BIMSTEC in Sri Lanka
By Lakshman I. Keerthisinghe
“It is encouraging to note that BIMSTEC has broadened its scope to many other areas of collaboration. When the entire world is compelled to deal with terrorism and trans-national crimes, cooperation on this issue has been continuing since 2004. As a country that had suffered from terrorism, for nearly three decades, we in Sri Lanka are acutely aware of its human and economic costs. Unfortunately, Sri Lanka’s economy could not run at its true potential during those years. With the defeat of terrorism, the Sri Lankan economy has been consistently recording, a growth rate of seven per cent”.
– President (Presently Prime Minister) Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Speech -The Third BIMSTEC Heads of Government Summit-Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar - March 14, 2014
Ceylon Today reported that Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena has stated the BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) Summit scheduled to be held in Sri Lanka in February 2021 will be further postponed after discussion with member states due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As the present chair of BIMSTEC Sri Lanka would announce the next date for the virtual conference soon.
BIMSTEC is an international organisation of seven nations of South Asia and Southeast Asia, which includes Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand. In 1997, a new sub-regional grouping was formed in Bangkok under the name BIST-EC (Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, and Thailand Economic Cooperation). Following the inclusion of Myanmar on 22 December 1997 during a special Ministerial Meeting in Bangkok, the Group was renamed ‘BIMST-EC’ (Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand Economic Cooperation). In 1998, Nepal became an observer. In February 2004, Nepal and Bhutan became full members. On 31July 2004, in the first Summit the grouping was renamed as BIMSTEC or the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation.
The objectives were to establish
1. An enabling environment for rapid economic development.
2. Accelerate social progress in the sub region.
3. Promote active collaboration.
4. Mutual assistance on matters of common interest.
BIMSTEC has 14 priority sectors covering all areas of cooperation while Sri Lanka gives leadership to the technology sector.
As it was decided at the fourth summit held in Kathmandu in 2018, a convention drafted for the formulation of institutional guidelines for the cooperation and formulation of the said convention has been completed at the 21st session of the senior officers’ meeting of the BIMSTEC/ The Cabinet of Ministers approved a proposal made by Foreign Relations Minister Dinesh Gunawardane to accept the BIMSTEC convention at the fifth summit of the BIMSTEC scheduled to be held in Sri Lanka.
The significance of BIMSTEC to Sri Lanka lies in the fact that it creates an important trade agreement within member countries including Sri Lanka, as it has the potential to be a bridge for long term trade in South Asia and South East Asia. It traverses significant areas of Asia. The BIMSTEC region comprises US$ 2,454 billion GDP containing 1.5 billion population and US$ 1,135 billion total trade. This organisation brings together diverse cultural, social and economic groups. Socially and economically, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand are defined as Non-Less Developed Countries and other four countries Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar and Nepal are in the Less Developed Countries category.
Sri Lanka’s first FTA signed with India in 2000 was the first bilateral FTA of India. Since then, the implementation of the Sri Lanka-Pakistan FTA became effective from 2005. As a member of SAARC, Sri Lanka became a member of the South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA), which came into force in 2006. Sri Lanka had discussions and negotiations with Bangladesh and Egypt for FTAs in early 2000 but did not continue discussions. However BIMSTEC FTA will be of significance as it is at a reachable threshold. Although BIMSTEC nations have collaborated in many sectors as a founder member, Sri Lanka is committed to the BIMSTEC process.
In conclusion, Sri Lanka, as the Chair of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) has a special responsibility of ensuring the speedy cooperation of the Member States of the Bay region. BIMSTEC ministerial meetings and expert group dialogues will lay the groundwork for major policy decisions required for a giant leap in regional cooperation at the 5th BIMSTEC Summit to be chaired by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in 2022.The Bay of Bengal countries have shared aspirations for growth, development, commerce and technology and BIMSTEC is the natural platform to implement regional connectivity and economic cooperation There is every potential for BIMSTEC to become a highly successful forum of economic cooperation such as the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) or the European Union (EU), which would indeed be beneficial for Sri Lanka’s future economic prosperity.
The writer is an Attorney-at-Law with LLB, LLM, MPhil.(Colombo)[email protected]