Bangladesh Prime Minister attends BIMSTEC Summit in Myanmar: Economic Partnership between two region

by Barrister Harun ur Rashid | March 2, 2014 7:56 am

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is scheduled to leave for Myanmar on 3rd March for a two-day visit to attend the summit of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC)

This will be the first foreign visit of the Prime Minister after the January 5 non-inclusive parliamentary elections when she became Prime Minister for the third time.

Myanmar holds the current chair and the summit is to take at its capital city Nay Pyi Daw—300 miles north of Yangon (Rangoon). Reportedly all the heads of government of all member-states are to participate in the meeting. Bangladesh held the chair in 2005 and the position rotates in alphabetical order among the member-states.

BIMSTEC is a regional inter-governmental organisation involving a group of countries in South Asia and South East Asia. These are: Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka ,Thailand, Bhutan and Nepal.

Originally it was established on 6 June 1997 in Bangkok with only four members –Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, and Thailand and given the name BIST-EC (Economic Cooperation). Later Myanmar, Nepal and Bhutan joined as full members and its name was changed in 2004 to the Bay of Bengal Multi-Sectoral Technical And Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC).

South Asia covers about 3.3% of the surface area of the world while the region is inhabited by about 21% of the world’s population. About 1.5 billion live in South Asia and its GDP is more than $2 trillion while in the South East Asian nations, 600 million people live and its GDP has also been in excess of US$2 trillion. Therefore cooperation in expanding and integrating regional markets has enormous possibilities.

To this date, BIMSTEC has fourteen priority sectors of cooperation. These are trade and investment, transport and communication, energy, tourism, technology, fisheries, agriculture, public health, poverty alleviation, counter-terrorism and transnational crime, culture, people to people contact and climate change and each country has been designated as the lead country for each of these sectors. For example, Bangladesh has been the lead-country for trade & investment and climate change.

The leaders are expected to review the progress on these sectors and take decisions how to move further ahead.
The Myanmar summit is very important for several reasons. First, a MOU on setting up the BIMSTEC’s secretariat in Bangladesh will be concluded. Bangladesh meanwhile has acquired a site in Dhaka to set up the secretariat. Second, another MOU on sectors such as energy, agriculture and tourism is to be signed. Third, the summit may suggest that crucial decision involving cooperation among the member states should be taken at regular annual meetings even if all the heads of government are not able to attend the meeting.

The ADB has become BIMSTEC’s development partner since 2005, to undertake a study which is designed to help promote and improve transport infrastructure and logistic among the BIMSTEC countries. So far, ADB has reportedly already finished the project so called BIMSTEC Transport Infrastructure and Logistic Study (BTILS).

BIMSTEC member countries agreed to establish the BIMSTEC Free Trade Area Framework Agreement in order to stimulate trade and investment in the parties, and attract outsiders to trade with and invest in BIMSTEC at a higher level.
Thailand has been the permanent chair of Trade Negotiating Committee (TNC). TNC’s negotiation area covers trade in goods and services, investment, economic cooperation, as well as trade facilitations and also technical assistance for LDCs in BIMSTEC. It was agreed that once negotiation on trade in goods is completed, the TNC would then proceed with negotiation on trade in services and investment.

On the sidelines of the summit, Prime Minister will be able to meet her counterparts of member-countries including Thailand, India, Nepal and Bhutan. Bangladesh Prime Minister’s meeting with Indian counterpart Dr. Manmohan Singh will be the last one because Dr. Singh will retire after the April-May elections in India. During his term, Bangladesh and India relations have peaked to a stage in which many positive gains have been achieved in various areas in both countries except the conclusion of the Teesta water sharing agreement and Land Boundary Agreement.

It may be recalled that the Prime Minister visited Myanmar in December 2011 and since 2009, her government reactivated cooperative and beneficial engagement with Myanmar with which Bangladesh shares borders both in land and water. Air link between the two countries has been restored and the bilateral trade has been agreed to raise to $550 million by 2015 from $185.3 million now. She is expected to renew her invitation to the Myanmar President Thein Sein to visit Bangladesh. This time she will be able to meet Suu Kyi MP,the opposition leader of Myanmar,

Finally BIMSTEC stands for deeper regional integration and political stability which are crucial to the prosperity of member-states. The regional institution was established with foresight and enlightened self-interests and it has been able to create expansive relationships among member-states.

The summit not only provides crafting stronger cooperative relationships among member states but also envisages stronger bilateral architecture among them. The personal rapport built at the highest political level on the sidelines of the summit presents many political and economic dividends in the long run.

By Barrister Harun ur Rashid
Former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.

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