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The Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies (LKI) in partnership with the South Asian Network on Economic Modeling (SANEM) hosted a conference on “Enhancing BIMSTEC Connectivity in the New Era’’ on 30th and 31st March 2022. This conference was supported by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). This conference was inaugurated on Wednesday, 30 March 2022 and followed by a technical session on Thursday, 31 March 2022.
The Dialogue was held in parallel with the 5th BIMSTEC Summit and focused on areas pertaining to cross-border cooperation in the areas of trade and investment, infrastructure, multimodal connectivity, digital economy, and people to people contacts. The Dialogue generated an evidence-based discussion with the goal of advancing scholarly exchange across the countries in the Bay of Bengal region.
The Executive Director of LKI, Dr. Dayantha Laksiri Mendis delivered the welcome address at the inaugural session. Hon. Prof. G.L. Peiris, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sri Lanka, in his keynote address reflected on the 5th BIMSTEC Summit, held in Sri Lanka. He emphasised that multilateralism is the key to resolve problems that we encounter in the current context and it should also be the key to the future. Mr. Reed Aeschliman, Mission Director for Sri Lanka and the Maldives, USAID, in his special remarks at the inaugural session, stated that the recently launched Indo-Pacific strategy serves as a guide to build collective capacity with allies to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. This was followed by a brief recap of the Summit, Charter and orientation of the panel discussion by Dr. Selim Raihan, Executive Director of SANEM, Dr. Nihal Pitigala, Lead Economist, WBD and InReach Global, Dr. Prabir De, Professor, Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS), India and Dr. Watcharas Leelawath, Honorary Advisor, Bolliger and Company, Thailand.
Dr. Dayantha Laksiri Mendis, Executive Director of LKI warmly welcomed the participants to the technical session of the conference and outlined the key points of the BIMSTEC Charter, which had recently been signed by the Heads of State. Hon. Tharaka Balasuriya, State Minister of Regional Cooperation, in his opening remarks, highlighted aspects through which regional connectivity could be fostered; such as physical connectivity, digital connectivity, business and trade connectivity and people to people connectivity. Adml. Prof. Jayanath Colombage, Foreign Secretary of Sri Lanka delivered the keynote address and stated that connectivity expands to a broad range of areas. He further added that the Bay of Bengal is the connector between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific and it is attracting the geo-strategic, geo-economic attention of the world today. Introductory remarks were delivered by Dr. Selim Raihan, Executive Director of SANEM, Bangladesh.
The panel discussions were focused on five major thematic areas. The first panel discussion was based on Trade and Investment. This was moderated by Dr. Nihal Pitigala, Lead Economist, WBD and InReach Global. There was unanimity to initiate negotiations for a Preferential Trade Agreement among the BIMSTEC countries. The second panel discussion was focused on Infrastructure and Multimodal Connectivity. This was moderated by Mr. Achyut Bhandari, Co-Founder of the Centre for Research on Bhutanese Society. The third panel discussion on Digital Economy, was moderated by Mr. Oshada Senanayake, Chairman of the Information and Communication Technology Agency (ICTA), Sri Lanka. He stated that readiness of critical infrastructure, digital literacy and accessibility are some of the imperatives in addressing the concerns of the digital economy.
The fourth panel was focused on the BIMSTEC Charter, BIMSTEC Fund and Institution, and was moderated by Dr. Selim Raihan, Executive Director of SANEM. The fifth panel discussion was focused on the theme, People to People Contacts and was moderated by Dr. Posh Raj Pandey, Chairman of the South Asia Watch on Trade, Economics and Environment (SAWTEE), Nepal. The closing session focused on the way forward for BIMSTEC. This session was moderated by Amb. Sumith Nakandala, Senior Director of the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies (BCIS) and Former Secretary General of BIMSTEC.
Economists, academics and development experts from the region participated in the panel discussions and shared their valuable insight on matters pertaining to regional connectivity, trade and people to people contacts. The panel discussions were followed by respective Q & A sessions. Mr. Chathuka Senanayake, Director of the LKI and Dr. Selim Raihan, Executive Director of SANEM thanked the participants for shedding light on the vital aspects of regional connectivity and ensuring a stimulating discussion.