Bangladesh Posts Border Guard to St. Martin’s Island for 1st Time in 22 Years

By Muktadir Rashid   8 April 2019

The Bangladeshi government on Sunday redeployed over 100 Border Guards Bangladesh personnel armed with heavy weapons to St. Martin’s Island, the country’s southernmost point. It is the first time in 22 years the force has been based on the island off Cox’s Bazar, and reinforces an existing Bangladesh Coast Guard deployment there, officials said.

In a statement, Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB) said on Sunday afternoon the force had been deployed to the country’s southernmost border on St. Martin’s with heavy weapons “at the direction of the government”.

The statement, signed by BGB spokesperson Muhammad Mohsin Reza, said the BGB was last deployed to the island in 1997.

“Now, we are instructed to deploy our personnel to guard every inch of our territory. We started deploying over the last two days and today we instate one of our companies with weaponry… We have started our duties,” BGB headquarters official Colonel Motiur Rahman told The Irrawaddy on Sunday evening when asked about the sudden deployment.

Diplomatic sources in Dhaka told The Irrawaddy on Sunday evening that the deployment comes amid Myanmar’s recent building of a steel structure along the Naf River on the Myanmar side of the border without informing Bangladesh authorities. Bangladesh also fears a further escalation of the conflict inside Myanmar following a recent helicopter gunship attack in Rakhine State’s Buthidaung Township, which left at least six Rohingya villagers dead and 13 injured on April 3.

A serving diplomat who closely watches developments inside Myanmar said Bangladesh is also concerned about the existence of an estimated 17,000 IDPs across the border in Rakhine state.

On April 4, Bangladesh Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan, at another meeting with top BGB officials and civil administrators from border districts, said Bangladesh wanted to maintain an amicable relationship with Myanmar and had held several bilateral meetings, but expressed doubts about whether Myanmar really wanted to maintain similar relations with Bangladesh.

A video shared with The Irrawaddy showed BGB personnel in military gear marching on St. Martin’s after alighting a civilian ship.

The BGB officials said a ship used to transport personnel was escorted by the Coast Guard to the island.

Asked about the sudden deployment to the island, another senior BGB official recalled the prime minister’s recent directive to top brass about Bangladesh’s position toward Myanmar.

According to the Dhaka-based Daily Star, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on April 4 said her government would keep up its efforts to repatriate displaced Rohingya through negotiations and refrain from engaging in any conflict with Myanmar.

“Since they [Myanmar] are our close neighbors, we will never engage in any conflict with them [Myanmar]. Rather we’ll have to continue efforts so that they’ll take back their nationals through negotiations,” she said during a visit to the Defense Ministry in the capital Dhaka.

The deployment comes during a five-day border conference between BGB and the Myanmar Police Force that began in Naypyitaw on April 6.

BGB director-general Major General Md Shafeenul Islam is leading the 11-member Bangladeshi team, while the 17-member Myanmar team is headed by Police Brigadier General Myo Than, chief of the general staff of Myanmar police.

The BGB officials said at the meeting that discussions are slated to be held on the inflow of narcotics, particularly yaba; curbing terrorism on the border; a ceasefire on the frontier; curbing intrusions across the border; joint patrols and other issues.

A press conference on the meeting is scheduled to be held on Tuesday.

Asked whether the deployment to St. Martin’s had any connection to Myanmar’s repeated inclusion of St. Martin’s on an official map, Cox’s Bazar deputy commissioner and district magistrate Kamal Hossain said the deployment was meant to increase security, especially in the fight against drug smuggling and human trafficking.

On Feb. 14, the Bangladeshi Foreign Ministry summoned Myanmar’s acting ambassador to protest against the continued inclusion of St. Martin’s Island in Myanmar territory on a map posted to an official Myanmar website.

Following the summons, acting Myanmar Ambassador Aung Kyaw met Bangladeshi Foreign Ministry director-general for Southeast Asia M Delwar Hossain at the ministry. The director-general asked the envoy to take steps to correct the map by excluding St. Martin’s Island from Myanmar territory.

The Dhaka-based daily New Age then reported that the ambassador was told that the Myanmar authorities continued to show the island as a part of Myanmar despite a formal protest from Bangladesh on Oct. 6, 2018 demanding immediate corrective measures.

In reply, Myanmar informed Dhaka via a diplomatic note that the agency in question had removed all links making false claims to the island.

“However,” the Foreign Ministry said on March 14, “it has been noticed with great concern that the advanced interactive section of the website of the Department of Population Under the Ministry of Labor, Immigration and Population of Myanmar containing various geographic data on Myanmar still shows the similar data gradients such as population and land type of the island [belonging to] Bangladesh has been shown as the area of Myanmar.”

Given that the error persisted despite Myanmar’s assurances that it would be permanently addressed, the ministry said, it can only be construed as a deliberate act.

Bangladesh insists the island has never been part of Myanmar, citing documents dating back to 1937, when the British colonizers separated Myanmar from British India. Dhaka says there is an “ulterior motive” behind drawing and sharing the map of Myanmar including St. Martin’s on websites, according to a report published in the Dhaka-based daily New Age following the meeting.

The row over the forged maps has flared up again as the two countries engage in diplomatic efforts to start repatriation from Bangladesh of ethnic minority Rohingya refugees to their ancestral home in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, according to the New Age report.

An estimated 738,000 Rohingya refugees have fled violence in Rakhine since Aug. 25, 2017, according to the UN.

The Rohingya influx took the number of undocumented Myanmar nationals and registered refugees in Bangladesh to about 1,116,000, according to estimates by UN agencies and the Bangladeshi Foreign Ministry.