THE news that four Myanmar ships escorted by two warships entered Bangladesh territorial waters to explore gas and oil in the Bay of Bengal came as a great shock and surprise to us, considering the undermining of bilateral ties that such an exercise would invariably lead to.
Apparently, Myanmar is taking advantage of the unresolved issue (in their perception) of demarcating maritime boundary in the Bay. However, it is supposed to be settled according to international laws and, of course, without making any attempt to intrude into the territorial waters of a neighbouring country.
Bangladesh has responded to the development by challenging the presence of foreign ships in our territorial waters. The Myanmar authorities should realise the aggressive, outlandish and intrusive nature of their exploratory venture and withdraw all the ships immediately, showing due respect to international norms and regulations. The presence of the warships in our territorial waters could easily be interpreted as a sign of applying force to grab more space in the Bay already identified as having a vast deposit of oil and gas.
Obviously, the issue was not handled efficiently by the stakeholders in the past. Evidently, Bangladesh was relying more on the good relations with the neighbours than concrete moves to explore oil and gas, even when India and Myanmar had undertaken such exploratory activities. The foreign ministry committee formed in 2004 to recommend how our deep-sea territory could be demarcated became inoperative well before it could make any progress in its task! Now, Myanmar apparently not in agreement with our maritime demarcation line, are trying to impose their own version of the maritime boundary.
We do agree with our foreign ministry sources that Bangladesh is now exposed to international oil and gas politics. It may also be true that the situation could remain volatile till 2011 when the maritime boundary will finally be fixed. It is important that we make persistent and determined efforts to protect our interests. Bangladesh cannot afford to lose in the bargain for its legitimate share of the oil and gas rich Bay, which will only weaken our case for retaining the territorial waters that belong to us as per international laws.
The littoral countries in the region should act in the spirit of regional cooperation and understanding, and refrain from doing anything aggressive to impinge on the legitimate rights of others. Bilateralism of the beneficial kind should help reinforce regionalism in this context.