HON. ROHITHA BOGOLLAGAMA
MINISTER OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS OF SRI LANKA
THE 10TH BIMSTEC MINISTERIAL MEETING
NEW DELHI, 29TH AUGUST 2008
At the outset, permit me to congratulate you Mr. Chairman for efficiently guiding BIMSTEC since assuming the Chair at the BIMSTEC Ministerial Meeting in 2006. I am confident that under your stewardship we will have a fruitful meeting today. My delegation and I are most thankful to the Government of India for the warm welcome and generous hospitality. May I also extend my congratulations to the Foreign Ministers of Thailand and Nepal on their appointment.
May I also take this opportunity to acknowledge the continuous contributions made by the Government of Thailand towards facilitating the functioning of our Group.
As this is the first meeting of BIMSTEC that I am attending as the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Sri Lanka, I wish to say that I look forward to working with all of you with a view to achieving the objectives of BIMSTEC.
BIMSTEC provides a unique bridge between South and Southeast Asia, and in the process has brought together 1.3 billion people or 21% of the world population with a combined GDP of US$ 1.25 trillion. Taken holistically, it is a region of vast potential and endowments, in particular due to our resource rich landmass and the seas of the Bay of Bengal.
BIMSTEC, since its formation in 1997, has made continuous incremental progress. This is a manifestation of the political will of all our Member States to make this Forum contribute towards meaningful regional cooperation. In this regard, I acknowledge with appreciation the significant role played by the focal points and line agencies of Member States of BIMSTEC in translating this political will into a practical reality.
During the past decade, we have progressively broadened and widened the areas of cooperation. With the expansion of our membership, we have been able to broad base our regional reach with a view to harnessing its diverse potential for the greater benefit of all.
The core content of our work is focused on economic cooperation to reap the benefits of natural regional linkages for making the lives of the people we represent more prosperous. And each member State in BIMSTEC has taken responsibilities commensurate with its own capacities for this purpose. Please allow me to highlight some of the initiatives taken by Sri Lanka in pursuit of this goal.
I am pleased to note that Sri Lanka had been unanimously elected to continue as the Chair of the Trade Negotiating Committee (TNC), for negotiating modalities for implementation of the Free Trade Agreement among BIMSTEC countries. We are thankful for the excellent support and commitment shown by all towards achieving the objectives of the TNC.
As the lead country for BIMSTEC Co-operation in Technology, Sri Lanka is assiduously seeking to promote co-operation in this increasingly important area. The Sri Lanka National Science and Technology Commission, in collaboration with the National Chamber of Commerce of Sri Lanka have organized several workshops to provide a conceptual base and practical ideas for cooperative activities for possible future work.
Among those ideas, the project proposed by the Sri Lanka National Science and Technology Commission for technical co-operation on the development of low-cost micro-irrigation systems for rural areas based on Sri Lanka’s experience can become a useful tool for the Member States of BIMSTEC. Given the importance of food security for our region, this project proposal could lay the groundwork for developing effective techniques for more resourceful use of water in agriculture in our region.
At the 11th BIMSTEC Senior Officials meeting, we are pleased that Sri Lanka’s proposal for the establishment of a Centre for Technology was accepted in principle. An expert group will meet in Colombo shortly to discuss the concept paper on this initiative.
Sri Lanka was happy to host an international conference on “South-South Co-operation for Technology Transfer and Development of Small and Medium Enterprises” on the 22nd of this month. The Non Aligned Movement Science & Technology Centre in New Delhi, as well as the National Science Foundation of Sri Lanka and the National Science and Technology Commission of Sri Lanka were involved in the organization of the conference which was attended by participants from 21 countries.
There are several key areas where we in BIMSTEC can do more to alleviate poverty and promote economic development in our region. For instance, energy security which has come to the forefront of global affairs due to the unprecedented steep increase in oil prices, merits our attention. The rising cost of energy is posing a threat to most developing economies affecting the livelihoods, in particular, of the most vulnerable sections of our societies. Therefore, cooperative action in this vital sector is essential. As a first step, we could share our knowledge, experience and expertise in this field. In this context, Sri Lanka will fully support the establishment of the BIMSTEC Trans-Power Exchange and Development Project as well as establishment of the BIMSTEC Energy Centre in India.
Connectivity is not only a key word for development today but also an essential element in the social life of a nation and its people. Transport, be it by land, air or sea, is therefore a vital aspect for development. Generally speaking, our region is bound by a vast expanse of sea, on which shipping routes have transited since time immemorial. The railway network that our countries have is good but it lacks efficient linkages. Connectivity by air offers us endless possibilities provided it is effectively harnessed by adopting an open skies regime in BIMSTEC. I propose that we should work assiduously towards this objective.
For its part, Sri Lanka has made some strides in the direction of establishing sea connectivity. Two ports in the Southern Province, namely those at Hambantota and Galle are being developed. These ports are on the vital shipping lanes that connect the countries of the southern part of the BIMSTEC grouping with those of the group located in Southeast Asia. In time, we hope, these two ports, along with the port of Colombo, will help enhance the shipping linkages of the region.
BIMSTEC has now matured to a stage where our group requires the benefit of a permanent secretariat to enable, consolidate and promote our collective vision. In this regard Sri Lanka would consider herself privileged if selected to host the secretariat in Colombo. Let me add Mr. Chairman that way back in the 1950s Sri Lanka was selected to host the secretariat of the Colombo Plan, which brought together a pioneering group of countries working together for development cooperation and human resource development. The Colombo Plan withstood the test of time and we are confident we will be able to draw inspiration from this experience in relation to the BIMSTEC Secretariat.
Mr. Chairman, the links of connectivity that bind us to each and every BIMSTEC nation make Colombo, a hospitable gathering place and one of the most accessible cities in the region. This accessibility is complemented by long standing ties of culture and shared values we enjoy with each and every BIMSTEC nation.
The Tourism sector makes a remarkable contribution to the economies of our member States and is therefore of great importance to us. This industry provides vast direct as well as indirect employment opportunities for our people in a way that few industries do.
Therefore it is in our collective interest to pursue initiatives to promote inter and intra regional tourism. In this regard, I am pleased to announce that Sri Lanka is prepared to undertake FAM Tours together with the BIMSTEC member countries for our common good. In addition, contributing our share towards BIMSTEC human resource development in the tourism sector, the Sri Lanka Hotel School is willing to extend opportunities for the BIMSTEC countries to follow its renowned and internationally recognized hotel school training programmes.
Our region is home to an astonishingly diverse and ancient cultural heritage. The adoption of the Paro initiative at the 1st Ministerial Meeting on Culture in Bhutan in May 2006 has, I am certain, provided a strong foundation for further initiatives of cooperation to preserve this heritage. We look forward to the realization of decisions taken at the Paro Meeting, including the BIMSTEC Cultural Industries Commission and BIMSTEC Cultural Industries Observatory.
Sri Lanka has been able to increase training facilities in the cultural centres located all over the country to provide training to rural people in keeping with the objectives of the Paro Meeting.
Poverty confronts not just our Grouping but a significant part of the world population. In this context, cooperation to alleviate this scourge is a must. It is timely that BIMSTEC recognizes the importance of cooperation, so clearly manifested by the recently concluded Ministerial Meeting on Cooperation in Poverty Alleviation. In Sri Lanka, poverty alleviation strategies are conducted successfully in line with the UN Millennium Development Goals under the ‘Mahinda Chinthana,’ the election manifesto of His Excellency President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Last but not least, terrorism is an abominable phenomenon that affects all of us, big and small, directly or indirectly, today. Terrorist groups network with one another globally. Their operations, in our own experience includes fundraising through the narcotic trade, human smuggling, procurement of arms and ammunition, and money laundering, all of which pose a grave threat to our societies in more ways than one. Sri Lanka views the BIMSTEC Convention on Cooperation in Combating Terrorism, Organized Crime and Illicit Drug Trafficking as an important landmark of the Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime Sector, which would intensify our cooperative efforts in combating terrorism.
The Group on intelligence sharing relating to Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime has had two meetings in Colombo. These meetings have been useful in exploring ways and means to share information to combat terrorism and transnational crime. Enhancement of cooperation in all sectors relating to combating terrorism is crucial. I therefore emphasize the urgent and dire need to further enhance cooperation within BIMSTEC in this important area.
We do live in challenging times, but we are also conscious of the currents and as the initiatives through BIMSTEC demonstrate, we can use them for the benefit and welfare of our countries. The people we are privileged to represent, expect no less.