Rumors About St. Martin’s Island Amid Myanmar Conflict – OpEd


As Myanmar’s ongoing conflict turns up on the doorstep of Bangladesh’s St. Martin Island, vested interests are spreading rumour and propaganda that the island is going to be occupied by Myanmar. Nothing could be further from the truth. As a matter of fact, the rumour mongers are trying to take advantage of the escalation of the current situation prevailing in the island where the sound of fierce gunfire between the Myanmar military junta and the resistance group(s) is being heard every now and then. Two people were killed and many injured as mortar shells were fired on the Bangladeshi territory. 264 members of Myanmar’s border and security forces have managed to escape to Bangladesh. The people of bordering areas are in a state of panic. Such times are convenient for spreading rumour and spewing out lies by the propaganda machine. 

However, the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) has urged the public not to be hoodwinked into believing such rumours circulated on social media. ISPR argues that since the island is situated in close proximity to the Myanmar coast (only eight kilometers away), the quarters with vested interests are spreading rumours in order to give a confused account of the events surrounding the situation. It has also stated that the Myanmar military junta is conducting operations against the Arakan Army (AA) rebel group in Rakhine State situated on the western coast which has led to “unintended” firing incidents on Bangladeshi boats in the Naf River and adjacent areas.

Myanmar’s naval forces are targeting Arakan Army positions from their territorial waters and warships are operating in the vicinity of Saint Martin’s Island near the border. This has resulted in an untoward incident that took place on June 5, 2024. A Bangladeshi boat carrying election equipment and officials was fired upon from Myanmar’s territory as it returned from the island. Although none was shot, it is a thing to be widely condemned. The situation was worsened on June 8, 2024 when the crackle of gunfire stopped a cargo vessel traveling from Teknaf to Saint Martin’s. Again, on June 11, 2024 an armed group from the coast of Myanmar fired upon a speed boat in the Naf River bound for St. Martin’s Island. As a result, the local administration postponed travel on this route. About 10,000 inhabitants of the   island are having to suffer from a great scarcity of food and other daily necessities. Moreover, Myanmar naval warships are now visible from Saint Martin’s. This chain of events has detached the island from the mainland and aggravated the sufferings of the islanders. And sufferings of the local people coupled with the potential threat of invasion has led to mounting tension along the border and the country as well. 

However, the Bangladesh government has expressed deep concern over the incident of firing on the Bangladeshi boat and made a formal protest on June 12, 2024 against Myanmar military junta’s reckless warfare that impacts greatly on Bangladesh’s border security. In addition, Bangladesh Navy and Coast Guard are keeping a round-the-clock vigil at the place.  

The rumour or propaganda that the St. Martin’s Island may be under the occupation of Myanmar or the government may lease it out is completely unfounded. However, why such rumours are fueled and propaganda is spread is quite obvious. Let’s look back on some facts. It was on October 6, 2018, the then Government of Myanmar doctored the country’s 2015-2018 map showing St. Martin as part of their territory and posted it on their websites. Consequently, on October 6, 2018, the Myanmar Ambassador to Dhaka Mr. Lwin Oo was called for by the Government of Bangladesh and handed over a strongly worder letter of protest. The Myanmar envoy admitted to their mistakes in showing the St. Martin’s Island as part of their country’s territory. And after constructive dialogue between the two countries, the Myanmar government removed it. However, that administration has been ousted by the current military junta. However, Myanmar’s deliberate falsification of their country’s map adding to it another country’s part of territory and sharing it on Government approved websites during their dilly dallying with the Rohingya repatriation process smacks of an “ulterior motive”. 

However, such unrealistic plans will go up in smoke. Myanmar must have no claim on the Saint Martin’s Island on any account. As a matter of fact, Bangladesh’s only coral island, St. Martin’s Island had never been a part of Myanmar, not any time from time immemorial. So far as history is concerned, approximately 5,000 years ago, the place was a part of the mainland Teknaf. But it eventually sank beneath the ocean. Subsequently, the southern region of modern-day Saint Martin’s Island emerged about 450 years ago. The northern portion and the remainder of the island surfaced after a century. As many as 250 years ago in the 18th Century, Arab merchants explored the island. During their trade with Southeast Asia, they would take breaks on the island. They had named it ‘Jazira’ that was subsequently dubbed ‘Narikel Jinjira’ by local people which means ‘Coconut Island’. It is also known as ‘Daruchini Dwip’(Cinnamon Island). 

In the year 1900, a British land survey team included Saint Martin’s Island as part of British-India, and named it after a Christian priest Saint Martin. It may also have been named after the then Deputy Commissioner of Chittagong Mr. Martin. In 1937, when Myanmar was separated from India, it was still a part of British-India. After the partition of the British India in 1947, St. Martin’s Island was on the Pakistani side which finally became a part of independent Bangladesh after the Liberation War of 1971. In 1974, Bangladesh and Burma reached a settlement that St. Martin’s Island is part of the territory of Bangladesh. Once again, when Bangladesh won the maritime boundary dispute against Myanmar in the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) in March 2012, it was clearly stated that St. martin Island belongs to Bangladesh. Under no circumstances should Myanmar lay any claim to the island, and the publication of this map is a deliberate attempt to damage bilateral ties and regional peace. There has been no dispute over the ownership of St. Martin as such till date. The only debate regarding the delimitation of the maritime boundary that prevailed between Bangladesh and Myanmar for long was already settled in the ITLOS.

The St. Martin’s Island, by virtue of its strategic location, has become a focal point of global geopolitical interest. Its proximity to Matarbari Deepsea Port under construction will multiply its geopolitical importance. The US and China may have a sneaking interest in using this small island in the largest Bay in the world. The US, as part of its Indo Pacific Strategy (IPS), seeks to make its presence felt in the Bay of Bengal. It wants Bangladesh to be included in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD), commonly known as the Quad, which is a strategic security dialogue between Australia, India, Japan and the United States established in order to counter China, and help the US to achieve its IPS objectives in the Bay of Bengal region.  Likewise, China may want to extend to Saint Martin’s considering the significance of maritime routes through the Bay of Bengal for its booming trade and military strategy to counter IPS. 

The most important thing for Bangladesh is that the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has a firm grip on the situation and she won’t budge an inch on the issue of St. Martin’s. She has assured the nation that she would go to the stake for safeguarding her country against any foreign intervention. She has categorically stated that her government will never compromise with anybody on the country’s sovereignty and resources.  She has categorically stated that no national assets, including Saint Martin’s, would be leased out to nobody on earth.

The Government of Bangladesh should resolve the tension along the Myanmar border peacefully through dialogue, avoiding conflict, to suit to the principles of its foreign policy and Bangabandhu’s ideals.  And the people of Bangladesh should turn a deaf ear to such baseless rumours. Bangladesh is committed to extending the hand of friendship towards all and bearing no malice towards anybody, but remains poised to retaliate against any external attacks on its sovereignty.

Subsequent to the strong protest on the part of Bangladesh, Myanmar was bound to remove the information that showed St. Martin as part of its own territory. The Parliamentary Committee of Bangladesh dealing with foreign affairs has asked the ministry to take steps to monitor if such information was published on any other website. After their visible acts of bad faith in the entire Rohingya humanitarian crisis, the mere explanation of ‘unintentional mistake’ is not credible. The government of Bangladesh has to cautiously face and overcome all the diplomatic acts of Myanmar.

Dr. Rashid Askari

Dr. Rashid Askari is a distinguished academic, bilingual author and the former vice chancellor of Islamic University Bangladesh.

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