Bangladesh Claims Victory in Bay of Bengal Dispute

source from Irrawaddy news, 15 March 2012

Men fish with nets in Bay of Bengal near Labutta Township. (Photo: Reuters)

A long-running maritime boundary dispute between Burma and Bangladesh ended on Wednesday after arbitration at the International Tribunal on the Laws of the Sea (ITOLS) in Hamburg, Germany. The 151-page ruling by the UN body was considered a victory for Bangladesh, in a dispute that threatened to turn violent in 2008.

Bangladesh took the case to the tribunal after the Burmese navy escorted oil and gas exploration vessels and a rig run by South Korea’s Daewoo company into sea that both countries claimed as their own, but is situated some 50 km from the Bangladeshi-owned Saint Martin’s Island.

“We are happy, we are absolutely delighted,” Dipu Moni, the Bangladeshi foreign minister, told reporters.

“This is a great day for Bangladesh. All our strategic objectives were achieved,” she said after the ruling, which paves the way for Bangladesh to begin exploration of the sea bed, primarily with US oil company Conoco Philips. The ruling awarded Bangladesh some 111,000 square km of sea, in what was seen as a landmark ruling, delimiting areas of sea beyond 200 nautical miles from the mainland.

Burma had contended that the ITOLS had no jurisdiction over the issue because the contested area and block in question, block AD-7, was more than 200 nautical miles from the mainland.

A Bangladeshi Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement asserted that, “The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) on March 14, 2012, sustained Bangladesh’s claims to a full 200 nautical miles exclusive economic zone in the Bay of Bengal, and to a substantial share of the outer continental shelf beyond 200 miles.”

“We are planning to offer at least two to three deep-water gas blocks in the forthcoming bidding round with the planned eight shallow water gas blocks if Bangladesh gets legitimate rights over the deep water blocks through the verdict of the international tribunal,” Petrobangla Director Muhammad Imaduddin told Bangladesh’s Financial Express on Saturday.

Bangladesh had ceased all exploration until a verdict was made after first submitting the request in December 2009. This followed a 2008 incident in which the Burmese navy escorted an exploration rig owned by the US company Transocean but which was leased to Daewoo and Kogas, allegedly for some US $400,000 a day.

When the Bangladeshi navy confronted the vessels the Burmese military sent large numbers of troops to the shared land border. A leaked US embassy cable revealed that the Bangladeshis were so concerned by the build-up, believed to have been some 30 km from their territory, that they requested US assistance, specifically satellite imagery of the Burmese troops, to assess the risk.

The conflict induced Bangladesh to restock its military, acquiring the Serbian-made Nora B-52 self propelled howitzer and additional naval patrol boats.

Bangladesh is desperate for more energy supplies, with the country some 1,800 MW of electricity short of demand. Since the maritime dispute, both countries have witnessed a thaw in bilateral relations with the government of Sheik Hasina making stringent efforts with both India and Burma. This has included the country becoming the first to move its embassy to Naypyidaw, exploring plans to build a rail link, and seeking imports of Burmese energy, both hydro and natural gas.

For Burma’s part, the new government also seems far more prepared to work on bilateral relations, not least in the Energy Ministry, where industry figures believe that under the leadership of Minister Than Htay operations have become more efficient. The previous administration also initiated a 350-km electric fence along the shared border.

Reflecting the thaw in the relationship, Dipu Moni was quoted in the Financial Express as saying, “It is a victory for both of the states. Because it finally resolves—peacefully and according to international law—a problem that had hampered their economic development for more than three decades. We salute Myanmar for its willingness to resolve this matter by legal means and for its acceptance of the tribunal’s judgment.”

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