Friday, July 31, 2009

Dhaka Delegation in Naypyidaw for Border Talks

The Irrawaddy News

A delegation of Bangladeshi experts on border issues met with Burma’s foreign minister in Naypyidaw on Friday to discuss an territorial dispute between the two countries, according to Burma’s state-run media.

The Burmese-language Myanma Alin newspaper reported that talks with the Dhaka delegation focused on efforts to reach an agreement on disputed maritime boundaries. The delegation, led by retired commodore Khurshed Alam, an expert on maritime affairs, arrived in Naypyidaw on July 29.

The meeting comes as rival claims to offshore deposits of natural gas have raised tensions between the neighboring countries. Earlier this month, Bangladesh raised the stakes of the conflict when it granted nine offshore gas blocks in the Bay of Bengal to two foreign oil firms, ConocoPhillips and Tullow Oil.

Tin Soe, an editor with the Bangladesh-based Kaladan News Network, said that the Burmese military regime told Dhaka that three of the offshore gas blocks belong to Burma.

“The delegation has to go Burma because they are worried about a disagreement with the Burmese government over the offshore exploration contracts,” he said.

Dhaka has said that it wants to discuss multiple issues with Burma, including the border dispute and the repatriation of Rohingya refugees. It has recently sent four delegations to Burma, but has made little progress on either issue.

In October 2008, the junta’s No 2, Vice Snr-Gen Maung Aye, also visited Bangladesh to discuss maritime boundaries, trade and economic ties between the two nations.

After the trip, however, tensions between the two nations grew over the issue of maritime boundaries, prompting both countries to step up their military defenses in the Bay of Bengal.

In March of this year, Burma set up a 200-km fence along the border, claiming that it was to prevent human trafficking of Rohingya people.

There are nearly 30,000 Rohingya refugees from Burma’s Arakan State living in two makeshift camps in Cox’s Bazar District in Bangladesh, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Many more are believed to live outside the camps.

In early July, about 400 crude dwellings belonging to Rohingyas living near the Kutupalong camp in Cox’s Bazar were destroyed or relocated, and an estimated 1,000 people were forcibly evicted by Bangladeshi police and camp management, said the UNHCR.

The Rohingya are a stateless Muslim minority who face severe discrimination in Burma. Many have fled the country to escape human rights abuses, including forced labor by the Burmese army. They also face abuses in Bangladesh. Right groups say that many Rohingya have died while traveling by boat to Thailand or Malaysia in search of work.

In June, the Burmese regime agreed to allow the Bangladesh government to repatriate Rohingya refugees. However, Dhaka said it fears the Rohingya will return if there is no improvement in the human rights situation in Burma.

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