COMMON historical and cultural values generally drive the creation of regional organizations, as in the case of the European Union, based on a common European identity and heritage. But political or geostrategic interests driving organizations also have the power to invent new regional identities, such as the idea of Southeast Asia and ASEAN during the Cold War. The main role of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) today is situated somewhere in the middle, geared at reactivating the Bay of Bengal’s historical legacy of integration, mobility and as a distinct community.

Compared to South Asia or Southeast Asia, few people today think of the Bay of Bengal as a region. As historian Sunil Amrith notes, ‘The absence of BIMSTEC from the public consciousness is a problem’, and this reflects a ‘challenge of the imagination’ given that, at least until the mid-20th century, this used to be one of the world’s most integrated areas.1

Since the 1950s, as the Bay of Bengal’s newly-independent countries embraced divergent alliance systems, instituted political borders as barriers, and pursued different political and socio-economic models, the region’s sense of community has been almost completely eroded.

Rather than artificially inventing a region into being, BIMSTEC’s main mission today is, therefore, to merely revive past levels of integration and collective identity. Its former Secretary General, Sri Lankan Ambassador Sumith Nakandala, accordingly emphasizes that ‘We are not reinventing the wheel’ but just ‘rediscovering the common heritage around the Bay of Bengal.’2 Speaking on the occasion of the organization’s 13th anniversary, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi underlined this common heritage: ‘BIMSTEC not only connects South and South East Asia, but also the ecologies of the Great Himalayas and the Bay of Bengal. With shared values, histories, ways of life, and destinies that are interlinked, BIMSTEC represents a common space for peace and development. For lndia, it is a natural platform to fulfil our key foreign policy priorities of Neighbourhood First and Act East.’3

Similarly, speaking at the 2014 summit, former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had described BIMSTEC as ‘a natural grouping of countries…bound by geography and linked by history.’4

What makes BIMSTEC a ‘natural’ grouping or ‘platform’ and where to find the roots of such a ‘common heritage’? A brief look at a variety of sectors indicates how closely integrated the Bay of Bengal used to be until just fifty years ago, how divided and disconnected it is today, and how vast the potential for future cooperation is.

The Bay of Bengal thrived for centuries as a distinct geoeconomic space. Trade encouraged by the monsoon cycle provided regular southwesterly winds from April to September that then reverse from November to March. Regular rainfall along its coastlines allowed for intensive agricultural production, helping to produce a surplus for trade.5 Known on the subcontinent as the Chola Lake, with reference to the medieval Indian seafaring dynasty that connected East India to the coasts of Burma, Malaya and Indonesia, the Portuguese renamed it ‘Golfo de Bengala’ in the 16th century.6

In stark contrast with past levels of trade, the Bay of Bengal region today is one of the least integrated worldwide. In 2014, intraregional trade among BIMSTEC countries was less than 5% compared to 29% among ASEAN countries.7 India’s economic detachment from the Bay of Bengal is also reflected in the share of its trade with BIMSTEC countries, in the double digits until the 1950s, and currently only little more than four per cent.8 Different economic models have also led to stark developmental divergences among its members. Per capita GDP varies between just 2,500 USD in Nepal, still a less developed country (LDC), and 16,000 in middle-income Thailand.

Past economic linkages were facilitated by an impressive physical infrastructure facilitating connectivity. This has been completely dismantled in recent decades. For example, starting in the 1860s, the British India Steam Navigation Company (BISNC) began regular ship connections between Calcutta and Rangoon. It further expanded the network in subsequent years to dozens of ports on the eastern and western coasts of the Bay of Bengal, and all the way down to Singapore.9

Such past free flows of passengers and goods contrast with the abysmal state of maritime connectivity today, including the total collapse of cross-border inland waterway links.10 Until India and Bangladesh signed a shipping agreement, in 2015, containers between both countries had to be transhipped in Sri Lanka. Decades of economic autarky have left the ports of India, Bangladesh and Myanmar in deep crisis. Today it is three times cheaper to ship a container from Delhi to Singapore than to Dhaka, and it takes approximately the same time despite the longer distance.11

Railways, which spurred growth in much of the Bay of Bengal region after the late 19th century, have also been scaled back. The multi-modal rail-ship link between India and Sri Lanka was deactivated in the 1980s. The last rail link for passengers between India and Nepal was severed in 2014.12 While one of South Asia’s busiest railway routes, between Kolkata and Dhaka, was restarted after 43 years in 2008, dozens of links between India and Bangladesh remain inactive since 1965.13 The rail rupture between South and Southeast Asia is also reflected in the absence of any links between India and Myanmar, Bangladesh and Myanmar, and Myanmar and Thailand.

In terms of air connectivity, it was paradoxically easier to cross the Bay of Bengal in the 1950s than it is today. After regular flights began in the 1930s between India, Ceylon, Burma and Malaya, at its peak there were two daily flights linking Calcutta and Rangoon in the 1950s. By the early 1980s, there were no direct flight connections between India and Burma, and only a single weekly connection between Burma, Bangladesh and Nepal. Today, the level of connectivity remains negligible, with three weekly connections between India and Myanmar. Similarly, cross-border regions have also been taken off the air connectivity map in the Bay of Bengal. For example, until the 1970s, the northern Sri Lankan city of Jaffna had direct flight connections to the South Indian cities of Trichy and Madras, and it was also possible to fly from Burma’s Sittwe across into Chittagong in Southern Bangladesh.14

As a consequence of new physical barriers raised after the 1950s, the Bay of Bengal has also suffered extraordinary reversals in terms of mobility. At its peak, in 1926-27, the region witnessed circular migration of close to one million people every year – mostly Indians employed temporarily in coffee, tea, rice, and rubber plantations in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Burma (Myanmar), and Malaya (Malaysia).15 Between 1840 and 1940, an estimated 30 million people crossed the bay in every direction, attesting to its quality as a borderless region stimulating the free flow of people, goods, capital and ideas.16

It is hard to imagine such fluidity when one observes the obstacles in place today. Beyond the lack of physical connectivity, discussed above, bureaucratic hurdles make it extraordinarily difficult for citizens of BIMSTEC member states to move around the region. Almost a third of visa applications for intra-BIMSTEC travel require appearing in person at a consular mission. The number of visa on arrival and exemptions has increased, but still only applies to a third of all application processes. Costs can also be prohibitive. An Indian or Thai multiple visa for citizens of Myanmar or Bangladesh, respectively, costs USD 200. Such are the barriers that today it is paradoxically easier and cheaper for a Chinese citizen to visit BIMSTEC countries than for BIMSTEC nationals to visit each other’s countries.17

Finally, the Bay of Bengal has also been split along political and geo-strategic lines. By the late 1800s the British dominated the Bay of Bengal, exerting political control over the entire Indian subcontinent, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Burma (Myanmar), and Malaya (Malaysia).18 This maritime outlook of the British Raj found expression in the strategic situation of its capital in Calcutta, on the bay’s northern shore. But starting with the inauguration of New Delhi as the new capital in 1931, and the separation of Burma in 1937, the Bay of Bengal entered a process of political and geostrategic divergence. This culminated in the subcontinent’s partition of 1947, with the creation of independent Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Burma (Myanmar), and the East Pakistan enclave, which would become Bangladesh in 1971.

Despite such divisions, the first post-colonial generation of thinkers and leaders remained committed to the eroding concept of an integrated Bay of Bengal. In 1945, the civil servant and scholar P.N. Kirpal saw Calcutta and Southeast Asia as one of ‘three great highways that connect her [India] with the rest of the world.’19 In 1948, Indian diplomat K.M. Panikkar even proposed a pan-regional organization to include India, Burma, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and Malaya (Malaysia).20

The Colombo Plan, founded in 1950 among Commonwealth members in the region, was initially geared at promoting ‘cooperative economic development in South and Southeast Asia’, attesting to its initial geopolitical ambition to bridge the Bay of Bengal. Sri Lanka traditionally played a leading role in such attempts, reflecting its quest to serve as a pivot power between both regions.21 In 1981, Sri Lanka even expressed its interest in joiningASEAN.22

In practice, however, the Bay of Bengal eroded as a unit of political thought and action. With Burma plunging into isolationism after the military coup of 1962, the crystallization of the American and Soviet Cold War blocs, and the creation of ASEAN in 1967, the countries swiftly gravitated towards divergent geostrategic orbits. From the 1970s onwards, the idea of an ‘Asia-Pacific’ region was generally understood to stretch from the Korean peninsula to Indo-China, excluding the Indian subcontinent.23 The subsequent creation of SAARC in the mid-1980s, formalized the regional divide between ‘South’ and ‘Southeast’Asia. This further divided the Bay of Bengal into two geopolitical camps.

Whether in the economic, connectivity, mobility or geostrategic realms, the Bay of Bengal is today less integrated than it was just fifty years ago.24 The process of disintegration surveyed above is all the more surprising given that such divergence accelerated just as most other regions of the world became more interdependent and connected. Referring to this process in rather euphemistic terms, the Sri Lankan State Minister for Foreign Affairs, Vasantha Senanayake, thus remarked in 2017 that, ‘We have been somewhat slow and complacent to keep pace with the trend of regionalism.’25

Not surprisingly, few people today identify the Bay of Bengal as a common region. People on the eastern coast of Indian and in Bangladesh will be more familiar with the idea of ‘South Asia’. Similarly, most people in Myanmar will tend to look towards Southeast Asia for a sense of collective regional identity. As noted by scholar V. Suryanarayan in the case of India, such a common identification to the Bay of Bengal has given place to a geographically introverted outlook that segments the Bay of Bengal into South and Southeast Asia: ‘Few people in India are conscious of the fact that the [Indonesian] island of Pu Breush, located in the North West of Sumatra, is only 92 nautical miles away from [India’s] Indira Point, which is less than the distance between Chennai and Tirupati. Similarly, Phuket in Thailand is only 273 nautical miles away from Indira Point, which is less than the distance between Chennai and Madurai.’26

Regional organizations are often built on existing cultural similarities, but they can also play a crucial role in fostering new identities, or reviving old ones. Given the abysmal levels of intraregional connectivity since the mid-20th century, it is essential for BIMSTEC to foster people to people links that can help reviving a sense of common belonging to the Bay of Bengal.

For Sumith Nakandala, BIMSTEC’s former Secretary General, the organization’s main mission is, therefore, ‘to re-enable the environment of cooperation and community in the Bay of Bengal.’27 Former Thai Ambassador Kobsak Chutikul thus underlines that, ‘When we imagine a bridge spanning the Bay of Bengal, it is not only physical infrastructure – a two lane highway for trucks – but also a bridge of the mind, a bridge for imagination.’28

Originally founded as a ‘subregional’ cooperation mechanism, BIMSTEC’s founding declaration emphasized its mandate as ‘an additionality to and not [meant to] be a substitute for bilateral, regional or multilateral cooperation.’29 Thirty years later, and despite all shortcomings and challenges, the organization has carved out a new identity for itself as a regional organization in its own right, rather than just a subregional or bridging mechanism between South and Southeast Asia.

While trade liberalization and transportation infrastructure should remain BIMSTEC’s key priorities, the Bay of Bengal will not re-emerge as a regional space unless there are significant investments to foster people to people exchanges. No other organization is better equipped than BIMSTEC to revive this sense of collective identity and belonging to the Bay of Bengal.

This requires an investment into less tangible forms of connectivity that increase flows of knowledge among scholars, experts, and various other key audiences in different countries. Quality research and mutual exposure will accelerate the rediscovery of a common regional narrative for the Bay of Bengal as a distinct community with its own historical, cultural, and geostrategic profile.

This article was originally published in the Seminar.

Footnotes: 

1. Shoumik Hassin, ‘Building a Stronger BIMSTEC in Next 20 Years’, bdnews24.com, 29 May 2017, https://bdnews24.com/neighbours/2017/05/29/building-a-stronger-bimstec-in-next-20-years

2. Carnegie India discussion led by Ambassa-dor Sumith Nakandala, Secretary General of BIMSTEC, in the aftermath of the BRICS-BIMSTEC Leaders’ Outreach Summit and the BIMSTEC Leaders’ Retreat, 4 November 2016, http://carnegieindia.org/2016/11/04/bimstec-and-bay-of-bengal-event-5419

3. Indian Ministry of External Affairs, ‘Prime Minister’s Message on 20th Anniversary of Establishment of BIMSTEC’, 6 June 2017, http://www.mea.gov.in/Speeches-Statements.htm?dtl/28514/Prime_Ministers_message _ on _ 20th _ anniversary _ of _establishment_of_BIMSTEC

4. Press Information Bureau, Government of India, Prime Minister’s Office, ‘PM’s Statement at 3rd BIMSTEC Summit, Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar’, 4 March 2014, http://pib.nic.in/newsite/PrintRelease.aspx?relid=151717

5. David Brewster, ‘The Rise of the Bengal Tigers: The Growing Strategic Importance of the Bay of Bengal’, Journal of Defence Studies 9(2), April-June 2015, http://idsa.in/jds/9_2_2015_TheRiseoftheBengalTigers.html

6. Sunil S. Amrith, Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2013, pp. 1-2.

7.  Mohammad  Masudur  Rahman  and Chanwahn Kim, ‘BIMSTEC Regional Integration: Prospects and Challenges’, Advanced Science and  Technology Letters 114, 2015, p. 92, http://onlinepresent.org/proceedings/vol114_2015/18.pdf

8. Data compiled for 2016-17 from Export-Import Data Bank, Department of Commerce, India, '

9. Jan Lucassen and Leo Lucassen, Globalising Migration History: The Eurasian Experience (16th-21st Centuries). Brill, Leiden,2014, p. 133; See also Sunil S. Amrith, 2013, op. cit., pp. 107-108. And Mark Ravindra Frost, ‘Asia’s Maritime Networks and the Colonial Public Sphere, 1840-1920’, New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies 6(2), December 2004, p. 70, http://www.nzasia. org.nz/downloads/NZJAS-Dec04/6_2_5.pdf Pg 70

10. Aditya Valiathan Pillai, The Promising Future of Inland Waterway Trade in South Asia. The Asia Foundation, 10 May 2017, https://asiafoundation.org/2017/05/10/prom-ising-future-inland-waterway-trade-south-asia/

11. Data compiled using https://www.searates.com/

12. Karishma Singh, ‘Nepal Revamps Colonial-Era Railway Line’, Reuters, 15 June 2017, https://www.aol.com/article/news/2017/06/15/nepal-revamps-colonial-era-rail-way-line/22287945/

13. Shohel Mamun, ‘Government to Restore Rail Links to India, Nepal, Bhutan’, Dhaka Tribune, 5 April 2017, http://www.dhaka-tribune.com/bangladesh/foreign-affairs/2017/ 04/05/govt-restore-rail-links-india-nepal-bhutan/

14. Information in this paragraph based on official schedules from various airlines from India, Sri Lanka and Burma, available on http://www.timetableimages.com

15. Jan Lucassen and Leo Lucassen, 2014, op. cit., p. 134. See also Sunil S. Amrith, 2013, op. cit., p. 146.

16. Bishnu B. Bhandari, ‘The Bay of Bengal: A Forgotten Sea’, in Bishnu B. Bhandari and Reiko Nakamura (eds.), The Proceeding of the Symposium on the Bay of Bengal, 2016, pp. 8-9, http://rcj.o.oo7.jp/english/2016_ myanmar _ mission/BOB%20Sympo - sium%20Report.pdf

17. Chinese citizens get visa on arrival or exemption for six out of seven BIMSTEC countries, with an average cost of 30 USD.

18. Sunil S. Amrith, 2013, op. cit., pp. 1-2

19. Aparna Pande, From Chanakya to Modi: Evolution of India’s Foreign Policy. Harper Collins, Delhi, 2017, p. 37.

20. Ibid.

21. ‘Colombo Plan for Cooperative Economic Development in South and Southeast Asia’, International Organization 13(2), 1959, pp. 352-355, www.jstor.org/stable/2704413

22. Mervyn de Silva, ‘Sri Lanka: Operation Asean’, India Today, 31 May 1981, http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/sri-lanka-expresses-wish-to-join-asean-eyebrows-raised-in-new-delhi/1/401849.html

23. David Brewster, 2015, op cit., 2015, p. 88, http://idsa.in/jds/9_2_2015_TheRiseof theBengalTigers.html

24. This sections draws from my Carnegie India paper, ‘Bridging the Bay of Bengal: Towards a Stronger BIMSTEC.’

25. The Eighteenth Session of the BIMSTEC Senior Officials’ Meeting (SOM) and The Fifteenth BIMSTEC Ministerial Meeting (MM), ‘Opening Remarks, State Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sri Lanka’, BIMSTEC, 11 August 2017, https://drive.google.com/file/ d/0B8Fv9wDGJqx2eVFnbFhwM18yNEE/ view 1

26. V. Suryanarayan, ‘Prospects for a Bay of Bengal Community’, Seminar 487, March 2000, http://www.india-seminar.com/2000/ 487/487%20suryanarayan.htm

27. Author interview with Sumith Nakandala, Former Secretary General, BIMSTEC, New Delhi, 30 March 2017.

28. Shoumik Hassin, op. cit., http://bdnews24.com/neighbours/2017/05/29/building-a-stronger-bimstec-in-next-20-years

29. World Intellectual Property Organization. ‘Framework Agreement on the BIMSTEC Free Trade Area and its Protocol and the Declaration Establishing the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation’, June 1997, http:// www.wipo.int/wipolex/en/other_treaties/ text.jsp?file_id=173501