With invite to Myanmar FM, BIMSTEC steps out of shadows, out of line with ASEAN

It is better to engage Myanmar rather than isolate the country, says Sri Lankan Foreign Secretary.

Updated - March 27, 2022 01:30 pm IST

Published - March 27, 2022 01:26 pm IST - NEW DELHI/COLOMBO

Jayanath Colombage. File

Jayanath Colombage. File | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

It is better to engage Myanmar rather than “isolate” the country, said Sri Lanka’s Foreign Secretary Admiral Jayanath Colombage (retired), explaining Colombo’s decision to invite Myanmar military administration’s Foreign Minister to the fifth Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) summit this week.

Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will host Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other leaders at the summit being held on “hybrid mode” from March 28 to 30. Mr. Rajapaksa will chair the session on March 30, with the leaders of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, and Thailand joining him virtually. Myanmar’s Foreign Minister will speak at the session, officials in Colombo said. 

This is the first time that Mr. Modi — joining the event virtually — will be at a forum that includes the military junta-run “State Administrative Council” (SAC). External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, following his Maldives stop, will participate in the BIMSTEC ministerial meeting in person, during his visit to Sri Lanka from March 28 to 30.

As BIMSTEC’s current chair, Sri Lanka’s decision to invite a top junta official followed Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris’s visit to New Delhi in February, when he consulted with the Indian Government, and other members Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and Thailand.

Last year too, Colombo invited Myanmar’s junta-appointed Foreign Minister _ just over a month after the military’s power grab in Yangon — for the virtual meeting of the regional body, sparking criticism from pro-democracy activists in Myanmar.

Commenting on the scope of the summit, Mr. Colombage told The Hindu that BIMSTEC must now “walk the talk” on regional cooperation. “We need more travel options, people to people connectivity, economic engagement, and trade among members. We have been talking for too long,” he said.

The MEA did not respond to requests for a comment on the inclusion of Myanmar Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin to address the group virtually, an apparent departure from the line taken by the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) that decided in February not to invite the Foreign Minister to its retreat. It asked Myanmar to send only a “non-political” representative. Significantly, Thailand is a member of both ASEAN and BIMSTEC, and its participation at the summit will be watched closely.

WATCH: Worldview with Suhasini Haidar | Is India striking out on its own with regard to Myanmar?

On the inclusion of the junta administration in the guest list, Mr. Colombage said that “Inviting Myanmar to join the summit virtually does not amount to Sri Lanka recognising what is happening in Myanmar. At the same time, rather than isolating a country, it is better to have them in your fold, and talk to them, discuss, engage.” However, admitting that was “difficult to interact with a military leadership running the country,” the former naval chief turned bureaucrat said it was through discussion and engagement that “practical and pragmatic solutions” can be found. 

Further, he said, it was time for BIMSTEC to show determination and make things happen, for it represented “a very important region” linking the “Western Pacific and Indian Ocean, and between the Pacific and SAARC.”

Mr. Jaishankar will participate in the Foreign Ministers’ meet on March 29, which will also include the Myanmar Foreign Minister.  In December last year, Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla visited Myanmar and met with the coup leader SAC chief General Min Aung Hlaing, who overthrew the National Unity Government (NUG) and imprisoned all leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi. India’s bilateral engagement with the Myanmar military rulers has been at odds with the stance of Western countries, as well as members of the Quad, that have placed sanctions on the regime. Mr. Jaishankar had said at a Quad ministerial meeting in Melbourne that India will not recognise “unilateral sanctions”.

One of the main objectives of this week’s summit would be to launch the ‘BIMSTEC charter’, and hand over the leadership of the forum to Thailand, the next chair, Adm (retd.) Colombage said. Further, member countries have streamlined the areas of focus to seven sectors, with each country taking charge of a specific area to work on.  

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