By Syed Tashfin Chowdhury
DHAKA - Bangladesh has secured its claims to a full 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone in the Bay of Bengal, overcoming Myanmar's claims to part of the territory by winning a landmark verdict in its favor from the United Nations International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS).
In the first decision of its kind by any court or tribunal, the March 14, 151-page, verdict also came down in favor of Bangladesh regarding its claims to a substantial part of the outer continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles. The finding, which is final, ends a long-running maritime dispute with neighbor Myanmar and allows energy-starved Bangladesh to press forward with exploration for offshore hydrocarbon deposits.
"Through the verdict," delivered in Hamburg of Germany, "we now have an opportunity to explore more prospective zones than the ones which are nearer to Bangladesh's coastline," Hossain Mansur, chairman of state-owned energy company Petrobangla, told Asia Times Online.
The finding represents an important achievement for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who made resolving the dispute with Myanmar a priority after leaving prison in 2008 and before her election victory later that year. The tribunal's verdict is particularly encouraging to Dhaka as it seeks ways to meet Bangladesh's energy requirements without eroding its foreign exchange reserves.
A key part of the tribunal's finding gives Dhaka control over the entire 12-nautical-mile territorial sea around Saint Martin's Island, which lies around 10 kilometers from both Bangladesh and Myanmar, which had earlier wanted it to be cut into half. South Korea's Daewoo is extracting gas not far from the island off Myanmar's Arakan coast, which is separated from Bangladesh's Teknaf district by the Naf river as it flows to the sea.
Once Petrobangla has a formal instruction from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Bangladesh along with a certified copy of the ITLOS verdict, it will be able to determine which exploration blocks fall within Bangladesh's maritime territories, and then go forward with bidding for exploration licenses by energy companies, said Mansur. Both deep-water gas-blocks and several shallow-water areas are affected.
As to the potential of the area, Mansur said, "We would be able to comment properly on that after we interpret the findings of the 2D seismic survey that ConocoPhillips is carrying out in the bay right now. We should have the report by April."
ConocoPhillips, the lone international oil company (IOC) at present involved in deep-water hydrocarbon exploration for Bangladesh in the Bay of Bengal, was awarded exploration rights over two deep-water gas blocks, DS-08-10 and DS-08-11, following a bidding round in February 2008. The ITLOS verdict will allow the company to explore those areas fully, after being limited until now by the border dispute. Bangladesh had offered 28 offshore blocks, 20 of them in deep water, but received a poor response from other IOCs due to the dispute with Myanmar and another with neighboring India.
The Bay of Bengal has been perceived as a potential source for hydrocarbon ever since India discovered 100 trillion cubic feet of gas in 2005-06 and Myanmar discovered 7 trillion cubic feet of gas in the Bay. India has also discovered oil.
In a Foreign Ministry press release on March 14, Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Dipu Moni said the ITLOS ruling, by a 21 to 1 vote, concludes a dispute that has "long delayed" exploration for hydrocarbon in the Bay of Bengal for "energy-starved Bangladesh".
The release mentioned that the case was "initiated by Bangladesh against Myanmar in December 2009". The judgement read out by Jose Luis Jesus of Cape Verde, president of the tribunal, is "final and without appeal".
The release said, "Myanmar had claimed that its maritime boundary with Bangladesh cut directly across the Bangladesh coastline, severely truncating Bangladesh's maritime jurisdiction to a narrow wedge of sea not extending beyond 130 nautical miles. Myanmar also claimed that the tribunal lacked jurisdiction to award continental shelf rights beyond 200 nautical miles from either State's coast. The tribunal rejected both of these arguments."
In the release, Moni saluted Myanmar for it's willingness to resolve matters legally.
Even so, within Bangladesh there were some dissenting voices in the media, with popular newspaper Prothom Alo expressing concern on March 17 that the verdict may lead to Myanmar achieving some blocks that earlier belonged to Bangladesh.
Bangladesh and Myanmar had both claimed 150,000 square kilometers of the Bay of Bengal since 1974, when the first talks for delineating the maritime boundary were initiated between the two nations. This came to a halt in 1986 and began again in November 2007.
In October 2008, while visiting Dhaka, Myanmar Energy Minister Brigadier General Lun Thi had assured his Bangladeshi counterpart that Myanmar "would not conduct gas exploratory work in the disputed maritime boundary area until the issue was settled" between the two nations.
However, on November 1, 2008, four drilling ships from Myanmar, escorted by two naval ships from the country, started exploration for hydrocarbon reserves south west of St Martin's Island and within 50 nautical miles of Bangladesh.
According to media reports, when three naval ships of Bangladesh went to challenge these, the Myanmar Navy alleged that the Bangladesh Navy ships were trespassing. This aggravated the dispute as Myanmar vowed to continue with the exploration despite the dispute with Bangladesh.
The Bangladesh government told the Myanmar envoy in Dhaka that his country should suspend all activities within the declared maritime zones of Bangladesh according to the Territorial Waters and Maritime Zones Act 1974 of Bangladesh.
In a March 15-report by Mizzima of Myanmar titled "Burma, Bangladesh maritime dispute ends", it was recalled that on November 9, 2008, "Daewoo, [Norwegian drilling company] Transocean and the Burmese regime withdrew their vessels" after the "Korean and Chinese governments had intervened to de-escalate the situation".
China is set to be the destination of most of the gas Daewoo and its partners extract from off Myanmar's Arakan coast.
The ITLOS process began in December 2009 after the Bangladeshi government submitted a formal complaint against Myanmar regarding the "natural prolongation of the continental shelf and the baseline".
Bangladesh's remaining maritime boundary dispute with India is expected to be settled in the UN's Permanent Court of Arbitration based in The Hague, the Netherlands, in 2014. Bangladesh favors a principle based on "equity" while India, like Myanmar, favors an "equidistance" system to obtain bigger maritime areas.
Newly appointed Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh Pankaj Saran, while calling on Foreign Minister Moni in her office in Dhaka on March 17, said that India would favor a bilateral end to the sea dispute.