I was particularly glad to note Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's mention at the recent summit of BIMSTEC- some countries in the periphery of the Bay of Bengal and a couple farther away-that it represented the link between South Asia and South East Asia.
It was a point I had made some months earlier in relation to Asian regional cooperation efforts and our own diplomatic neglect over the years to pay close and serious attention to bilateral relations with some of the members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). BIMSTEC which is the abbreviation for this tortuously named organization, has seven members, two of which are members of ASEAN and the rest of SAARC. The two ASEAN members are Thailand and Myanmar (Burma) and they provide the link between the two Asian regions that Manmohan Singh mentioned. Though it is well- known enough, it is still necessary to mention the uneven growth between the South Asian region as represented by SAARC and South East Asia by ASEAN.
Admittedly ASEAN has a long history and that region engaged in various regional groupings even before ASEAN was formally established in 1967.
The point I made at the time was that since Sri Lanka was going to assume the chairmanship of SAARC it provided us with the ideal opportunity to strengthen this sub regional link and at the same time try to correct some of our own diplomatic failures arising from the low priority we had attached to the ASEAN region. Had we been more conscious of the potential of ASEAN region and its emerging economic and political clout on the world stage we would not have been so smug and kept our attention focused very much on the West instead of building our relations more solidly to the east of us. Nevertheless, as chairman of SAARC Sri Lanka should be in a better position to strengthen the links with ASEAN region now that the Indian prime minister as the host of the BIMSTEC summit had underlined this crucial connection.
One of the more positive developments to emerge from the New Delhi summit is the convention on terrorism and transnational crimes which should be signed soon. Manmohan Singh told the media that soon the organization will put in place a joint mechanism to combat terrorism. In fact the final declaration "recognized the threat that terrorism poses to peace, stability and economic progress in the region and emphasised the need for close cooperation in combating all forms of terrorism and transnational crimes."
From Sri Lankan's own point of view, and the larger question of regional security, this is surely the most useful and productive outcome of the New Delhi summit. Yet if this is to go beyond the rhetoric that usually emanates from high level gatherings, those mandated to run the BIMSTEC operation must see that this is translated into speedy and collective action. While it is true that there were other issues of importance to the region such as food and energy security which would have a serious impact on regional development, these are matters that would take time to produce the results that we all wish to see.
India's ever increasing energy needs and the neglect of agriculture and investment in agriculture over the years by regional governments are important contributory factors in this regard.
Even if corrective measures are taken now-and some have been taken by different governments- it is difficult to expect immediate results. Whereas measures to combat terrorism are generally in place but they need to be more vigorously pursued especially now that terrorism and organized crime have become much more global than a decade or two ago.
This however, cannot be done by South Asian countries alone. They need the cooperation of nations outside their immediate region. That is why ASEAN as important as Sri Lanka, albeit belatedly, has come to recognize and accept.
Speaking in New Delhi President Rajapaksa said:" Sea lanes of the Bay of Bengal are being used by terrorists to smuggle arms and drugs" and underlined the need for increased maritime surveillance in the waters of the Bay of Bengal. In fact the sea lanes farther east in the ASEAN region such as the Malacca Straits and the waters around are used for smuggling operations and the interdiction of arms into our region including Sri Lanka.
It must not be forgotten that it was a region bristling with arms left over from regional conflicts in Vietnam, Cambodia and East Timor. Weapons have been smuggled from Myanmar and even through Thailand and Indonesia. These are arms that have found their way to the Tigers who had enough money to pay for them and well organized means of shipping them out to be off loaded in Sri Lanka's territorial waters or just outside it. In some countries in the region such as Malaysia, Indonesia Thailand and Singapore, credit card scams, forged passports and identity cards operations and human smuggling are believed to have netted the LTTE huge funds to finance their weapons buying.
It might be noted that this region was the happy hunting ground of arms procurers such as the notorious "KP", the Tigers' principal arms buyer whose reported arrest in Thailand several months ago caused elation in Sri Lankan security circles. There was much speculation at the time and rumours flew. But whether he was actually arrested and, if so, what happened to him never came to light.
If the means to combat terrorism need to be strengthened and the sea lanes that lead to the Bay of Bengal and skirt our southern boundaries are to be protected then we need the support and the resources of the countries of ASEAN, especially those closest to us. Sri Lanka needs now to overcome years of neglect and concentrate on strengthening its relations with Asian nations, especially those of ASEAN, in order to combat the growing political dissonance by sections of the local populations there and the material support they give to separatist forces at home.
With growing criticism of Sri Lanka in the West orchestrated by interests inimical to Sri Lanka's larger interests, it must look east with genuine interest not merely in the hope of fulfilling its immediate needs. That calls for, among other things, taking diplomacy more seriously and establishing relationships that are mutually beneficial.