‘We need a stronger ally with us’

Muhammad Shahiduzzaman, professor of international relations at the University of Dhaka tells Saad Hammadi and Mohiuddin Alamgir how necessary it is for Bangladesh to find a strong ally to secure its maritime boundaries

Professor Muhammad Shahiduzzaman photographed by Prito Reza
Professor Muhammad Shahiduzzaman photographed by Prito Reza

A couple of days ago, Bangladesh redeployed paramilitary troops in the wake of tensions mounting along the Naikhangchhari frontiers with Myanmar. How much of this tension involves the maritime boundary crisis between Bangladesh and Myanmar?

I don’t think the recent tension at the frontiers has to do much with the maritime boundary. It’s more a localised problem and maybe related to the readjustment of troops. The maritime dispute with Myanmar is separate and much wider. The clash is, however, more related to the map.

In geographical reality, if the Bay of Bengal is considered a funnel, we are at the end of the funnel. That our boundary will go down the funnel from continental shelf and beyond for economic growth is unfortunately obstructed by lines drawn by India and Myanmar. Following their claims, we become sea locked. We did not realise India and Myanmar would draw the lines so unrealistically.

In November last year, the naval forces of Myanmar and Bangladesh were on the brink of a confrontation at the Bay of Bengal when Myanmar attempted to explore oil and gas in a disputed block of the sea. What do their activities indicate?

Myanmar knows that if it enters even the low areas of Bangladesh, the chances of finding gas in the territory are so high that it considers it worth taking the risk. It is an unfriendly act. That Bangladesh has used its naval capacity makes clear that the navy has a vital role to play in tackling the situation. From Myanmar’s attitude last year, a bilateral agreement hardly seems an option.

It has been learned from the foreign affairs ministry that Myanmar is reportedly claiming 14 blocks within Bangladeshi territory. Bangladesh also has some dispute over the blocks within Myanmar maritime territory. How should these be resolved?

The civilised approach is through negotiation. In this regard, Bangladesh has sought good office of China which means a basic level of involvement as a third party. As a third state, China can request Myanmar to come to an understanding with Bangladesh.

Myanmar and India claimed their maritime borders and have already filed their claims with the United Nations in May and June respectively while Bangladesh has till 2011 to submit its claim. Do you think Myanmar and India have leverage on their claim due to their early submission?

In an idealistic way, the three states maybe considered to receive fair treatment. But mind you, India has a very strong position at the United Nations. Myanmar on the other hand has good economic relations with India. India also knows that it cannot purchase gas from Bangladesh. It is quite possible that India and Myanmar have a common interest.

Bangladesh cannot afford enemies on both sides. The government is trying to convince India with as much benefits as possible. The present government is genuine about meeting the Indian government’s expectations.

India and Myanmar both use the ‘equidistance principle’ to claim its maritime borders while Bangladesh believes in principle of equity.

Equity is the ideal way to resolve the maritime borders for Bangladesh. If equidistance is followed, then the claims of Myanmar and India from the East and West will take the Bay of Bengal entirely. Through the equidistance principle, Myanmar and India can deny us. If equity is followed then there will be equity of territorial water. In the principle of equity, if Myanmar and India leaves 220 miles of maritime to Bangladesh, even then they both have continental shelves deep down the sea at the south of Bay of Bengal.

Here is where the Awami League’s diplomacy depends to a large extent on convincing India.

Bangladesh has been preparing its case for extraction of marine resources, especially for gas exploration in the Bay of Bengal but is unable to invite tenders for block-bidding as its maritime boundary is yet to be demarcated. How can the problem be resolved?

This is very important and sensitive. Diplomacy alone cannot guard such international crisis. Building defence allies is therefore required to secure the boundaries. It is not always accepted in our political culture but we need an ally who can support us to achieve our demands. The United States has its interest to protect Bangladesh from al-Qaeda’s grasp.

Many believe Myanmar is a difficult proposition to deal with from earlier experiences when the military junta governing the country did not grant permission to the United Nation’s chief Ban Ki Moon to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi. There is no parliament, no accountability. How obstructive do you consider the situation for having a better diplomatic relation with Myanmar?

Every time we wanted to discuss the maritime boundary issue with Myanmar, it has taken a rigid stance. We do not want to give Myanmar the opportunity to go for military confrontation. Myanmar generals do not care about international diplomatic relations. We need a stronger ally with us. The US is aware that al-Qaeda may strengthen itself in Bangladesh unless the country is stable. The US has a lot of Bangladeshi people within its political and social hemisphere because of the country’s peace loving nature.

Myanmar is diplomatically backed by China. Although the Awami League led government traditionally has a good relationship with India, in this case, India has its own stake. Does this put Bangladesh into a friendless situation?

I believe we enjoy a good image in the Western world. Nowhere in the Muslim world has there been an election as successful as Bangladesh’s. The western world admires our female leadership. The western world wants Bangladesh to be successful.

It is very overwhelming idea that the US and Bangladesh will have naval exercise together.

The nightmare for both China and Myanmar is the US’s foothold at the Bay of Bengal in alliance with Bangladesh. Even India does not want the US at the Bay of Bengal. Unless China serves our interest, we have to find a strong ally to support us.


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