BY M.R. JOSSE
KATHMANDU: For a month, we have been buffeted by a never-ending cascade of noise/news about the imminent IV summit in Kathmandu of BIMSTEC – an anagram that I wager not even senior members of the cabinet can correctly identify!
That, of course, tells half the untold BIMSTEC story: it has not caught the public imagination in the 21 years since its founding, more than 14 years since Nepal became a member and four since it has occupied its Chair.
The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation -comprising Nepal, India, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand – is known only to a minuscule slice of the establishment. For those who are vaguely aware of its activities, that can be summed up bluntly: all gas and no explosion.
At the ground level in the public mind – beyond the high fluting rhetoric about its potential and laudable, lofty aims – it is considered to be driven by India’s inexorable foreign policy goal to supplant SAARC – the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), head-quartered in Kathmandu and established in 1985, whose members are Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan, the Maldives and Sri Lanka.
More specifically, that charge gained additional currency following India’s boycott of the 19th SAARC summit slated for Islamabad, November 15-16, 2016 – a move that was replicated by Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Maldives and Sri Lanka, at India’s behest. Nepal, as SAARC chair, did not join that bandwagon.
India’s boycott decision, it explained, was due to a terrorist attack on an Indian air force base in Pathankot, near the Indo-Pakistan border – a charge hotly denied by Pakistan which is herself the target of savage and repeated terrorist assaults.
Before moving on, it may be germane to note that despite India’s persistent efforts to denigrate Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism, the Indian prime minister did not flinch from shaking hands with his Pakistan counterpart at the Qingdao summit in June of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) where the two South Asian rivals participated as full SCO members for the very first time.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
There is no dearth of oddities vis-à-vis BIMSTEC. Take, for instance, the key stress on “Bay of Bengal”: If Nepal and Bhutan can be considered littoral states whose rivers empty into the Bay of Bengal, and we acknowledge that the waters of the Bay of Bengal wash the shores of India, Bangladesh and Myanmar, can one say the same of Sri Lanka – or Thailand?
If Sri Lanka can be considered to have Bay of Bengal identification – when in fact it lies far south and smack in the Indian Ocean – why not the Maldives, which is also in the Indian Ocean? Besides, if one merely casts a quick glance at the atlas, why not Malaysia, which is not a BIMSTEC member?
Whether it has any real purchase or not, it is surely intriguing that with the exception of Bangladesh, the others ‘blackballed’ out of the organisation are Muslim-majority states: Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Maldives, and Malaysia. Conversely, it is no less revealing that Bhutan, Myanmar and Thailand are Buddhist states, with ‘secular’ Nepal and India possessing very robust Buddhist credentials.
Bangladesh, where it is centred, seems to be the odd man out – from that perspective.
What is more, with all the bluster or buzz about “connectivity” and “technical and economic cooperation” why should China be kept out? For one thing, not only have Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka committed themselves to China’s landmark and visionary BRI concept but the fact is that many of South Asian rivers, including those flowing through Nepal, have their source in Tibet/China – such as the Yarlung Tsangpo, or the Brahmaputra/Jamuna – but ultimately flow into the Bay of Bengal.
Browsing through some breathless accounts in the media penned by would-be ‘experts’ I see references to BIMSTEC states’ concern about “security” and “terrorism” in the region. If that is indeed the case, I really scratch my head wondering why, then, is nothing heard about any mechanism to resolve problems between members affecting regional peace and security – before they get completely out of hand?
One very striking – essentially topical – issue in that regard concerns Myanmar and Bangladesh over the plight of tens of thousands of Rohingha refugees that has sparked a mass exodus to camps in Bangladesh, following a crackdown by Myanmar’s military.
On the first anniversary of brutal killings and rapes inflicted on the Muslim minority in Myanmar, international media report that over 700,000 Rohinghas have fled across the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. Will – or can – BIMSTEC help in resolving this most urgent and humungous humanitarian issue?
Had it been in existence earlier, would it have helped resolve or stop the ethnical cleansing of ‘Lhotshampas’ – Bhutanese of Nepali origin? SAARC couldn’t do a thing in that regard, since the organisation had/has no mandate to resolve bilateral/ political problems between member states.
I sincerely doubt that BIMSTEC will fare any better in this regard, even if Myanmar and Bangladsh were to come to actual blows. We will know soon enough. Unless it can, and does, in my view it, too, will remain largely a high-level talking shop, filled with ceremony and photo ops – and little else.
ROAD AND SECURITY
Before concluding, one must record the inordinate importance that the government has invested in the two-day, high-voltage tamasha, as gauged by the endless stream of decisions regarding the event that is then dutifully reported in the national media daily, almost as if it was going to be the most important event of the century!
Despite that, the administrative managers and their political masters have clearly been unable to provide the degree of confidence among the VVIPs attending the event, as is sadly reflected in reported comments by the Thai delegation about questionable security and the poor state of our roads.