An 11-member team of “high level experts and technical persons” from the Bangladeshi government has left Dhaka to meet with their Burmese counterparts to discuss the controversial shared maritime boundary.
The controversy erupted back in November 2008 when the Burmese government effectively sold ‘blocks’ of sea, claimed by Bangladesh, for gas exploration to a South Korean company. The South Korean exploration vessel was escorted by two Burmese navy vessels.
The then military government in Bangladesh reacted strongly to what they saw as a threat to their share of the estimated 14 trillion cubic feet of gas that lies beneath the Bay of Bengal, saying they would do whatever they could to “protect the nation’s assets”.
It warned the Burmese junta to immediately suspend all activities within the declared maritime zones of Bangladesh in accordance with the Territorial Waters and Maritime Zones Act 1974 of Bangladesh and sent a high-level delegation to Burma.
Then in October last year, the tension escalated with Bangladeshi and Burmese warships lining up against one another in the Bay of Bengal.
The Bangladeshi team now in Burma is headed by ‘additional foreign secretary’ Khorshed Alam, and will hold talks with Burmese government officials on 17 March, according to Bangladesh News 24.
This meeting follows technical talks that took place back in January. The government of current prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, has sought to use diplomacy with the Burmese but did report the junta to the UN in May 2009.
The controversy has instilled caution in Bangladeshi policy towards companies such as US-based ConocoPhillips, who had agreed to explore in Bangladeshi waters. The Bangladeshi oil and gas authority, PetroBangla, has forbidden exploration in blocks adjacent to Burmese or Indian waters until the dispute is resolved.
This visit also comes as Hasina prepares for a visit to China on 18 March. The Bangladeshi’s are thought to have in the past appealed to Beijing on the maritime dispute.
Bangladesh’s foreign minister, Dipu Moni, told Bangladeshi reporters that “we may also seek Chinese good office in resolving our dispute on maritime boundary with Myanmar [Burma] because of its good relations with our country”.
Also on the China agenda will be a proposed rail link between the port city of Chittagong and China’s southern capital of Yunnan province, Kunming. The rail link is planned to pass through Burma.
India meanwhile will be keeping a keen eye on the potential that China will help to upgrade the port facilities in Chittagong, which may be done in exchange for Chinese naval use of the facilities.