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PM Manmohan heads for Myanmar today in his last likely official trip abroad

A framework agreement for the BIMSTEC Free Trade Area was signed in Phuket, Thailand, in February 2004.

New Delhi | Updated: March 3, 2014 8:56 am
Manmohan Singh's Myanmar trip would be an attempt to renew contacts with leaders of the Bay of Bengal. (Reuters) Manmohan Singh’s Myanmar trip would be an attempt to renew contacts with leaders of the Bay of Bengal. (Reuters)

Risisng from the Burmese jungles, imperial Nay Pyi Taw, now in its eighth year, remains one of the loneliest capitals in the world.

But for two days beginning Monday, it will be busy hosting heads of seven governments, each carrying the cares and worries of home to a summit that seeks to marry India’s Look East policy with Thailand’s Look West for the growth of the region.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who heads out for the Myanmarese capital Monday morning on what should be his last official trip abroad, will renew contacts with leaders of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) and push for better connectivity to the North-East, India’s gateway to the regional grouping.

Speaking to reporters ahead of the third BIMSTEC Summit, Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh underlined the importance of the grouping in bringing transport, trade, tourism and other investment linkages to the North-East: “Our stakes in BIMSTEC are significant and will grow further as the grouping matures… It is in our interest to make sure that our North-East does not fall behind, that it develops in a manner commensurate with its potential.”

Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand make the BIMSTEC club, home to one-fifth of the world’s population and some of the poorest, with energy and mineral reserves that promise a future if governments fast-track growth and cut red tape.

A framework agreement for the BIMSTEC Free Trade Area was signed in Phuket,  Thailand, in February 2004, committing parties to negotiate FTAs in goods, services and investments. But that pact is still some time away.

“FTA negotiations are processes that take time. The BIMSTEC negotiation is particularly complex because it already encompasses countries which have FTA under the SAFTA process, and then you have other countries that belong to ASEAN,” Secretary Singh said.

In Nay Pyi Taw, the PM will hold bilateral meetings with his Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina and President Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka on the summit margins.

Last November, Singh had given in to pressure from his own Congress party and Tamil parties and had not travelled to Colombo where Sri Lanka was hosting the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM).

His meeting with Rajapaksa comes at a time when Sri Lanka, rejecting calls for an international probe into allegations of war crimes during the final battle with Tamil Tigers in 2009, has expressed anger over a United Nations Human Rights Council resolution that will be put to vote in Geneva later this month.

On Friday, Rajapaksa told mediapersons in Colombo that he was “uncomfortable” with the development and “there should have been no resolution”. When he was asked how he thought India would vote, he said he couldn’t tell because India was headed to elections and the “mood of the electorate” had to be factored in by leaders. But he did add “politicians understand each other”.

Sheikh Hasina knows Singh will not be in office when they meet next. She will want to discuss the future of an agreement on sharing the Teesta water, scuttled by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. The delay over the ratification of the land boundary agreement may also come up.

Host Thein Sein, who stunned the world with the pace with which he opened up Myanmar after decades of isolation and military rule, will be meeting Singh at home for the second time in two years. He has his own set of worries, especially in the Rakhine state which has been wracked by sectarian violence between Buddhists and the stateless Rohingya Muslims.

There’s no word yet whether Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who is fighting for political survival in Thailand, will make it to Nay Pyi Taw. An anti-corruption panel is hearing charges against her, and if found guilty, she could be banned from politics for five years. Her opponents, who have been leading mass protests for three months now, want her removed.

Incidentally, it was her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, who chaired the first BIMSTEC Summit in Bangkok in 2004. Prime Minister Singh is the only one among the seven who would have attended all three summits.

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