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Burma handed economic bloc chair

Dec 14, 2009 (DVB), Burma has formally received the rotating chair of a regional seven-member technical and economic bloc from India, following an annual conference in the Burmese capital Naypyidaw.

The handover of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) to Burma ironically coincides with the grouping's ratification of a treaty tackling trans-national terrorism, organized crime and drug trafficking.

It also comes despite a damning couple of weeks for Burma-India border relations, with recent revelations that Burma is acting the hideout for banned Indian separatists, the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), and an earlier United Nations report indicating a growing market for Burmese-produced narcotics in India.

Burmese prime minister Thein Sein last week reportedly told Delhi's foreign affairs minister, S M Krishna, that Burma would not provide sanctuary for Indian insurgents.

The recent furore over Burma's inaction against the Indian insurgents follows a dramatic improvement in cooperation on the issue between India and the sometimes belligerent Bangladesh, largely since Bangladesh's prime minister, Sheik Hasina, took power last year.

Bhutan, also a member of BIMSTEC, has long cooperated with India on the issue, while India has for some time pleaded with Burma to take action on the insurgents, but so far with little sign of any tangible effects.

Earlier, Assamese journalist and commentator Nava Thakuria told DVB that "they [Burmese government] are playing with the government of India".

This followed suggestions that the junta is playing off India and its main regional rival, China, in their race for strategic control of the area, and importantly access to Burma's gas.

Indeed, the Indian press has claimed that gas and petrol also formed a main part of talks between Thein Sein and Krishna; talks which a Thai foreign ministry official told DVB were bilateral in their nature.

Also discussed at the BIMSTEC summit was the creation of a permanent secretariat for the grouping, proposed by Sri Lanka.

"Like most organizations, when you don't have a head you are all over the place," said the foreign ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Once we have finalised a head there should be better guidance about where the grouping should be going."

He added that the issue of a BIMSTEC free trade agreement was discussed and is "in the pipeline", with the hope that the leadership under Burma would complete the process. Prompted by Bangladesh, the Naypyidaw meeting also extended BIMSTEC's areas of discussion to climate change, an issue close to the heart of Bangladesh which is threatened, along with Burma, by rising sea levels and storms from the Bay of Bengal.

Reporting by Joseph Allchin


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