Burma and Bangladesh await March maritime boundary ruling – The Irrawaddy



BANGKOK—Burma and Bangladesh will have to wait until March 2012 for a verdict on their disputed maritime boundary, in a case that could facilitate both sides in acquiring new gas and oil supplies in the energy-rich Bay of Bengal.

Amid a background of stalled bilateral negotiations and sometimes acrimonious relations, hearings ran from Sept 8 -24 at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) in Hamburg, Germany.

International legal experts and academics lent weight to the proceedings—which unlike the simmering multi-state dispute over the gas and oil-laden South China Sea and various islands in the area—looks set to be resolved without acrimony. The outcome could establish some international maritime legal precedent, which in turn could have a bearing on any international law-based resolution to the South China Sea conundrum.

Bangladesh foreign minister Dipu Moni addressed the opening of the hearings, expressing confidence that the proceedings and the resolution would lead to better bilateral ties.

“Our two states have long enjoyed strong ties born out of the familiarity that comes with being neighbors,” she said.

However, relations between the two sides are often touchy, and the case came to the ITLOS after became Bangladeshi angered at Burmese-backed exploration work in the disputed waters, carried out by Korean company Daewoo in 2008. Prior to that, decades of on-off bilateral talks over the maritime boundary went nowhere, leading to dangerous November 2008 and October 2009 stand-offs, after it became apparent that the seabed contained gas and oil deposits.

A leaked diplomatic cable from the US Embassy in Dhaka shows that the Bangladeshi authorities feared possible Burmese military action after the 2008 dispute. According to the document, dated Aug 3 2009, “Prime Minister’s Security Advisor Major General (ret) Tarique Ahmed Siddique expressed concern about the possibility of hostilities with Burma related to the ongoing maritime boundary dispute. Tarique confided that he had recently been briefed by Bangladesh’s Defense Advisor in Burma, who assessed that the Burmese were planning military action.”

The cable recounted a separate Aug 1 2009 meeting with Bangladesh Chief of Army Staff Gen Abdul Mubin, who, according to the cable, opined that “the Burmese had been humiliated by the need to back down and withdraw an exploration rig from the disputed waters in the Bay. He feared that the Burmese would seek revenge to coincide with the anniversary of the confrontation.” Weeks later, in October 2009, both countries sent warships to the disputed waters.

The Bangladesh military representatives said that they feared the military edge lay with the Chinese-backed Burmese, and were in turn seeking US assistance. However, in a later cable dated Nov 21 2009, “on November 5 the (US) Ambassador advised the (Bangladesh) PM that the US did not see any indications that Burma was preparing for aggressive action against Bangladesh, despite alarmist reports in the Bangladeshi media.”

Other companies—such as India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC), China National Petroleum Corp., and ConocoPhilipps—have shown an interest in exploration in the disputed zone, raising the prospect of a new site of competition between China and India for commercial and strategic influence in the region.

ONGC operations off the Vietnam coast prompted an angry Chinese reaction earlier this month, with Beijing saying the exploration work was taking place in disputed waters in the South China Sea. Vietnam calls the sea the East Sea and says the work was within the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), the area extending to 200 nautical miles from the country’s coast. Within this area, the coastal nation has sole exploitation rights over all natural resources, and the region includes the 12-mile territorial sea zone directly off the coast.

India lost out to China over Burma’s Shwe Gas fields, located south of the disputed Burma-Bangladesh maritime border, with the Burmese Government hoping to start piping the gas to China by 2013, which will earn Naypyidaw almost US $30 billion in revenue over the life-span of the field, according to the Shwe Gas Movement.

India has a separate, but related, dispute with Bangladesh over territorial waters in the Bay of Bengal, which some analysts say could overlap with the Burma-Bangladesh issue, meaning that a trilateral agreement or arbitration could be necessary to resolve the seemingly-interlocking claims.

While Burma exports most of its gas and oil, Bangladesh needs energy supplies for its domestic economy, and according to a Nov 11, 2009 cable from the US embassy in Dhaka, “is taking steps to encourage foreign investment in natural gas exploration and other energy projects,” including offshore.

Julia Ritter, the press officer at the ITLOS, told The Irrawaddy that “the judges will now deliberate on the case and a tentative date for the judgment has been set for March 14, 2012.” After listening to a series of highly-technical arguments and counter-proposals, pouring over the finer points of international maritime law, the judges will likely need the six months to assess the case and finalize a ruling.

Copyright © 2008 Irrawaddy Publishing Group | www.irrawaddy.org

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