between Bangladesh and India, there is no hope of Narendra Modi walking out of this step of pushing his nationals into Bangladesh. No doubt, the forthcoming Assamese Bangla speaking refugee crisis is going to be much bitter and worst for Bangladesh. It may greatly affect the economic growth as well as social system. For Sheikh Hasina, this will become a major challenge especially during the December 2018 general election.

Sheikh Hasina has been totally committed towards India and had done everything in protecting Indian interests ever since she came to power in 2009. But in return, India has unfortunately exhibited a betrayer face to Bangladesh. The long-outstanding water sharing issue has not been resolved despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s repeated promises. Now India is even going to put a much heavier burden on Sheikh Hasina by expelling over four million Bangla speaking Indians, thus forcing the Bangladesh government is enduring a severe pain. Bangladesh traditionally has been a country with its majority of the population inclined towards anti-Indian sentiment. Now, the threat of refugee crisis from Assam will give opportunity to anti-Indian forces, more precisely the political opponents of Sheikh Hasina is playing the card with much success. India’s reluctance on Rohingya issue and its plans of expelling the Assamese Bangla-speaking population goes directly against a pro-Indian party like Bangladesh Awami League. Regional bodies like Bimstec could not help Bangladesh in resolving Rohingya crisis. This is definitely unfortunate. It is unclear as to whether Bangladesh may at all expect anything favorable from this body. Hopefully Bangladeshi policymakers will now go for a soul searching. They need to realize – it is time for Bangladesh not only to strengthen relations with the United States but also to find new partners – real friends in the international arena. Bangladesh definitely needs to adopt a policy of aborting the wrong diplomacy of the past and embracing a newer approach of establishing relations with countries like Israel, which would for sure be very much helpful to Bangladesh. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina needs to remember – though India and Israel are having excellent relations for decades – for Israel, a Muslim Bangladesh would be of much importance than a Hindu India. Moreover, establishment of relations between Dhaka and Jerusalem will open the window for Bangladesh in dramatically improving and strengthening relations with the United States. Bangladesh really needs to do that. Sheikh Hasina needs to understand – neither SAARC nor Bimstec or the worthless United Nations can be of any help to Bangladesh in resolving issues like the Rohingya refugee crisis. For such issues, Bangladesh definitely needs Israel as its partner – and the time of establishing such relations is NOW!

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