People-to-people connectivity, within a region or sub-region, is expected to create a sense of a common identity amongst the citizens of that particular region or sub-region. In addition, enhanced people-to-people connectivity under the ambit of regional or sub-regional cooperation also has the potential to increase the visibility of that particular grouping.
In the context of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multisectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) — a grouping of seven member-states from South and Southeast Asia, namely, Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal and Bhutan — this common identity is often referred as Bay of Bengal community.
However, debate can loom large over the popularity or visibility of both the concept of the Bay of Bengal community as well as BIMSTEC as a sub-regional cooperation initiative. After analyzing the nuances of the people-to-people connectivity and the Bay of Bengal community within the framework of BIMSTEC, this article recommends a few approaches that can be adopted by BIMSTEC to rejuvenate the sense of a common identity within the sub-region.
BIMSTEC: A Common Identity
The common threads that bind the BIMSTEC member-states together include geographical proximity, social norms and history. These commonalities establish the foundation for better people-to-people connectivity within BIMSTEC. To reinforce the importance of people-to-people connectivity within BIMSTEC, India’s External Affairs Minister Smt. Sushma Swaraj mentioned at the 15th BIMSTEC Ministerial Meeting in Kathmandu on August 11, 2017 that people-to-people contact, along with trade, investment and innovation, would “enhance the visibility of Brand BIMSTEC.”
Having mentioned this, one may note that the lack of a sense of common identity is still a major problem with the BIMSTEC sub-region. Most are even still unaware of the geographic proximity shared within the sub-region. To quote V Suryanarayan (2000): “Few people in India are conscious of the fact … Phuket in Thailand is only 273 nautical miles away from Indira Point, which is less than the distance between Chennai and Madurai.”
This has happened despite the fact that millions of people crossed the Bay of Bengal and migrated from South Asia to various parts of Southeast Asia (which obviously included modern day Myanmar and Thailand) before and during the colonial era. Even before the rise of colonialism, merchants from the coasts of Indian sub-continent used to travel to various parts of East Asia. They not only traded goods, but also exchanged culture, religion and ideas.
The historian Sunil Amrith mentioned in his recent book, Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants (2013), that in the post-colonial era, the policy makers and the academic world did not pay much attention to the trends of migration across the Bay of Bengal that happened in the past few centuries. The common people across the sub-region have always been aware of each other’s lives, but that failed to take off as a common identity partially due to the creation of artificial boundaries, the intensification of political mistrust, and the lack of enthusiasm among the policy makers to nurture the existing mutual understanding within the common people of the sub-region.
In fact, when the Thai Foreign Ministry came up with the idea of a sub-regional cooperation initiative called BISTEC, India showed its initial reluctance in joining the organization. The situation fairly changed during the early 2000s owing to the geopolitical changes in the sub-region. Thailand became active in promoting the objectives of BIMSTEC (Bangladesh India Myanmar Sri Lanka Thailand Economic Cooperation) after the 1997-98 Financial Crisis, Myanmar became interested in BIMSTEC in order to gain international recognition for its military government, and India understood the importance of the grouping as it became another approach to nurture New Delhi’s Look East Policy (LEP) to advocate bilateralism as well as multilateralism with the Southeast Asian economies.
This was the time when practitioners and academicians from the sub-region started advocating for the evolution of a Bay of Bengal community, led by the BIMSTEC initiative and to that direction, the sub-regional organization adopted the concept of people-to-people contact as one of its priority areas.
Initiatives for Enhancing Connectivity
In the last two decades BIMSTEC has taken several steps to nurture people-to-people connectivity. In December 1998, at the second BIMSTEC Ministerial Meeting held in Dhaka, the need to strengthen people-to-people connectivity and intra-regional tourism was specified. In the BIMSTEC MM Declaration, the members spoke about removing constraints in people-to-people connectivity. At the 8th Ministerial Meeting of BIMSTEC on December 18-19, 2005, the leaders identified seven new priority areas for cooperation and people-to-people contact was one of them. June 6 was chosen as BIMSTEC Day aimed at making ties amongst the common people of BIMSTEC.
Thailand, which is the lead country for people-to-people contact within BIMSTEC, has introduced a few initiatives, including a youth football match arranged in Phuket in 2004, Exploring BIMSTEC Cultural Ties in February 2005, the BIMSTEC Young Ambassador Programme in 2005 and 2006, BIMSTEC Week Exhibition: 10 Years of BIMSTEC Friendship and Cooperation in 2007, and BIMSTEC Exhibition in 2008.
Enhanced people-to-people contact will create a passage for the bottom-up approach of regionalism which will eventually help the member-states in popularizing the concept of “Brand” BIMSTEC.
Later, at the third Summit of BIMSTEC held in Nay Pyi Taw in 2014, the BIMSTEC leaders marked the necessity of implementing the BIMSTEC Business Visa Scheme and BIMSTEC Visa Exemption Scheme to simplify cross-border movement of people across the region. India too has taken some steps to augment people-to-people contacts within BIMSTEC. New Delhi hosted the Bodhi Parva: BIMSTEC Festival of Buddhist Heritage in December 2017 which was intended at enhancing Buddhist tourism within the sub-region.
Besides the initiatives taken by the governments, the BIMSTEC sub-region has also experienced efforts taken by civil society organizations to augment people-to-people contacts. In November 2016, the American Center, Dhaka and Coastal Association for Social Transformation Trust, an NGO from Bangladesh, launched the Bay of Bengal Forum with the aim of strengthening connectivity between the civil society organizations and media professionals from BIMSTEC countries in order to mobilize the governments to adopt a people-centric approach in governance and development. This forum is not a part of the BIMSTEC Secretariat or governments; rather, it works on behalf of the people and hence can be considered as an instance of a people-led initiative to enhance people-to-people contact within the sub-region.
Despite all these efforts, people-to-people connectivity within BIMSTEC remains low which is reflected in the insignificant volume of intra-regional migration and remittances flows, insubstantial intra-regional tourism, and the thin visibility of BIMSTEC.
People-to-People Connectivity and Tourism
People-to-people connectivity has been identified as a separate priority sector in BIMSTEC. However, there is a need to realise the commonalities between people-to-people connectivity and tourism within BIMSTEC and consider them as a synchronised process in regional cooperation.
So far, BIMSTEC has taken a disconnected approach without considering the potential of synergy between people-to-people connectivity and tourism and that has not helped the sub-regional grouping in boosting either of them. NEAT, a Japanese firm, showed in a study that people-to-people connectivity broadly includes (but is not limited to) education, tourism and cultural exchange, and thus, it comprises one of the three pillars of the regional integration process, with physical connectivity (including transportation, telecommunication, and energy networks) and institutional connectivity (in the form of trade, investment liberalisation, and the facilitation of the service sector) being the other two pillars of regional integration.
Surprisingly, despite the potential of tourism in terms of having popular tourist destinations within BIMSTEC, intra-regional tourism within the sub-region has remained unsatisfactory over the years. If one calculates the data from the tourism ministries of three major BIMSTEC countries, namely, India, Thailand and Sri Lanka, which attract their fair share of international tourists, the negligible percentage share of intra-regional tourist arrivals in comparison to total international tourist arrivals is evident.
For instance, Thai tourists contributed only 1.36 percent to India’s international tourist arrivals. Similarly, in Thailand’s total international tourist arrivals in 2017, tourists from Myanmar comprised only 1.05 per cent. However, there are a few exceptions. Bhutan, for example, receives a large number of Indian tourists every year and tourism plays a significant role in the Bhutanese economy.
There are other positive developments as well as far as tourism in the BIMSTEC sub-region is concerned. For instance, Myanmar and Sri Lanka experienced 34 per cent and 21 per cent annual growth in their respective tourism receipts in 2015. By value, Thailand was the second largest economies in tourism receipt in Asia in 2015.
There are several ways to promote intra-regional tourism and cultural bonding in a region or sub-region. For example, the East Asian Cultural City, launched by China, Japan and South Korea, aims at increasing awareness about one another’s cultural practices. BIMSTEC may take a similar approach by choosing cities like Mandalay, Gwalior, Guwahati, or Kandy as BIMSTEC Cultural Cities and promote intra-regional tourism in those particular places. Youth from the region should be included as promoters and beneficiaries of intra-regional tourism through projects like green tourism, study tours, rural tourism, etc. Additionally, the BIMSTEC sub-region already has the potential for developing and nurturing common Buddhist pilgrimage tourism. Other aspects which could flourish include history-based or archaeological tourism to reinforce their commonalities in the past.
Lessons from other Regional Groupings
BIMSTEC may also adopt a few methods or techniques of people-to-people contacts that are already in practice. One such major initiative is the BRICS International Art School which works with the BRICS International Forum and is supported by the International Federation of Indo Russian Youth Clubs. The primary aims of this initiative are encouraging young artists from BRICS member-countries and imparting the basic techniques of art to school children. Another similar initiative is the BRICS Business Incubator (BRICS-BI) which seeks to support the young entrepreneurs from the member-countries. BRICS-BI works as platform to offer information and to build capacity of the young people in areas of trade, investment, joint ventures, employment, research, and development. BRICS-BI works with various organisations like chambers of commerce, business councils, and business forums from different countries.
People-to-people contact plays a pivotal role in enhancing the visibility of a regional or sub-regional grouping and its activities. At the same time, it facilitates a linkage between the common people and governments by creating avenues for dialogue and the promotion of mutual understanding and respect for one another. In other words, enhanced people-to-people contact reflects the involvement of the common citizens in the regional cooperation process, which is otherwise considered to be a top-down approach by the governments. Within the BIMSTEC sub-region too, enhanced people-to-people contact will create a passage for the bottom-up approach of regionalism which will eventually help the member-states in popularizing the concept of “Brand” BIMSTEC. This will benefit the states while addressing the critical issues of national and regional interests through the people’s eyes.