South Asia

Myanmar's Claim to St. Martin's Island Irks Bangladesh

St. Martin is a small island comprising a nine square kilometre area in the North-Eastern part of Bay of Bengal and since Bangladesh’s independence in 1971, the island belongs to the South Asian nation.

Dhaka: Tensions at the diplomatic front between Bangladesh and Myanmar had escalated last Saturday after Myanmar ambassador U Lwin Oo was summoned by the Bangladesh government to explain why St. Martin’s, an island in the Bay of Bengal was shown as part of Myanmar in two of its government’s websites.

Diplomatic relationship between the two neighbouring countries has been in a delicate state since August last year after the Myanmar army-led crackdown forced nearly a million Rohingya refugees to flee to Bangladesh from its Rakhine state.

St. Martin’s is a small island comprising a nine square kilometre area in the North-Eastern part of Bay of Bengal and since Bangladesh’s independence in 1971, the island belongs to the South Asian nation. Myanmar, however, recently updated its map on the official website of the Department of Population and another website, where the maps show St Martin’s Island as part of its territory.

Protesting this unwarranted move by Myanmar, the Foreign Affairs Ministry of Bangladesh summoned Myanmar ambassador U Lwin Oo during the weekly holiday. Khurshed Alam, secretary for maritime affairs at the foreign ministry, handed over a protest note to Oo when the ambassador met him in his office.

The meeting between the two reportedly lasted for about an hour. Sources in the Foreign Ministry told Asia Times that the Myanmar ambassador acknowledged it as a ‘misrepresentation’ in its map.

The ambassador also told Alam that he would “discuss” the matter with his own government and would “convey” Bangladesh’s strong “protest and concern” in this regard.

Red pin indicates St. Martin’s Island. Credit: Google Maps

Following Bangladesh’s strong protest, a day later on Sunday, Myanmar removed population related information about St. Martin’s Island from its map but the map still shows the same colour.

In its website, Myanmar used same colour to point out Myanmar and St Martin’s, whereas the Bangladeshi territories were projected differently with another shade. If someone earlier pointed the cursors on Saint Martin and clicked, the detailed information would have showed up, but not now.

This is not for the first time that Myanmar has “misrepresented” information. Earlier, in August this year Myanmar circulated a picture in a new book on the Rohingya crisis authored by Myanmar’s army in which it claims to show insurgents training, but it is actually a photograph of freedom fighters during the Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971.

The Myanmar military later issued a rare apology acknowledging that two photographs it published in a book on the crisis over the Rohingya Muslim minority were “published incorrectly”.

Also read: How Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi Fell From Grace

Imtiaz Ahmed, Professor of International Relations of Dhaka University said such action from Myanmar government is “unexpected.”

“Myanmar has long been arguing with Bangladesh about Saint Martin but an international tribunal has resolved the issue and gave definitive observation about the island in favor of Bangladesh. Myanmar should apologise for its action,” he said.

Maritime dispute with Myanmar

St. Martin’s was a part of British-India when Myanmar got separated from it back in 1937. After the partition of British India in 1947, it became a part of Pakistan and later after the Independence of Bangladesh in 1971, became a part of Bangladesh.

Bangladesh’s long, concave coastline makes maritime boundary disputes with neighbouring countries including Myanmar almost inevitable. Under a standard application of maritime boundary law, the intersecting arcs of India’s and Myanmar’s 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zones (EEZs) would cut off Bangladesh’s access to the continental shelf and leave it with a disproportionately small EEZ relative to the length of its coastline. As a result, Myanmar and Bangladesh made competing claims to a section of ocean and seabed extending southwest.

The island of Saint Martin falls inside that section. It is located about nine km south of the Cox’s Bazar-Teknaf peninsular tip and forming the southernmost part of Bangladesh. It is also located about eight km west of the northwest coast of Myanmar at the mouth of the river Naaf.

The two countries, following prolonged negotiations, reached an understanding in 1974 regarding the delimitation of their respective territorial seas to a distance of 12 nautical miles from their coastlines. As per the terms of the 1974 Agreed Minutes, signed by delegations of the two countries, Saint Martin belonged to Bangladesh which permitted Myanmar’s vessels free and unimpeded navigation through Bangladesh’s waters around St. Martin’s Island to and from the Naaf River.

Tensions between Bangladesh and Myanmar however erupted when Myanmar navy attacked and killed unarmed Bangladeshi fishermen sailing in water around the Saint Martin area. On October 7, 1998, Myanmar Navy killed a few fishermen just off the Coast of St. Martin’s Island. A year later on September 8, 1999, the Myanmar navy again killed one fisherman. Nine crewmen from the victim’s boat abandoned it, swam for their lives and later were rescued by the Bangladeshi forces. On both occasions, the Bangladesh government lodged a formal protest note to Myanmar government.

International Tribunal gave verdict in favour of Bangladesh

Despite extensive negotiations for over three decades, the two neighbours had failed to agree on the delimitation of the boundary in the EEZ and the continental shelf. Having failed to resolve the issues bilaterally, the Bangladesh government on December 13, 2009, initiated arbitration pursuant to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to secure the full and satisfactory delimitation of Bangladesh’s maritime boundaries with Myanmar in the territorial sea, the exclusive economic zone and the continental shelf in accordance with international law.

On 14 March 2012, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) gave verdict in favour of Bangladesh, awarded the country 111,000 square kilometres of EEZ in the Bay of Bengal, almost the same size of Bangladesh. ITLOS also awarded Bangladesh a 12-mile territorial sea around Saint Martin’s Island, overruling Myanmar’s argument that it should be divided in half.

The tribunal also gave full effect to St. Martin’s Island in delimiting the territorial sea. It noted that while St. Martin’s Island lay in front of Myanmar’s mainland coast, it was located almost as close to Bangladesh’s mainland coast as to the coast of Myanmar and it is situated within the 12 nautical mile territorial sea limit from Bangladesh’s mainland coast.

The tribunal however did not allow Bangladesh to use the island as a base point when marking the equidistance line between the two states’s EEZs and continental shelves.

The current status of Saint Martin

From 1989 to 2004, non-residential Bangladeshis and foreigners were the only people permitted in St. Martin’s; however, this has changed and now residential Bangladeshis are allowed there. 

St. Martin’s is currently inhabited by over 7,000 people who mainly live on fishing and tourism. The island is a popular tourist destination.

The Bangladesh government as part of its Cox’s Bazaar development masterplan, decided to turn Saint Martin’s into an exclusive and expensive island resort to protect it from unplanned construction and to save its biodiversity.

Nazrul Islam Nazim, professor of geography and environment at Dhaka University – who was a consultant of the masterplan – said the plan which was taken back in 2015 is seemingly shelved now. “It is probably stuck in the red tape,” he said.

“Unplanned tourism has already put this coral island into grave danger as concrete construction of a number of hotels reduced the rate of coral growth alarmingly,” said Nazim.

Faisal Mahmud is a Dhaka-based journalist.