Sheikh Hasina will be on her first foreign trip after being elected for the third time as prime minister when she goes to Myanmar to attend the third Summit Meeting of Heads of Governments of the seven-member Bay Of Bengal Initiative for Multi- sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (Bimstec), which is being held from March 1 to 4. Besides Bangladesh, Bimstec includes India, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand. It is the most diverse regional grouping in the world and accounts for 1.2 billion people of the world (21% of the world population).
Bimstec was initiated by Thailand as part of its 'look west policy.' In the 1990's it wanted to build trustworthy and cooperative relationship with its neighbours located on the west. The idea of such a forum was welcomed by India, whose interest in Bimstec must be understood in the context of its 'look east policy.' The apparent failure of Saarc, the Myanmar factor and the security problems in the northeast gave India the reason to consider the new grouping as a God-given opportunity. It gave India the chance to open up with two southeast Asian countries—Thailand and Myanmar. In those days, India was isolated from any regional mechanisms. Its basis for negotiation with major powers was limited unless it could be involved in any regional mechanism.
India seized upon the opportunity and became one of Bimstec's founding members. It must be remembered that India's northeast is the meeting point of South Asia and South East Asia. Mizoram, Nagaland, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh already had unfenced borders with Myanmar. Therefore, India felt that the northeast Indian states should act as the gateway to southeast Asia through Myanmar. It, therefore, used Bimstec to plan and establish connectivity between India and Myanmar. India knew that the northeast region is racked with insurgency, cross-border migration, arms smuggling and drug trafficking. Bimstec was a platform from where it could discuss these issues with Myanmar. Both countries started to tackle each others' concerns and settle disputes.
For Bangladesh also, Bimstec came as a God-given opportunity to find ways to face economic challenges that bedevil her small economy. The country needed a bigger market for its exports and also access to energy and land for agricultural production. It wanted Chittagong port to be used by Myanmar as well as northeast India. Thus, economic imperatives dictated Bangladesh to seek cooperation of the member countries to its east, including Thailand. It is already several years now that the organisation has been set up, yet it is not clear what direct benefits the country has received from this arrangement. However, Bimstec has definitely given Bangladesh an opportunity to discuss economic issues that can help it achieve prosperity.
The heads of government are meeting after a long gap. This is only the third Summit in sixteen years. It is now being suggested that annual gatherings, whether at the level of heads of government or otherwise, should be held to take serious decisions for the organisation to be able to move ahead. This is a good decision and if implemented we are likely to see things getting traction. A whole rack of MOUs is likely to be signed among the seven countries next week, which would initiate action in various areas including trade, connectivity, tourism, energy and agriculture. Bangladesh will sign the MOU with other countries for setting up the permanent Secretariat of Bimstec in Dhaka. This will gave institutional shape to the organisation.
Prime Minister Hasina will be meeting Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for the last time before India goes to elections. Manmohan Singh is unlikely to be in the driving seat next time the two leaders meet. Bangladesh remains the discontented partner as much that had been pledged by Prime Minister Manmohan could not be delivered. Our prime minister is dissatisfied with the substantive aspects of bilateral relations with India.
ShiekhHasina returns to the multilateral table much stronger. She intends to continue as prime minister for another five years and is willing to take bold decisions on behalf of the country. Lately, the US Congress as well as the US administration seem to have given her the amber light so far as the January 5 elections of Bangladesh is concerned. However, the prime minister knows that this is not the last word and she has to consider how to reach a political settlement where participation of all political parties, including BNP, in future elections is guaranteed. The second round of upazila elections has shown that the BNP commands considerable political clout.
As Bimstec works at its own pace and clears its barnacles, it is hoped that this region will discover its own potential and start working with a new synergy. Only one sector, tourism, is enough to turn this region into a prosperous one. It can create employment, wealth and infrastructure. It is right leadership which is the need of the hour. Trade is another aspect that will change the region. A free trade area can unleash market forces that will bring in rich dividends. Last but not the least, energy sharing among the member states can prove to be profitable. There are prospects of hydro-electricity and natural gas and a huge market for them.
What Bimstec needs is firm handholding and wise leadership that can harness these resources for its own good.
The writer is a former Ambassador and a commentator on current affairs.