The people-to-people connectivity and cultural exchanges among BCIM countries are important not only to enhance trade and investment but also to increase cooperation and to facilitate friendly relations among the member-states. The lack of cultural awareness as well as people-to-people contacts in the sub- region of Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) forum for regional cooperation is one of the major challenges to the construction of an economic corridor. However, there are huge opportunities of enhancing people-to-people connectivity across the region.
Historically, the 'Ancient Tea Road' and 'Tea Horse Road' played key roles in enhancing cultural and economic exchanges among the sub-regional countries in the south-eastern part of Asia. The period of ancient Silk Road and Tea Horse Road is termed as the 'earlier golden period of relationship' due to enhanced connectivity of trade and exchanges of ideas, goods, languages, and customs among the people.
The famous Silk Road opened cultural exchanges not only to Tibet and Yunnan, but also was largely expanded to South Asia, Central Asia, Middle East, and Europe. The ancient Silk Road was the channel of cultural exchanges through the movement of people, ideas, and goods across the caravan routes connecting East and Southeast Asia to Central Asia, India, the Mediterranean, and Europe.
One of the most important symbols of cross-cultural exchanges along the Silk Road was the transmission of Buddhism from India to China and some other parts of East Asia, termed 'Mahayana' as well as Chinese Buddhists' pilgrimages to India. The travels of Buddhist monks and pilgrims as well as the concurrent flow of religious beliefs, texts, and relics not only enhanced interactions between the Indian and Chinese religious groups but also influenced people living in Central and Southeast Asia. Particularly, among the hundreds of Chinese pilgrimages, Faxian, Xuanzang, and Yijing added remarkable insights on the nature of Buddhist doctrine and rituals in South, Central, and Southeast Asia.
The geo-strategic position of BCIM countries connects people of three regions-South Asia, Southeast Asia, and East Asia. All the member-states bear the strategic position of connecting people from social, cultural, and economic aspects. For instance, Yunnan serves as the gateway for development of people-to-people contacts with these regions. Specially, the geo-strategic position of Yunnan's Dehong autonomous prefecture has, so far, been playing a significant role in enhancing close ties between China and Myanmar. Sharing 25 per cent of China-Myanmar border line as well as connecting Lashio, Mandalay, Bhamo, and Myitkyina, Dehong is not only a significant hub of transport connectivity but also a strategic centre of people-to-people connectivity and border tourism for China and Myanmar. Almost 49.7 per cent of the population in Dehong belongs to an ethnic minority, including Dai, Jingpo, Achang, Déang, and other cross-border ethnic groups. Since 1949, Sino-Myanmar border in Dehong has been a peaceful and prosperous area.
The geographic location of Northeast India, Myanmar, and Bangladesh is also significant for extending people-to-people connectivity in the BCIM sub-region linking the people of three regions, e.g., South Asia, Southeast Asia, and East Asia. While North East India shares borders with Bangladesh, Myanmar, China, Nepal, and Bhutan, Bangladesh shares long boundaries with India and Myanmar as well.
The economic significance of people-to-people connectivity along BCIM is also inevitable. Facilitating job opportunities by the Chinese government for the people of Myanmar in Dehong Autonomous Prefecture can be a leading example of successful cross-border financial interaction among the people from different cultural orientations. Everyday, a large number of people from Myanmar side go across the Sino-Myanmar border where they can easily get work permit in automobile, plastic, coffee, electronic, and some other manufacturing industries located at Ruili.
This example of people-to-people interaction in Sino-Myanmar border can be an inspiring example for the other border areas within BCIM sub-region. For example, China has now been facing labour shortages due to the decline of supply within the country. Given this context, the low-cost labour surplus in Bangladesh and other BCIM countries may be an attractive option for Chinese enterprises to benefit from the optimum utilisation of cheap labour. Indeed, the large-scale labour flows through movement of traders, businessmen, and tourists along BCIM routes are not only significant to develop industrial hubs and facilitate economic benefits for four countries, but also crucial to intensify people-to-people connectivity in the sub-region.
The prospect of academic exchanges between China and India is rising progressively. A large number of Indian students are studying in China, mostly in the field of clinical medicine as well as Chinese language and culture. According to the Chinese Ministry of Education, India has in recent years remained one of the top 10 sources of international students in China. In 2014 alone, a total number of 13,578 Indian students were studying in China and the number was high compared with any past record. The number of Chinese students in India is also increasing. In addition, more than 30 students from Southeast Asian countries, including Myanmar, are pursuing higher studies at Yunnan University with Chinese government scholarship.
Moreover, the government of China has taken numerous initiatives to develop both cultural and academic ties with Bangladesh. Since 2006, six universities in Yunnan Province, including Yunnan University and Yunnan Normal University, have been actively engaged in development of Confucius Institutes in different countries. The first Confucius Institute was established in Bangladesh at North South University in February 2006. Since its establishment, the Confucius Institute in Bangladesh, with the collaboration of Yunnan University, has been successfully providing teaching and training on Chinese language, Chinese culture, and China affairs and so on.
The difficulties of construction of an economic corridor lie not only in its hardware construction and economic progress, but also in social development and cultural awareness. The people-to-people connectivity among the BCIM countries can be a significant tool of bringing all these member-states into a common ground towards the development of BCIM-EC.
The writer is M. Phil cndidate, Department of International Relations, University of Dhaka.