Building a stronger BIMSTEC in next 20 years

The challenge ahead for the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, or BIMSTEC, is to build a stronger, more effective group that is results-oriented, said the organisation’s Secretary General Sumith Nakandala.

Shoumik Hassin, from
Published : 29 May 2017, 08:09 AM
Updated : 31 May 2017, 05:04 AM

He asked for suggestions on how to develop BIMSTEC forward while opening a panel discussion on the issue to commemorate BIMSTEC’s 20th anniversary at Chulalongkorn University on Sunday.

Awareness is key

Myanmar Times Editor-in-Chief Kavi Chongkittavorn began the panel with an acknowledgement that his position, as a Thai citizen operating an English newspaper in Myanmar, showed the progress in relations between the countries.

But BIMSTEC had much to do and the most important challenge was to raise public awareness in the member countries, Chongkittavorn.

This requires the organisation to make more substantial efforts to engage the media.

“You cannot ‘think big’ until the media reports on it,” said Chongkittavorn, referring to Nakalanda’s comments during the inauguration of the ‘Strengthening Cultural Linkages in the Bay of Bengal Region’ on Saturday.

The media in the region do not understand much about BIMSTEC, he added.

“It seems as if I am the only one writing about BIMSTEC in Thailand,” he joked.

BIMSTEC should communicate the opportunities it opens up for regular people through its activities, Chongkittavorn said.

“There must be genuine efforts to develop a formal strategy to inform people about the sorts of new jobs and new markets it opens up,” he said.

That will answer the question in the mind of most people  ‘why BIMSTEC’?, he said.

BIMSTEC should ensure that media editors are debriefed about the organisation’s work and that key thinkers, academics and think tanks from the seven countries are aware of and promote its activities, Chongkittavorn concluded.

'Competent public-private partnerships'

LIRNEasia founder and CEO Rohan Samarajiva spoke next, emphasising the necessity of a competitive and efficient public-private partnership to advance the region’s trade relations.

Samarajiva urged focus on ‘comprehensive agreements’ instead of ‘fixating on the 1960s style of trade agreements’.

He also cautioned against putting the cart before the horse in terms of connectivity.

Speaking from his knowledge of prior state-run connectivity agreements, he said that governments often make off-the-cuff decisions to improve connectivity.

“They say ‘let’s have a flight back and forth between these two cities’,” he said. “Then they get a plane and it loses money … you must make it viable … if the demand is there connectivity will be viable.”

Connectivity gaps, in terms of absent or insufficient road and rail connections, exist and need to be addressed and public-private partnerships can do so if handled intelligently, Samarajiva continued.

The government must be involved to clear rights of way and because they can raise low cost money for infrastructure, while private entities can mobilise competitiveness, which he considers crucial.

“Do not allow state monopolies to control them,” he said.

Roads must also be developed as ‘conduits for energy and communication, Samarajiva added. Standalone fiber optic cables are often located in remote areas and additional costs are incurred to get them to city centres, he said.

Instead this infrastructure must be developed alongside the road and railway systems to make more efficient use of their capabilities, he said.

Samarajiva also urged BIMSTEC to create a clear definition of the Bay of Bengal region in order to focus its efforts and more effectively ‘develop the imagination around the Bay of Bengal’.

Emphasis on culture

Harvard University Professor Sunil S Amrith spoke next and presented plans for how culture may be mobilised to make BIMSTEC a stronger organization.

“The absence of BIMSTEC from the public consciousness is a problem,” he said, agreeing with Chongkittavorn and urged further media outreach efforts.

Amrith called the situation a ‘challenge of the imagination’ and encouraged BIMSTEC to ‘bring the Bay of Bengal back into the popular imagination’ and make the region’s people feel part of a larger community.

The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) has had success on this front by emphasizing the cultural connections, he said, and encouraged BIMSTEC to move forward on that front.

“Be realistic,” Amrith said. “BIMSTE has a huge agenda, but limited resources. What it can do is to organise, support and lend legitimacy to other organisations working on similar issues.”

He also proposed several potential cultural projects that could help foreground BIMSTEC, such as translations of short stories and novels in the form of a BIMSTEC series, the development of a Bay of Bengal history museum and BIMSTEC food or film festivals to support the idea of a wider community.

BIMSTEC should also consider efforts on the city-to-city or grassroots scales, he said.

Amrith also urged BIMSTEC to work on upcoming challenges to the region such as climate change, migration and trafficking.

The next 20 years

Prof Prabir De, who is part of the Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS) focused on the changes the Bay of Bengal region is likely to see in the coming years.

The next twenty years will be marked by creation of intensive digital networks, he said.

“This will also lead to a narrower and more segmented society.”

De spoke on the ‘huge political, economic and geographical’ diversity in the region and urged BIMSTEC not to neglect the interest of smaller and more vulnerable countries.

Climate change issues, including the potential influx of displaced peoples from southern areas of Bangladesh and Myanmar by 2030, should also be of primary concern, he said.

One of BIMSTEC’s major disadvantages is a lack of staff, he said.

‘Ten to twenty people cannot do enough’ he said. He pointed to the nearly 1,000 people at the ASEAN Secretariat and said BIMSTEC needed similar ‘strength’.

De also urged work on the BIMSTEC free trade agreement and the Trilateral Highway, saying that business needs to be the fuel and energy for cooperation.

Connectivity the buzzword

Thamassat University professor Ruth Banoymyong stressed on various forms of connecvity.

“We all talk about connectivity, but what kind of connectivity are we talking about?,” he asked. “Information connectivity? Goods connectivity? Services connectivity? Financial connectivity? People-to-people connectivity?”

The most challenging form of connectivity is institutional connectivity, he said, the connections between the governments.

“There is often a lack of direction,” Banomyong said.

“Do they talk? Do they hold formal meetings?” he asked and cited a situation he was aware of where two countries had agreed to facilitate movement, but their ministries of transport had not met.

It is necessary to improve the transportation infrastructure of the region, but the main ‘bottleneck’ was the border crossing, Banomyong said.

“The key action I would like to highlight is in fact to improve the physical border crossing.”

Banomyong also suggested a trade facilitation master plan could be drawn up by BIMSTEC to go into immediate effect as it attempted to finalise plans for the proposed Free Trade Area.

BIMSTEC Secretary General Nakandala responded that a draft of the BIMSTEC Trade Facilitation Agreement had been circulated.

Forging genuine connections

The final speaker for the segment was former Thai Ambassador Kobsak Chutkul, who had co-founded BIMSTEC in 1997.

BIMSTEC is not ASEAN or SAARC, the former diplomat said, but after 20 years he believes the organisation is on ‘solid ground’.

Chutkul said he considered BIMSTEC a ‘complimentary organisation’ which could support people in the region.

It was important to provide that support in an era with such rapid change in the geopolitical and technological landscape, he said.

“Things changing too quickly can lead to Brexit,” Chutkul said. “It can lead to Donald J Trump.”

Encouraging cultural links and explaining the region’s shared history in the pre-colonial era can help to affirm our connections, he said.

“Here we have the opportunity to go back into the past and root ourselves quite firmly, so that in the midst of storms and cyclones and earthquakes and climate change, our people have a sense of place.”

This common heritage is as important as the economic aspect, he suggested.

“When we imagine a bridge spanning the Bay of Bengal it is not only physical infrastructure – a two-lane highway for trucks – but also a bridge of the mind, a bridge for imagination."

In this way BIMSTEC will not be a panacea to all the ills of the region, but an option to help us feel an added sense of security, the ambassador said.

The international conference, organised by the Indian Studies Center of Chulalongkorn Unviersity and the BIMSTEC Secretariat with the support of Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ended on May 28.

The organisers hope to publish a book containing the various papers discussed at the conference by the end of 2017.