Bangladesh and Myanmar: an historic example of conflict resolution
an article by M. Sazzad Hossain Siddiqui
December 16 is the most memorable day for all Bangladeshis as Bangladesh came into existence as a sovereign nation on that day in 1971. To me, another blissful day is March 14, 2012, when we won in an historic verdict given by the UN International Tribunal for Law of the Seas (ITLOS). This verdict has established Bangladesh's territorial, political and economic rights to the immense resources of the Bay of Bengal. As the proverb goes: "It is better late than never."
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Bangladesh and Myanmar had held prolonged negotiations over the dispute since 1974, but failed to reach a solution. Finally, the two countries, by mutual consent, invited ITLOS in 2009 to exercise its jurisdiction over the maritime boundary dispute. ITLOS delivered its judgment on March 14, demarcating the maritime boundary between two countries based on the equitable share in the coastline of the two countries.
It is a victory for both states because the problem was resolved amicably and according to international law. The verdict is indeed the result of our relentless and determined efforts to protect our national interests and national power to ensure our legitimate share of the resources in the Bay of Bengal.
However, if we look into some facts and figures of the litigation and the historic verdict we can see that the main focus of the dispute was on maritime boundary between two countries centered on Bangladesh's views to demarcate on equity basis North to South while Myanmar wanted equidistance system along East to West boundary. The maritime boundary Myanmar had claimed cut directly across the Bangladesh coastline, severely truncating Bangladesh's maritime jurisdiction to a narrow wedge of sea not extending beyond 130 miles. It also claimed that the tribunal lacked jurisdiction to award continental shelf rights beyond 200 miles (111,000 square kilometres) from either State's coast.
The court also identified the coral island St. Martin as the landmark to demarcate the territorial and economic rights surrounding the island up to 200 nautical miles toward continental shelf at an angle of 215 degrees. So, Bangladesh's full access to the high seas out to 200 nautical miles and beyond was recognised and our unquestioned rights to the fish in our waters and the natural resources beneath our seabed were ensured.
There are two ways of resolving international conflicts and disputes: one is negotiating settlement of disputes while the other is judicial or legal means of resolving bilateral and multilateral conflicts. Bangladesh, after failing to ensure its legitimate rights in the Bay of Bengal through negotiations, went for judicial settlement of the dispute confidently and with full preparation and proper ground work.
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The question is, since negotiation has not worked in different cases with India, why should we not take the same legal path to ensure our rights which we have been deprived of for a long time? Bangladesh and India have a common cultural, economic and political history. Especially, the role played by India during the independence war of Bangladesh in 1971 is unforgettable. Being a small and weak state (in terms of both military and economy) Bangladesh should have excellent negotiating capability to resolve disputed issues with the neighbouring countries and to ensure its legitimate rights. Now the window has opened to resolve the same dispute with India as the ITLOS president has also formed an arbitral tribunal regarding the maritime boundary dispute between Bangladesh and India.
The newly-appointed Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh, Pankaj Saran, said on March 17 that India wanted to resolve the maritime boundary dispute with Bangladesh bilaterally (Daily Star, March 18). So, what Bangladesh needs to do is be persistent and confident, and make sure that India does not procrastinate to protract the issue in the name of negotiation or of bilateral discussion.
At the end, I must emphasise that we should increase wide-range maritime patrol preparedness to detect violation of our boundary. The navy also needs land-based wide range surveillance radar to keep watch on the vast sea resource. It is also important to chase off invaders and fishing trawlers from Bangladesh territory. It is good news that Bangladesh Navy is going to procure a patrol aircraft from Germany and a team is currently there to negotiate a deal.
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This report was posted on April 1, 2012.
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