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          Volume 11 |Issue 12| March 23, 2012 |


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Current Affairs

Defending our Bay

Shakhawat Liton

Under the leadership of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh began the fight in 1974 to establish its territorial rights in the Bay of Bengal. His government enacted the Territorial Waters and Maritime Zones Act in 1974. Under his leadership, the government also initiated talks with Myanmar and India to fix the maritime boundary issues.

As a result, Bangladesh and Myanmar signed an agreement in 1974, in which Myanmar accepted Bangladesh's claim for 200 nautical miles of the exclusive economic zone. However, Myanmar later changed its stance.


After the assassination of Bangabandhu on August 15 ,1975, successive governments did not follow up with the decisions agreed upon by Bangladesh, India and Myanmar. Despite repeated calls over decades by the UN to submit Bangladesh's claim for the continental shelf in the Bay, there were no initiatives taken.

When Sheikh Hasina assumed office in 1996, she ratified the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 2001, a step that was long overdue. The approval however, remained static as the government's tenure expired in the same year.

The BNP-led alliance, which assumed office in October 2001, demonstrated sheer indifference to the crucial issue. Records state that even the parliamentary standing committee on defence ministry, faced difficulties in holding discussions regarding the topic.

In 2005, the parliamentary body, at a meeting, discussed the government's preparation to establish Bangladesh's rights over the maritime by resolving disputes with India and Myanmar. Members of the parliamentary body, chiefs of three services and senior officials of the foreign ministry were present at that meeting and spoke about it.

It was the responsibility of the foreign ministry to fight for upholding the country's rights over the sea. A project, regarding maritime issues was also initiated. The committee was surprised to see the lack of progress regarding Bangladesh's rights over the sea under the UNCLOS. It was learnt that at that time the parliamentary body faced opposition from the foreign ministry to hold the discussions on it and the committee chief was asked by top officials of the foreign ministry to not proceed with the issue.

However, the committee, from the meeting, had unanimously recommended for the immediate implementation of UNCLOS and also suggested to take the case with the UN if necessary. It demanded a full claim of the sea sovereignty, including the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and limits of the continental shelf

Former chief of army staff Lt. Gen. (retd) Mahbubur Rahman, who headed the parliamentary standing committee on defence ministry, recalls the events that took place in the meeting. Talking to the Star, he says, 'The committee also recommended the strengthening and the modernisation of Bangladesh's navy, turning it to a three-dimensional one with required surface combat ships, under water submarines and its own integral air wing to dominate our waters of the Bay of Bengal and guarantee the country's sovereignty."The committee's recommendations however, failed to draw the BNP-led government's attention

After the Awami League came to power in January, 2009, Bangladesh lodged cases against India and Myanmar in two separate UN courts on October 8, 2009. Bangladesh was forced to file the cases after the two neighbours unfairly cut off a significant portion of Bangladesh's maritime area in the Bay.

The foreign ministry then took all-out efforts to prepare Bangladesh for the legal battle against India and Myanmar. And finally, the day came on March 14 when Bangladesh won a landmark verdict at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, which sustained its claim to 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic and territorial rights in the Bay of Bengal; rejecting the claims of Myanmar.

The verdict of the court went absolutely in Bangladesh's favour and even beyond, as it gave more than what Bangladesh had asked for. The judgment is final and cannot be appealed against. It gave Bangladesh a substantial share of the outer continental shelf beyond 200 miles, which would open ways for offshore oil and gas exploration in the Bay. The tribunal also awarded Bangladesh a 12-mile territorial sea around St Martin's Island, overruling Myanmar's argument that the island be cut in half and shared.

Battle Ahead
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on March 15 rightly told the parliament that the triumph over Myanmar, in the maritime boundary dispute case at Hamburg, is a victory of the whole nation. It is a success of the AL-led government and her party will use it to win the public's mandate in the next parliamentary polls. The PM was quite clear in her approach, saying “the unresolved issue with India over maritime boundaries is expected to be settled in 2014. If people vote for us and give us scope to serve them, we will be able to bring good news for them as we did today.”

The dispute with India over maritime boundaries is scheduled to be settled in late 2014 at the UN's Permanent Court of Arbitration, in The Hague, the Netherlands; while parliamentary elections are scheduled for early January 2014 in Bangladesh.

After Bangladesh's landmark win over Myanmar, India came up with a clever proposal to resolve the disputes with them through bilateral negotiations. Indian High Commissioner in Dhaka, Pankaj Saran, on March 17 met Foreign Minister Dipu Moni and made the proposal.

It is clear that Bangladesh's win over Myanmar sent a strong message to the Indian government. Foreign Minister Dipu Moni on March 19 ruled out any possibility of withdrawing Bangladesh's maritime boundary case against India. She, however, said bilateral negotiations could take place alongside the arbitration on the basis of the principles set by the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS).

Even before holding bilateral talks alongside the arbitration, policymakers of the Bangladesh government should always keep in mind that the Indian government has failed in diplomatic negotiations with Bangladesh on some crucial issues, such as the border killings by BSF, Teesta water sharing treaty, construction of the proposed- Tipaimukh dam.

The March 14 win against Myanmar opened an extensive economic prospect before Bangladesh. The Bay of Bengal is full of natural resources. The rights over the territorial water have widened the opportunity for exploration of oil, gas, and also fish in the Bay. The Bangladesh government should take extensive preparations to explore and utilise the resources in planned way for the welfare of country's people.

The State of Bangladeshi Navy
What's the state of Bangladesh navy today? Are they capable to perform the huge responsibilities with the existing logistics? “The navy in their present conidtion bear such huge responsibilities,” says former army chief Gen Mahbubur Rahman.

Bangladesh Navy also stated that it is facing difficulties in exercising maritime control within the exclusive economic zone and the continental shelf, due to lack of modern equipments, manpower and funds. In a report, placed before the parliamentary standing committee on defence ministry in June 2009, the Navy unveiled an ambitious ten-year plan to upgrade it into a three-dimensional force by introducing new frigates, a submarine, maritime patrol aircraft, helicopters and other equipments with an estimated cost of Tk 6,000 crore.

"Bangladesh Navy will be capable of a three-dimensional force if an aviation wing and a submarine are added to its fleet," stated the Navy in the report. It also adds, "It was not possible in the past to introduce aircrafts and submarines in the fleet due to various adversities despite having the plan and desire."

In fact, Bangladesh Navy could not be strengthened much to meet the demands of changing time and situation due to lack of proper care and attention of the previous governments over the years.

The Navy received two gunboats from India in 1973 and 1974. Two frigates were inducted into the naval fleet in 1976 and 1978 and some ships, both old and new, were procured from different countries in the 80's. According to a report placed before the parliamentary body in June 2009, The Bangladeshi Navy includes 80 ships, both small and large, in the naval fleet.

It was the previous AL-led government that took steps to strengthen the Navy by inducting the Bangabandhu frigate in 2001 to the naval fleet. The navy that began its journey at a rented house during the Bangabandhu-led government, deserves top-most priority in the current situation after the country won the sea.

Mahbub's successor in the chair of the parliamentary standing committee of defence ministry, M Idris Ali, also feels the need for strengthening the navy. The parliamentary body under his leadership now wants to stand by the navy to make it stronger. Idris Ali on March 18 tells the Star that the parliamentary body will pursue the government to increase naval capabilities to protect and secure the country's interests in the sea.

Three years ago, in June 22 of 2009-at a meeting of the parliamentary standing committee on defence ministry, the Bangladesh navy gave a presentation on its strength, future plans, and sought directives of the House to boost up the navy. It's time for all the MPs, government policymakers, to rise up to the occasion. A dynamic and farsighted political leadership is a must to have a strong naval force for country's own interests.

The writer is Senior Reporter, The Daily Star.


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