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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2957

SAARC-BIMSTEC Link Could Help Realise Pious Goals

Neville de Silva, Diplomatic Editor Asian Tribune

London, 01 September, (Asian Tribune) If Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama had the time he might have expanded on a brief remark he made at the just concluded 10th ministerial session of BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi- Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) in New Delhi,

In the course of his address to BIMSTEC which he was attending for the first time, Minister Bogollagama dealt with technical cooperation between member states, the scourge of terrorism and ‘connectivity’ among the people of the region particularly through improved transport, tourism and culture.

“There are several key areas where we in BIMSTEC can do more to alleviate poverty and economic development in the region,” he said. This underscored an earlier remark of his in the course of the same speech.

“The core content of our work is focused on economic cooperation to reap the benefits of natural regional linkages making the lives of the people we represent more prosperous.”

While the Bangkok-based BIMSTEC’s activities seem to have received little media attention for whatever reason, it represents, in a sense, ‘connectivity’-a word much used at the recent SAARC summit in Colombo.

But the connectivity I am thinking of is different from the people-oriented emphasis contained in the SAARC discussions.
This ‘connectivity’ is the linking of two regional organisations through common membership.

BIMSTEC’s members today consist of Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand ( the original members) who have now been joined by Bhutan, Nepal and Myanmar. Whether Bhutan and Nepal, both landlocked countries, actually qualify as Bay of Bengal countries is another matter not relevant to this discussion.

Thailand and Myanmar are members of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) while the rest are members of SAARC.

BIMSTEC might not consist of all the members of the two organisations but it provides that vital link which could be the gateway to greater cooperation over a wide range of critical activities that could actually benefit the millions of people in the two regions if the usual rhetoric that emerges from such meetings is translated into tangible work on the ground.

It must never be forgotten that the SAARC region has several millions of people living in poverty and raising their living standards should be a fundamental task of those who government them.

I wrote earlier elsewhere that if Sri Lanka as the current chairman of SAARC wants to breathe some fresh air into the organisation which as been rather tardy in its progress, Colombo has one year to do so.

Bogollagama has a reputation as a ‘doer’, a man who wants to get things done quickly.

While he would no doubt like to make the most of the recently signed Convention on Mutual Legal Assistance by SAARC foreign ministers and try to have member-states and their institutions make quick progress in improving direct transport links between capitals, it is important not to lose focus of the special statement SAARC leaders issued on food security.

That statement said: “We, the Heads of Statement or Government, participating in the Fifteenth SAARC Summit held in Colombo on 2-3 August 2008, affirm our resolve to ensure region-wide food security and make South Asia, once again, the granary of the world.”

Never mind that one might be hard put to recall when South Asia was the granary of the world-certainly not in the last few centuries- the statement does raise an important issue.

It draws attention to the “emerging global situation of reduced food availability and worldwide rise in food prices.” Against this backdrop, the member states are expected to meet in New Delhi in November to thrash out a “regional strategy and collaborative projects” that would lead to an overall increase in food production through more investment in agriculture and agro-based industries, development and sharing of agricultural technologies and research and other such efforts.

Now that Rohitha Bogollagama is chairman of the SAARC foreign ministers and he has just attended BIMSTEC it would be extremely useful if he could strengthen the links between SAARC and BIMSTEC because of the over-arching interests in food security and food production.

It would be seen that BIMSTEC includes two of the biggest rice producers in the region- Thailand and Myanmar. Sri Lanka has in recent times made efforts to strengthen bilateral relations with both these countries.

It might also be recalled that in the day of the Rubber-Rice Pact between Sri Lanka and China, the rice we received actually came from what was then known as Burma. China bought Burmese rice and sold it to us at below world market prices as a gesture of goodwill for selling them rubber when nobody else would during the Korean War in the early 1950s.

The SAARC region together with non SAARC members of BIMSTEC could really become a granary, if not of the world certainly of Asia, if a genuine effort is made to use the resources and technologies available in both of them.

There has been and still is, plenty of research being done on rice and other crops including plantation crops such as coconut.

In the larger framework, Sri Lanka should also look to strengthen its links with institutions such as the International Rice Research Institute in Manila and other research bodies working on food crops.

Unfortunately Sri Lanka’s diplomacy has not devoted much time and effort, it seems, to cultivating such links leaving it perhaps to relevant ministries and departments at home to do so.

But it is more important that diplomats based in those countries in which such institutions operate do the spade work and keep the contacts alive for purposes of continuity.

It is only then that the pious words proclaimed in one Declaration or another about working for the benefit of the people will be realised.

- Asian Tribune -

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