Monday, August 29, 2011

Burma-Bangladesh border dispute set for UN hearing

Monday, 29 August 2011 16:37 Thomas Maung Shwe

Chiang Mai (Mizzima) - The United Nations’ International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) will begin hearings September 5 to resolve a heated maritime border dispute between Burma and Bangladesh.

Transocean International’s semi-submersible drilling rig,
the Actinia. Last year, the Actinia was contracted to
drill in Burmese waters. Photo: Mizzima
Burma’s long-running border dispute with Bangladesh has intensified in recent years as both countries sought to benefit from lucrative offshore oil and gas deposits.

The ITLOS hearings will take place in Hamburg, Germany where the organization is based. The process started in October 2009 when the Bangladeshi government submitted to the ITLOS a formal complaint against Burma regarding the "natural prolongation of the continental shelf and the baseline." Bangladesh has also submitted a similar complaint against India over the disputed maritime boundary both nations share.

Both parties are entitled to appoint a judge of their choice to be part of the panel of judges that will decide the case.  According to a press release issued by ITLOS, Bangladesh has chosen the Ghanaian jurist Thomas Mensah to be its judge ad hoc at the hearing while Burma has chosen an American law professor, Bernard H. Oxman.

According to the Dhaka-based Daily Star newspaper, Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Dipu Moni will lead her country’s delegation at the hearing.  It is unclear if Burma’s newly installed Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin will take part in the hearings.  Declared a “key interlocutor” by the European Union, Wunna Maung Lwin is exempted from the EU travel ban imposed on most of the leading figures in the Burmese regime and is therefore free to travel to Germany for the hearings.

2008 Burmese-Bangladesh naval standoff over gas drilling

On November 2, 2008, the Bangladeshi government announced that the previous day its naval vessel the BNS Nirvoy detected the Burmese navy escorting four drilling ships and a tug pulling the 100-metre-long drill rig Transocean Legend in waters claimed by Dhaka.   The rig, owned and operated by the Swiss American offshore drilling firm Transocean, was under contract to conduct exploratory drilling work for Korea’s Daewoo International.

Dhaka’s accusation that Burma had violated its sovereign maritime territory was the first sign of a serious diplomatic spat that followed with a costly and heated naval stand-off between two of the world’s poorest nations.

The next day November 3, Bangladeshi authorities in Dhaka summoned the Burmese ambassador to issue a strong protest and Bangladeshi’s military-backed interim government, furious at the Burmese regime’s actions, responded by sending four of its own naval ships to the disputed area.

The Bangladesh Navy had caught Transocean’s rig and its Burmese naval escorts in an area the Burmese regime had designated as the AD-7 offshore gas block. Transocean’s SEC filing revealed that Daewoo had hired the rig to conduct drilling exploration at a cost of US$ 424,000 a day. Daewoo and its partner firms Kogas, had bought rights to drill in AD-7 despite the fact that Bangladesh claimed it was their territory.

The joint State Peace and Development Council (SPDC)/Transocean incursion into the disputed waters came three weeks after Burmese Energy Minister Brigadier General Lun Thi had assured his Bangladeshi counterpart that Burma “would not conduct gas exploratory work in the disputed maritime boundary area until the issue was settled” between the two nations, the Bangladeshi daily newspaper New Age quoted him as saying, Lun Thi reportedly made the promise during an October 8, 2008, Dhaka meeting with Dr. M. Tamim, then serving as special assistant to the chief adviser for Bangladesh’s Ministry of Power, Energy and Mineral Resources.

Immediately after the Bangladeshi government went public with its complaints, forces from both sides mobilized along their shared land border. One Burmese naval official was quoted by Agence France-Presse on November 5 as saying: “We will try to solve this peacefully, but we are also ready to protect our country if needed … we will not tolerate being insulted, although we do want goodwill. We will continue with exploration.”

Burma’s regime officially responded to the Bangladeshi complaints in a defiant tone through the state-run newspaper, the New Light of Myanmar, declaring it would continue to operate in the disputed territory because Bangladeshi concerns were “mistaken and unlawful.” In an article published November 7, 2008, the newspaper declared that “Myanmar [Burma] rejected the mistakenly made demand of Bangladesh,” and therefore “in order to protect the interests of the country in line with international laws, Myanmar [Burma] will continue to do the work in Block No. AD-7 until its completion.” International law dictates that territorial disputes should be resolved first through peaceful means before drilling takes place.

Two days later, Daewoo, Transocean and the Burmese regime withdrew their vessels.  It was reported that 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 Burma’s Arakan coast.

On December 15, about a month after the standoff, Reuters reported that a senior Burmese energy ministry official had revealed that test results from the disputed AD-7 block were “not very encouraging.” The anonymous official added, “We still need to dig four or five more test wells before we confirm the deposit is not commercially viable.” A Daewoo International report issued in March 2010 reveals, however, that the firm increased its stake in the contested block after its three partners pulled out. The report did not mention any exploration activity taking place in the disputed block since the standoff in November 2008.

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