SONAM PENJOR | Thimphu
The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) summit and the preceding meetings reviewed the progress achieved in the areas of cooperation identified under the BIMSTEC framework.
The 5th BIMSTEC summit was hosted by the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka on 30 March in hybrid mode.
The summit this year pertains to trade, investment and development; agriculture and food security, and connectivity. Among others, science, technology and innovation, environment and climate change, and people-to-people contact were also addressed.
During the summit, the leaders signed the BIMSTEC Charter, BIMSTEC Convention on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters, and Memorandum of Association on the Establishment of the BIMSTEC Technology Transfer Facility. In addition, mutual cooperation between diplomatic academies/training institutions of BIMSTEC member states was also discussed.
The theme of the Summit this year is “BIMSTEC-Towards a Resilient Region, Prosperous Economies, and Healthy Peoples.”
The summit was preceded by the 18th BIMSTEC Ministerial Meeting and the 22nd BIMSTEC Senior Officials Meeting on 29 and 28 March, respectively.
Prime Minister Dr. Lotay Tshering, along with leaders of Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Thailand participated in the summit virtually. The summit was chaired by Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the President of Sri Lanka.
Foreign Minister Dr. Tandi Dorji led the Bhutanese delegation to the 18th BIMSTEC Ministerial Meeting, while Ambassador Rinchen Kuentsyl, Ambassador-designate of Bhutan to Sri Lanka led the delegation to the 22nd BIMSTEC Senior Officials Meeting.
During the summit, Lyonchhen conveyed the warm greetings of His Majesty The King, Her Majesty The Queen and the people of Bhutan.
Lyonchhen said that for the Bhutanese people, we have been blessed with the farsighted leadership of His Majesty The King.
“The government and the people of Bhutan have been fortunate to receive the guidance, care, and compassion of His Majesty through the course of the pandemic,” he said, adding the Royal intervention is the biggest reason for Bhutan’s successful management of Covid-19 so far.
Complementing the noble efforts of the His Majesty The King, Lyonchhen said that Her Majesty The Queen realized that the pandemic will disproportionately affect the vulnerable sections of our society. Her Majesty showed a particular emphasis on domestic violence and mental healthcare of the Bhutanese.
The PM said, of the many initiatives during the pandemic, one such was the establishment of the Pema Center. The dedicated institute for mental health and wellbeing will be an immense benefit for generations of Bhutanese.
Lyonchhen also thanked the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, for sharing Covid-19 vaccines with Bhutan.
Today, with the less virulent Omicron, with more than 90 percent of Bhutanese being vaccinated including children over five years old, and with a series of booster shots underway, Lyonchhen said that we see this as the best window to open up and call it the second phase of our response to the pandemic.
“However, we are mindful that omicron is milder but not “mild”, so protection of everyone is still our priority,” he said.
As means to go the way forward, Lyonchhen highlighted areas of cooperation in the post-covid path and the need to channel our collective efforts and build back better by prioritizing some key sectors on the post covid path.
“Trade and investment are at the core of BIMSTEC cooperation. However, the intra-regional trade has seen only negligible improvement since its inception,” he said.
He said this minimal growth could also be attributed to bilateral engagements the at national or private sector level, and not necessarily through the BIMSTEC platform.
Therefore, concrete steps and initiatives, be it big or small, must be taken beyond the formalities, to enhance trade in the region, Lyonchhen said.
Since hydropower is the only reliable source of revenue, Lyonchhen said that Bhutan is seeking to diversify and attract more investments, creating jobs and employment that match the needs of local as well as global markets.
Lyonchhen further said that there is a possibility to take advantage of the BIMSTEC platform that can push for not just affordable but “free internet” for everyone in the region.
“We could be worried about the loss of upfront revenue but the benefit that trickles down to every individual will be immense. No social investment can be more efficient than this,” he said.
Lyonchhen thanked both India and Bangladesh for their unconditional support with the ongoing establishment of the third internet gateway. It will go a long way in boosting Bhutan’s internet connectivity and reliability.
“During such unprecedented times, the region has witnessed a true spirit of cooperation, as envisioned by the founding fathers in the Bangkok Declaration of 1997. We have demonstrated our friendship and solidarity by reaching out to help one another,” Lyonchhen said.
On the security front, Lyonchhen Dr. Lotay Tshering said the Bay of Bengal region faces a multitude of Security issues. “We have achieved commendable progress since the first meeting of our National Security Chiefs in New Delhi in 2017. We are happy that India is leading the security component in the rationalized areas of cooperation and cyber security needs far more attention.”
The progress made by the member states in the finalization and ratification of a number of significant legal instruments was welcome by the Royal Government of Bhutan. Lyonchhen said that one of the milestones is the BIMSTEC Convention on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters, which was tabled for signature.
“I have no doubt that this Convention will greatly contribute to the control of criminal activities in our region. Security is fundamental to our region and more so, as we embark on this journey of recovery into a safe, secure, and resilient future,” he said.
Meanwhile, the President of Sri Lanka, Gotabaya Rajapaksa said that the world has faced the worst challenges with the pandemic and it badly affected his nation. He said the pandemic affects global oil prices, and supply constraints arising from the pandemic cause inflation around the world.
He said that with the rising cost of living, millions have suffered and lost livelihood with the closure of outlet businesses and narrowing business opportunities.
He added that together with other global crises, the worsening economic conditions have a profound negative impact, especially on developing nations where millions have been pushed into poverty.
“We require an improved international and intra-regional corporation in the coming months and years,” the Sri Lankan president said.
He also added that the signing of the BIMSTEC charter will no doubt be a significant step towards increasing the role of the organization not just within the region but also as a driving force from Asia in global affairs.
“The Bay of Bengal region has become increasingly important for global connectivity and trade,” he said.
Meanwhile, BIMSTEC was formed on 6 June 1997 to enhance economic cooperation between the countries of Southeast Asia and South Asia around the Bay of Bengal.
It is a regional body that encompasses about 1.5 billion people and a combined GDP of over USD $ 2.7 trillion. Bhutan became a member in 2004.