Bangladesh and Myanmar resolve longstanding maritime dispute

Author: Pranab Kumar Panday, Cornell University and Rajshahi University

The longstanding maritime dispute between Bangladesh and Myanmar came to an end after the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea gave its final verdict on 14 March 2012.

The procedure began back in October 2009, when Bangladesh eventually brought the issue before the international tribunal, having exhausted attempts to reach a bilateral agreement.

Bangladesh has now been awarded 111,000 square kilometres of exclusive economic zone waters in the Bay of Bengal, almost the same size of Bangladesh, which includes all resources currently available for exploitation and all resources that may be discovered in the future. The tribunal also awarded Bangladesh a 12-mile territorial sea around St. Martin’s Island, overruling Myanmar’s argument that it should be divided in half. The judgment is final and without appeal, with Bangladesh winning by 21 votes to 1. The biggest advantage for Bangladesh that is likely to stem from this judgment is that it will now be able to utilise the area that had been in dispute for the last 38 years.

But in the absence of any bilateral agreement between the two countries clearly delimiting their maritime boundaries, what factors pushed the governments toward a judicial solution? It was the strong likelihood of newly accessible gas and heightening demand in both countries that eventually motivated Bangladesh and Myanmar to pursue a solution in the international court; the demand for natural gas in Bangladesh is immense, and the country’s power crisis has also emerged as a burning political issue. For Myanmar, demand for gas in the export markets has motivated the government to export more gas in order to gain greater foreign reserves.

Bangladesh has also gained several other important economic benefits from this verdict. First, the government can now start drilling for oil and gas 200 nautical miles out to sea. The discovery of new oil and gas may help the country meet its domestic power demands, and the government could also generate capital by allocating blocks to international companies for further exploration.

Second, it is well known that the Bay of Bengal is full of resources. Bangladesh has failed to utilise these resources due to its territorial dispute with Myanmar over the last 38 years. But Bangladesh will now be able to access different types of fish and mineral resources, which should help strengthen its economy. The government is also expected to find various types of minerals, including cobalt, manganese, copper, nickel and sulfite.

Third, this verdict will help increase the number of skilled workers capable of extracting much-needed resources from the sea. This issue has already been discussed between Bangladesh’s foreign ministry and the education ministry, which have agreed to open oceanography departments at Dhaka and Chittagong Universities.

Fourth, these developments could also help Bangladesh win the maritime dispute with India, which concerns the western side of the Bay of Bengal. India is insisting on the principle of equidistance instead of equality in demarcating the maritime boundary. The verdict on this dispute is expected to be handed down by 2014.

One may wonder whether the March 2012 verdict will have any broader implications for the bilateral relationship between Bangladesh and Myanmar. It is hoped that the verdict will not negatively affect their bilateral relationship and that it can be seen as a victory for both countries, given the verdict has brought an end to a problem that has hampered the economic development of both countries for more than three decades. Myanmar’s government certainly deserves recognition for showing its willingness to resolve this matter definitively through legal means, and Bangladesh should now try to capitalise on the resources that have been made accessible to it; Bangladesh must not let this opportunity go to waste.

Pranab Kumar Panday is Visiting Fulbright Fellow at the Department of Development Sociology, Cornell University, and Associate Professor at the Department of Public Administration, Rajshahi University, Bangladesh.