Bilateral tensions remain high as a complex maritime dispute spills over onto refugees and regional politics, Simon
Roughneen writes for ISN Security Watch.
Bangladesh announced on 8 October that it would ask the UN to resolve a regional maritime wrangle, which involves India, Burma and Bangladesh. Four days later, what Bangladeshi army spokespersons called “a massive military build-up,” took place on the Burmese side of the land border, and on the same day, the Burmese navy based in Arakan State stationed five warships close to the disputed area. A day later, the Chittagong-based Bangladeshi navy sent four warships to the disputed area in response.
Burma’s military junta had earlier protested against Bangladesh’s exploration of oil and gas in the disputed maritime zone, and warned against oil companies going ahead based on exploration rights granted by Dhaka.
Foley Hoag, the law firm taking the arbitration case on behalf of Bangladesh, spoke of intimidation of oil companies granted concessions by Dhaka, by Burmese naval vessels operating in the Bay of Bengal, the site of the disputed maritime zones.
However, a spokesperson for Tullow Oil – one of the oil companies mentioned in a press release by Foley Hoag – told ISN Security Watch that the company “no longer has any operations in the maritime area adjacent to Burma,” but added that a UK-based oil and gas multinational had recently been granted a new offshore block adjacent to India. The Bay is believed to contain huge undersea oil and gas reserves.
This is not the first time both countries have rattled sabers over natural resources in the Bay of Bengal. Naval vessels confronted each other one year ago after Bangladesh found South Korea’s Daewoo drilling on behalf of Burma in a disputed area.
A legal resolution of the various claims will likely take some time, which will hardly quell simmering tensions as countries go ahead with controversial oil and gas exploration projects.
Sam Bateman is co-author of Good Order at Sea in Southeast Asia, a report on maritime policy and security. He told ISN Security Watch that the Bay’s changing geography contributes to making an already complex set of cases, which takes in the various bodies and entitlements relevant to international maritime law, even more difficult to assess going forward.
To illustrate some of this, Bateman said, “Bangladesh is what is referred to as a ‘zone-locked’ state, i.e. it is locked in by the Exclusive Economic Zones of India and Burma.”
The EEZ is 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.
Looking at a maritime map helps give an idea of the layout, but, as Bateman continued, “Bangladesh’s maritime boundaries with Burma and India will at some stage reach a tripoint where its lines of equidistance with these two countries intersect. This means that at some point, trilateral agreement with India is required before a complete set of boundaries can be agreed between Burma and Bangladesh.”
Misperceptions of stability
Border clashes recur sporadically between Burma and Bangaldesh, but have not degenerated into war. Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dipu Moni and Burmese Foreign Minister Nyan Win met on 15 October in Colombo, and according to a Bangladesh Foreign Ministry press statement, discussed a wide range of bilateral issues.
The statement spoke of the need to address the potential for “misperceptions” on each side, and added that “regarding recent media reporting on troop movements along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, the Myanmar foreign minister stated that no such event has taken place.” The statement described movements on the border as a routine exercise, contradicting accounts given by Bangladeshi army spokespersons based in the border regions.
It is unlikely that the October 15 meeting resolved all the issues. K Mrat Kyaw. editor of the Narinjara, a news publication run by Burmese exiles from Arakan, now in Bangladesh, told ISN Security Watch that the outcome of the recent bilateral talks “is not a long-term solution of border disputes between two neighbors, which involves the maritime issue, and the issue of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.”
In a related development, Bangladesh continues to send unregistered Rohingya refugees back into Arakan in Burma, saying that they are a social and economic burden. This is in response to Burma constructing a border fence along the frontier, perhaps the junta’s attempt to prevent hundreds of thousands of Rohingya from returning to Burma, where they are denied citizenship.
Opportunity to manoeuvre
Bangladesh is filing a separate case with India, which it claims is denying it any access to the continental shelf, which lies beyond the EEZ. While neither Burma nor India have responded to the arbitration procedure, there is no sign that India and Bangladesh could clash militarily.
However, bilateral relations are not smooth, with India perceiving Bangladesh as providing sanctuary for some of the many militant groups operating in northern India.
M Shamsur Rabb Khan argued in an article published by The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), a think-tank closely linked to India’s armed forces, that “Bangladesh does not accept that any militant camps are functioning in its territory. But the fact remains that some 172 training camps have been operating in Bangladesh for a long time.”
India is competing with China and others for economic opportunities in Burma, which remains under western sanctions. Anti-government militias operate from Burma as well as Bangladesh, the apparent reason behind a visit last week to Burma by Indian Army Chief General Deepak Kapoor.
India may want to explore opportunities to see how it could support Burma in its dispute with Bangladesh, not least as sources in the Bangladesh governments said that Bangladesh was negotiating with China, which has been Burma’s main diplomatic ally, to resolve the dispute with Burma – though how this relates to the arbitration process is not clear.
China and Burma have been at odds of late, with Beijing issuing angry rebukes to the junta after fighting in northern Burma sent 37,000 ethnic Chinese refugees fleeing into China in late August. Those rebukes were reissued in the days following the US announcement that it was altering its Burma policy in response to the junta’s wishes to talk to Washington and loosen its ties with Beijing somewhat.
On 19 October, a high-ranking Burmese general flew into southern China, the first official visit between the two countries since the fighting. Whatever way the Bay of Bengal dispute is resolved, it seems to be spurring some diplomatic manoeuvring between various interested parties.Show