When a government indulges in habitual cacophony of self praise on anything and everything it does, it runs the risk of failing to be lauded when something praise worthy happens. A case in point is the latest judgment by the Netherlands-based Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) on demarcating our maritime boundary vis a vis our by far the more significant neighbour of the two that we have. Once again the significance of this very important judgment is being lost to the public in the drumbeat of exaggerated, meaningless, highly rhetorical and sycophantic praise mainly directed at the PM just to gain her favour, not to serve, we are afraid, any national purpose.
The irony is that there is a lot to praise the government for, and yet not enough serious comments have been forthcoming other than some articles in a select number of newspapers. This has happened simply because people have no patience for the ruling party's propaganda and the expert observers are loath to say anything where the government's noise-machine takes centre stage.
And yet it would be a disservice to the country and to our people if we do not fully understand the importance of what has occurred earlier at the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) and now at the PCA and give the government its due for the maturity, dexterity and professionalism with which it has handled a vital issue at the international level, an issue that lies at the core of much of our future advancement in the natural resources sector, especially energy.
Sheikh Hasina's government must be duly commended for the farsighted decision it took, back in 2009, within a year of being elected to office, to take both Myanmar to the Germany-based ITLOS that settled the dispute in March 2012, and India to the PCA that gave its verdict this July.
The need for arbitration was very simple. A serious look at the map explains it all. Our coastline is a unique and complicated one. The Bay of Bengal juts into a landmass buttressed by India on the west and Myanmar on the east, with Bangladesh being at the northern tip. It is surrounded on three sides by three different countries and it does not need any special expertise or knowledge of either geography or geology to realise that conflicting claims on sea boundary will be natural in such a setting.
We may recall that we have had serious disputes with both these countries on a few occasions when gunboats came dangerously close to one another, with naval conflict appearing too close for comfort with Myanmar. With India also show of force did occur when she compelled an international oil company to withdraw. With increasing prospect of oil and gas being discovered in this part of the ocean it became exceedingly important that some sort of legally binding understanding be reached with both our neighbours for any peaceful exploitation of the ocean resources.
The critically important aspect of the two verdicts is that we have resolved our maritime disputes with India and Myanmar in a peaceful, equitable and legally binding manner. We must remember that there are only a handful of international laws that are binding, as states very seldom agree to surrender their sovereign rights on any matter. The fact that the ITLOS and PCA verdicts are binding on Myanmar and on India is a matter of great advantage to us. These verdicts are “binding” only because Myanmar and India voluntarily agreed to accept them regardless of what the judgment would be. Here in lies the victory of our diplomatic initiatives. It is to the credit of Bangladesh that it was able to convince both Myanmar, a country without much regard for international law and diplomatic niceties and India, a country with a clear preference for bilateral negotiations to solve disputes, especially with neighbours, to not only go for the arbitration process but also to accept the binding nature of the verdicts.
We should express our sincere gratitude to both Myanmar and India for agreeing to go for the arbitration, that they could have easily declined to do, in which case we could have done absolutely nothing about it. They could have chosen to leave the disputes hanging as they were over the last several decades. Hence the significance of our legal victory and the justification to felicitate and commend our government, our diplomatic apparatus --- at that time led by then foreign minister Dipu Moni --- and the legal team that we had hired for a brilliant piece of diplomatic and legal work.
Much of the significance and especially its legal relevance to Bangladesh's economic growth was lost to the public when, after the ITLOS verdict on the dispute with Myanmar infantile, bombastic and patently unbelievable claims were made about what we had “achieved”. Instead of publicising it for what it was – a historic judgment from a court of law that significantly upheld vital aspects of our national interest, and for which our government and legal team needed to be praised, we shamelessly turned it into a propaganda campaign, laughably terming it as “Sheikh Hasina's conquest of the ocean” (Sheikh Hasina's Samuddra Bijoy). It was as if Sheikh Hasina had led something like a naval expedition that engaged the Myanmar navy in an epic sea battle and wrenched from the occupying 'enemy' some vital parts of the ocean that belonged to us. The government's noise-machine went on overdrive and claimed “Bangabandhu gave us Green Bangladesh and his daughter has now given us Blue Bangladesh” comparing (and thereby insulting) what was a valiant fight for our freedom, leading to the martyrdom of hundreds of thousands, to what was a well fought legal battle in a German court.
The cheap nature of that propaganda at that time prevented the more sober, well thought out and learned praise for the government for what was a very significant legal victory for the country, likely to contribute greatly to a peaceful exploitation of our marine resources. Thankfully the propaganda that followed the PCA judgment relating to India has been considerably muted and hence made us look less childish.
The present attempt by the BNP to belittle the latest judgment on our dispute with India is pathetic to say the least. With 19,467 sq km out of 25,602 sq km coming our way, with all our oil blocks being protected and, finally, with all the 10 oil blocks claimed by India being given to us to still say that Bangladesh's interest was frittered away is nothing but a reflection of a damaged mind incapable of judging facts and pathologically driven to find an Indian advantage even when the advantage is ours on the basis of evidence.
The BNP leadership does not seem to understand that what they are discussing is a verdict from the Arbitration Court. It is NOT a negotiated agreement. It is the collective verdict of internationally reputed legal experts appointed as judges of the PCA who, after having heard the arguments of the legal teams of Bangladesh and India, came to certain conclusions. In those conclusions obviously some Indian points have been recognized. But overwhelmingly the verdict upholds our interest, and does so in such a manner that the Indians have accepted it.
Of all the things that Sheikh Hasina's government has done so far, the handling of the arbitration cases against Myanmar and India have been the most professional. It has been a job well done. Bravo.
The writer is Editor and Publisher, The Daily Star.