Advancing foreign policy objectives through the regional cooperation mechanisms remains an important constituent of Nepal’s foreign policy. While Nepal is a founding member of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) is another regional cooperation mechanism Nepal is closely associated with. Nepal has also been participating in several other regional forums like the Asian Cooperation Dialogue (ACD), and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in different capacities.
Originally four countries namely Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, and Thailand came together in June 1997 in Bangkok and formed BIST-Economic Cooperation (BIST-EC). After Myanmar joined the group in December 1997, it was renamed as (BIMST-EC). Nepal was welcomed as an observer in 1998 at the second BIMST-EC ministerial meeting. Nepal and Bhutan joined the organization as full members on February 8, 2004, and BIMST-EC became the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). In the 24 years of its existence, BIMSTEC has held four summit meetings: in Thailand in 2004, in India in 2008, in Myanmar in 2014 and in Nepal in 2018. The fifth summit is scheduled to be held in Sri Lanka later this year and expected to sign the Charter. It is hoped that this will help institutionalize the BIMSTEC process and make it result-oriented.
BIMSTEC countries are among the most strategic and sensitive areas of the world connecting South Asia with Southeast Asia. Home to some 1.50 billion people which is 22% of the global population, BIMSTEC has a combined gross domestic product of $2.7 trillion. Diversity is BIMSTEC’s collective strength. The region has four major religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity. Buddhism is common throughout the region. All countries are non-aligned and members of the United Nations.
Former foreign minister Chakra P Bastolahad said, “Though Nepal is not a basin country of the Bay of Bengal in the strict sense, the Bay of Bengal is the lifeline which nourishes Nepalese trade. It is the only access to the sea for Nepal. As such Nepal’s prosperity solely depends on the growth and progress of the contiguous areas surrounding the Bay of Bengal.” BIMSTEC is a part of Nepal’s continuous look for expanding alternatives and opportunities for promoting progress and prosperity to improve the quality of life of Nepalis.
The 17th BIMSTEC ministerial meeting was held in virtual mode on April 1, 2021, a month after Myanmar’s army known as Tatmadaw seized power from an elected government on February 1- the day when the newly-elected parliament was set to inaugurate its fresh term following November 8, 2020 elections. The National League for Democracy (NLD) had won the elections overwhelmingly, taking 396 of the 476 seats but the army backed the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) which had won just 33 seats.The army announced a state of emergency for one year, detained elected NLD leaders including State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, and the country’s president Win Myint, to restore what it called “order and stability.” Suu Kyi had gone to the people promising to amend the constitution and reduce the power of the army. Alarmed by the election results and fearing loss of its power grip, the army acted citing election fraud.
The army seizure has put an end to the decade-long democratic transition. People’s protests have faced continued violence and oppression from the Tatmadaw. ASEAN leaders meet which was also attended by Myanmar commander-in-chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, in Jakarta on April 24, pressed him to end the ongoing bloodshed in his country. Indonesian President Joko Widodo called the situation in Myanmar “unacceptable” and said, “violence must be stopped, and democracy, stability and peace in Myanmar must be restored,” which is stated to have reflected a five-point "consensus," of the Association of the Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Nepal’s reaction to military takeover
Nepal’s foreign ministry in its press release on February 1 called upon all parties to respect the will of the Myanmar people, and called for the immediate release of civilian leaders including President U Win Myint and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. The statement hoped that the democratic and constitutional process would be restored soon.
On March 28, eminent citizens of Nepal issued an appeal in support of Myanmar’s people's struggle against military repression and demanded that the Government of Nepal act. They expressed their concerns over “the murderous suppression by the Tatmadaw military” and were distressed by the lack of adequate response from the governments of South Asia and globally. They stood for democracy and called upon the Tatmadaw to immediately reverse its takeover and abide by the results of the November 8, 2020 elections.
On March 29, a three minutes interview clip of Prime Minister Oli that was in circulation recalled the initial comments made by the foreign ministry. The PM then spoke on the need to respect the mandate of the people and stop violence against peaceful protestors. Senior journalist and writer Kanak Dixit tweeted: “No other South Asian Head of Government will have spoken this clearly against the military coup in Myanmar and on behalf of the people's uprising and electoral mandate.”
Three days later on April 1, Nepal’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Pradeep Gyawali led the Nepali delegation to the 17th BIMSTEC Ministerial Meeting held in virtual mode. Minister Gyawali expressed Nepal’s commitment to the BIMSTEC process and said a dynamic and resilient BIMSTEC can catalyze growth, spur innovation, and propel development and prosperity. He underlined the need for focusing on the core areas such as connectivity, energy, trade, investment, tourism, and agriculture. He stressed a sustained fight against poverty and hunger of which Nepal is a lead country in the BIMSTEC process. He called for “stronger political will and commitment” to make the 5th BIMSTEC Summit successful.
It has been a consistent policy of Nepal not to make comments on the internal matters of any country and Nepal wants other countries not to show unnecessary concerns on its internal affairs. However, Nepal’s reiteration of its fundamental principles of foreign policy as enshrined in Article 50, 51 (1, m) of the Constitution which states conducting an independent foreign policy based on the Charter of the United Nations, non-alignment, principles of Panchsheel, and international law among others, has been uncompromising. Even going by the standards of the Oli government as mentioned in what it calls “Foreign Policy 2077” that lists democracy, human rights and rule of law (4.1-12), along with fundamental principles like non-alignment, Panchsheel and the principles and purposes of the United Nations Charter, the ministerial statement sorely missed the points that the present government appears advocating to the domestic audience. This exposes the government’s double standards.
It is worth recalling what Nepal said and how Nepal reiterated its positions on democracy, human rights, and the rule of law in the past on similar occasions. The third BIMSTEC Summit was held in Myanmar in 2014, when member country Thailand was in the grip of competing protest demonstrations with Red Shirts formally known as United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) as supporters of the deposed elected prime ministers who were ousted by the military, and Yellow Shirts - labeled as ultra-nationalists formally known as People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) - opposed to former prime minister.
Addressing the third BIMSTEC Summit on March 4, 2014, in Myanmar, Prime Minister Sushil Koirala alluded very guardedly to disturbances and tensions in Thailand, and said, “This is an extraordinary time for us. We see uncertainties, turbulence, and transition in different parts of the world. It is our firm view that these can best be addressed through peaceful means within democratic framework that respects national unity and reconciliation.” He also extended Nepal’s best wishes to the government and people of Myanmar for the success of ongoing ‘democratic’ transformation.
Nepal’s expression of its foreign policy principles has been consistent.
(The author, a former diplomat and foreign policy expert, has served as the foreign affairs adviser to former prime ministers Sher Bahadur Deuba and Sushil Koirala.)