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Friday, December 18, 1998 Published at 23:49 GMT

World: South Asia

Bid to boost South Asian trade

The ministers wnat to forge closer trade links

By David Chazan in Dhaka

Ministers from five Asian countries are holding a one-day meeting in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, on Saturday.

Bangladesh, India, Burma, Sri Lanka and Thailand formed an economic community known as Bimstec last year.

The Bimstec group is trying to bridge the gap between South Asia and South-East Asia.

Deputy foreign ministers from Bangladesh, India, Burma, Sri Lanka and Thailand are discussing how to improve road, rail and air communications so that they can trade more with each other.

In the past, communications in the region have often been hindered by distrust among governments.

Refugee problems and rebel groups operating across borders have bred suspicion among some of the five countries in the group, but one of their aims is to build closer links, which many Asians would strengthen their economies and make them less vulnerable to external pressures.

Road and rail links between Bangladesh and India, for example, are woefully inadequate.

Goods sent by road often have to be unloaded and reloaded onto a different truck simply to cross the border. This increases costs and causes long delays.

Regional officials say such problems could easily be avoided with greater trust between the two governments.

One bilateral issue which is not on the meeting's agenda but which will probably be raised on the sidelines is the continued presence of Rohingea Muslim refugees from Burma, who have been living in squalid camps in Bangladesh for the past seven years.

Most of the Rohingeas have now been repatriated, but finding a solution for the more than 20,000 who remain in Bangladesh is proving difficult.

The Burmese Government has promised to take back 7,000 of them, but they are returning at a snail's pace.

The problem seems to be that while Burma is reluctant to take them back, Bangladesh is equally reluctant to keep them.

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