Bangladeshi PM in push for Burma gas

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is due to travel toBurmaearly next month amid speculation that her country’s desire for gas imports from its neighbour to the east will dominate talks.

Bangladeshi cabinet ministers were in Naypyidaw last week for preparatory discussions prior to the 5-7 December visit by Hasina, her first toBurmasince coming to office in 2008.

Relations between the two countries have at times been frosty, with their shared border a matter contention. An arbitration over disputed maritime boundaries in the Bay of Bengal is also currently being considered by the International Tribunal for the Laws of the Sea (ITLOS) in Berlin, with a decision due in the middle of next year. Both issues are likely to arise next week.

“Every subject of possible cooperation in all fields and removal of all disputes would be discussed between the two,” Hasina’s secretary, Abul Kalam Azad, told the Dhaka-based Financial Express, referring to her scheduled meeting with senior officials in Naypyidaw.

The maritime complaint first submitted by Dhaka in 2009, and which is only just being heard, centred on a submersible drilling rig owned by US-Swiss firm TransOcean Inc, which the Bangladeshi’s claim illegally entered their waters with a Burmese navy escort in 2008.

The incident led to a naval build-up by both countries, and according to leaked US diplomatic cables, prompted Bangladesh to ask for US help as the Burmese strengthened their military presence on the shared border.

Bangladeshi military sources claim Dhaka has consequently attempted to match Burmese mobile artillery capabilities with the purchase of the Serbian Nora B-52 155 mm self-propelled howitzer, which with an approximate range of 45 kilometres could reach Burmese forces that have amassed around 30 kilometres from the border.

Since Hasina’s Awami League victory in 2008, which brought to an end military rule in Bangladesh, she has been busy repairing bilateral relations with its neighbours, including Naypyidaw and New Delhi.

Dhaka’s chief concern is securing energy resources for the country, which according to the Financial Express is short by around 200 MW. This was the driving force for the maritime boundary dispute, but it also now sees Dhaka looking for fresh imports as questions over the reserves in Bangladesh’s scarce oil and gas blocks have surfaced. Talks have allegedly been underway since May over the potential for Bangladesh to buy Burmese gas at market rates.

Bangladesh may, as a result, build a power plant near to the border, which lies close to gas fields in Burma’s western Arakan state. This was mooted following a meeting between Bangladeshi commerce minister Faruk Kahn and U That Hta, Burma’s energy minister, on Friday last week in Naypyidaw.

In addition, Dhaka has pushed for an increase in border trade. The Bangladeshis however are insistent that the Burmese repatriate the estimated 300,000 Rohingya refugees who inhabit Cox’s Bazaar, whom have sought asylum in the overpopulated country as a result of religious and racial persecution in their native northern Arakan state.

The discrimination against Burma’s Muslim minority was affirmed by parliament in late August when the immigration minister said that “indigenous” Muslim voters would still need to obtain permits to travel because they had “shared common religion, culture, appearance and language” with Bangladeshi’s.

The Burmese military build-up on the border has included the ongoing construction of a 350 kilometre electrified border fence and other alleged military infrastructure near the town of Ann. However there have been tentative signs that a normalisation of border relations could move forward with a new rail link between the two countries, for which construction began in early April

 

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