Are security threats emerging over Saint Martin's?

After the onset of the coordinated operations of Myanmar's rebel groups, the spillover at the border poses as a security threat to Bangladesh. Is anything happening behind the scenes centering Saint Martin's Islam? Ali Riaz searches for answers

Bangladesh's news media regularly reports on the developments along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border and in the Arakan state. Last week a new dimension was added to the prevailing circumstances when a Myanmar warship was sighted very close to Bangladesh's Saint Martin's Island. Movement of vessels travelling by the river Naf en route Saint Martin's was halted due to incessant firing from Myanmar. Food shortage emerged in Saint Martin's and fishermen were too fearful to venture out with their boats. All this was very visible and Bangladesh's security concerns can in no way be dismissively brushed aside.

Bangladesh's government says that they are trying to resolve the issue diplomatically. The general secretary of the ruling party, Obaidul Quader, said, "Efforts will continue to be made to avoid war and resolve the issue by means of talks. But if any one of our people are injured, the attack will be given due reply. (Prothom Alo, 15 June 2024).

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Bangladesh army chief SM Shafiuddin Ahmed said, "Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) and the Coast Guard is monitoring the violence along the Myanmar border. Bangladesh army is on alert in this regard too. They will take due measures if the situation deteriorates" (Amader Shomoy, 15 June 2024).

Saint Martin's in focus

The incidents centering Saint Martin's Island are drawing more attention than ever before because of two reasons. One is the consecutive successes of the rebel Arakan Army. The other is certain statements made by Bangladesh's prime minister Sheikh Hasina and a few other politicians some time mid last year regarding Saint Martin's Island.

Over the past few months the Arakan Army has taken over vast areas of Arakan territory. If they continue in their successes, they will soon gain control of the state capital Sittwe. To continue forging ahead, they will need to ensure that the Myanmar army cannot advance along the river Naf. From the measures being taken by the Arakan army it is evident that they do not consider Rohingya to be their supporters. They do not want the Rohingya armed groups to cross the Naf, enter Arakan and take position against them. And so they are staging all sorts of attacks on vessels moving down the river Naf to let their presence be known.

Meanwhile, the Myanmar army probably wants to tackle both the presence of the Arakan Army on the river Naf and the possible incursion of Rohingya from Bangladesh. And that is why over the past few weeks Myanmar warships have been visible. It cannot be said that these warships have been positioned there simply to make their presence felt. After all, in the past Myanmar's special attention and interest in Saint Martin's has been marked.

Myanmar's stance on Saint Martin's

We can go back a bit in order to discern Myanmar's stance on Saint Martin's Island. In 2018 Myanmar claimed that this was their island. In October that year, the website of Myanmar's population affair's ministry and another government website of the Myanmar Information Management Unit, depicted Saint Martin's as a part of Myanmar in their map. Myanmar's population affair's ministry website even gave a figure of the total number of Saint Martin's residents, taking that as part of Myanmar's population.

The Bangladesh government summoned the Myanmar ambassador in Dhaka and issued a note of protest, after which these details were removed, though for long they kept the colour of Saint Martin's the same as the rest of Myanmar on the map (The Wire, 14 October 2018). This effort was made seven years after the maritime boundary dispute with Myanmar was resolved in 2011 by means of the ITLOS ruling. That means even after accepting the international tribunal's ruling on the maritime boundary, they still had their eyes on Saint Martin's.

There could be another explanation. Saint Martin's Island may be an excuse to instigate armed conflict with Bangladesh. Such a situation had arisen in November 2008. Myanmar at the time had sent the South Korean company, Daewoo, 50 nautical miles southwest of Saint Martin's Island to explore for oil and gas. The naval forces of both sides took up a confrontational stance. The matter was finally diffused through diplomatic talks. That incident was before the ITLOS ruling on the maritime boundary. But with there being no difference in the incidents before and order the maritime boundary was demarcated, it seems that Myanmar hasn't changed it viewpoint regarding Saint Martin's.

Can Myanmar create such a situation where conflict with Bangladesh will be inevitable? This question can be raised because in February this year, the director general of RAB, M Khurshid Hossain, had said Myanmar from a long time back had been wanting to engage in war with Bangladesh (Prothom Alo, 24 February 2024). He had said that Myanmar was going out of its way to instigate conflict.

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Certain security experts have commented that the civil war in Myanmar, particularly in Arakan, will not spill over into Bangladesh (Voice of America, 7 February 2024). But ever since the rebels groups started their comprehensive 'Operation 1027' from last October, this had spilled over in various ways into Bangladesh territory, creating a security threat for Bangladesh.

Is Saint Martin an excuse or an objective?

The second reason why attention should be paid to Saint Martin's Island is the statements made by Bangladesh's politicians in the domestic political scene. It began in June last year when Jashod leader Hasanun Huq Inu and Workers Party leader Rashed Khan Menon, allies of the government, said in parliament that the pressure from the US for free and fair election actually had nothing to do with the election, but was aimed at building a base on Saint Martin's. Menon said, "The US wants Saint Martin's" (Banik Barta, 15 June 2023). Inu said, "Why is America suddenly so interest? Do they want democracy? Or Saint Martin's?" (Kaler Kantha, 19 June 2023). Prime minister Sheikh Hasina at a press briefing said, "It's not difficult to remain in power by leasing Saint Martin's Island out" Prothom Alo, 21 June 2023).

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The prime minister did not mention the US directly, but it is clear that she was indicating so.

Prime minister Sheikh Hasina said that the opposition BNP wanted to sell or lease Saint Martin's out so that they can come to power. In response to this state, the spokesperson of the US embassy in Dhaka Bryan Schiller said the US respects Bangladesh's sovereignty and that includes Saint Martin's. A similar statement was made by the US state department spokesperson Matthew Miller in response to a question posed by journalist Mushfique Fazal Ansarey. He said that the US had never spoken about taking over Saint Martin's Island (Prothom Alo, 28 June 2023).

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Since the 1980's politicians have been talking about the US wanting to set up a base on Saint Martin's Island, but the US had also rejected such speculations. The US ambassador in Dhaka at the time, Mary Ann Peters at the time, on 2 July 2003 had said at a discussion held at the Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies (BIISS), the US has no plan, need or desire to establish a military base in Saint Martin's Islam, Chattogram or anywhere in Bangladesh.

Even so, certain politicians of Bangladesh now and then make such remarks and the India media does so too. Back in 2012, when the US secretary of state at the time Hillary Clinton visited Bangladesh, the Indian Times Group's TV channel 'Time Now' in May claimed in a report aired around the end of May that the US wants to set up a military base in the Bay of Bengal to contain China's growing influence in the region, and this is a matter of concern for India. It was also said that the US wants a naval base in Chattogram.

Without any form of evidence, it was claimed that during her Bangladesh trip, Hillary Clinton had discussed the matter with Bangladesh officials. This comment was made at a discussion. Present at the discussion, the US state department spokesperson Victoria Nuland rejected the claim. Even so, immediately after this Rashed Khan Menon raised the issue in Bangladesh's parliament. The foreign minister at the time, Dipu Moni, said that she had no such conversation with Hillary (, 1 June 2012).

The India media went as far as to say that the US was wanting this base for their Seventh Fleet. Based on that report, the Bangladesh foreign ministry issued a statement that this report was baseless. The US embassy also refuted the claim (The Daily Star, 2 June 2012). Interestingly, those claiming that a country wants to take lease or ownership of Saint Martin's Island, are not offering any tangible evidence.

The editorial of New Age on 23 June said that "Citizens need to know whether the United States has, in fact, sought to lay its hands on the island in the Bay of Bengal that constitutes the territory of Bangladesh orally or in writing. Who made the offer? To whom? When? Where? The government owes the citizens a statement, notifying and giving clarification on all such issues regarding Saint Martin's Island."

From the 1980's Bangladesh's military and security analysts have been saying that because of its size, shape, location and formation, Saint Martin's is not suitable for any sort of base to be set up there (Commodore Kazi Imdadul Huq, Controversy Surrounding the Alleged Lease of Saint martin's Island, The Security, 6 August 2023). The statement of the security analysts regarding the island is clear, "Saint Martin's Island is not that important in a strategic sense. It is a very small coral island. From a security angle too, the island  is not very safe" (M Sakhawat Hossain, Prothom Alo, 16 June 2024).

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Despite all of this when a section of Bangladesh's politicians, the India media and some Indian analysts raise questions about the US taking lease of Saint Martin's Island or building a base for the Seventh Fleet in Chattogram, it can't just be brushed off any cursory comments or anti-American statements. Questions can be asked as to whether such discussions concerning the tensions of Saint Martin's are indicative of some other sort of plot or move regarding the island's security. The objective may be to ease the path for some other outside power's direct or indirect presence in Bangladesh's maritime territory ostensibly for security reasons. It is imperative to ensure that the situation does not take such a turn,                              

* Ali Riaz is distinguished professor of the Department of Politics and Government at the Illinois State University in the US, nonresident senior fellow of the Atlantic Council, and president of the American Institute of Bangladesh Studies. 

* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir