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Fears of an American base at Saint Martin’s Island kicks fresh row in Bangladesh politics

Bangladesh's St. Martin isand controversy has become an election issue in Bangladesh

In the mid-60s the radical students of the East Pakistan Chattra (Student) League and also a few leftist elements to arouse dissent against the regime of a military dictator General Ayub Khan of Pakistan said that he has leased Saint Martin’s island in the southeast tip of the country to the United States to build a military base to counter India.

After the independence of Bangladesh, the myth loaded with political jargon melted away. A similar story of St. Martin’s being given away to America popped up several times since its independence in 1971. A couple of times during the military juntas of a liberation war hero, General Ziaur Rahman (1977-1981) and founder of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), and General Hussain Muhammad Ershad (1982-1990), founder of Jatiya Party were in power. They were deliberately blamed for facilitating inroads for America to counter the regional influence of India.

Once again, Bangladesh’s only coral island, Saint Martin’s is in fresh controversy for being given away to the Americans, this time not to counter India, but China’s hegemony in the South Asia region.

This time, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina herself exploded a bomb, when she asked “How did BNP come to power in 2001?” at the press conference at her official residence Ganabhaban on 21 June.

“They came to power by pledging to sell gas [to India]. Now do they want to sell the country [to the United States] or come to power by pledging to sell Saint Martin’s island,” she told.

Well, she did not mention the name of any country, but it is understood by political analysts, that she pointed her fingers towards two countries. The export of natural gas through a pipeline to energy-starved West Bengal, India and the coral island to the American for a military base.

She was upbeat to politically admonish BNP that the ‘Kings party’ had negotiated with India, which helped the rightist party leader Khaleda Zia to return to power in the 2001 October elections.

She blames BNP negotiated with Washington DC to give away the ‘critically endangered’ coral island to America for a military establishment to watch over a huge swatch of the Bay of Bengal, which merge with the Indian Ocean in the far south.

Promptly, BNP secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam alleged that prime minister Sheikh Hasina, as of her political strategy, provided false information about BNP’s stance on St. Martin’s Island.

“The remark on St. Martin’s island is part of her political strategy. They want to gain an advantage through such statements. No country signs a deal with the opposition, it is signed with the government,” he remarked.

The United States State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller scoffed off the rumour centring on the island and the USA.

In a press briefing in Washington last week, he said that the ruling Awami League and its [political] allies have been alleging for the last few days that the US wants to take over Saint Martin’s island and the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) wants to come to power by “making a pledge to lease it out”.

The US had no intentions to acquire Saint Martin’s Island. “We have never engaged in any conversations about taking over Saint Martin’s Island,” he remarked.

The spokesperson, putting away his diplomatic niceties did not hesitate to comment that in the “last 15 years, she [Sheikh Hasina] is in power without reflection of the will of the people of Bangladesh, though.”

The issue was first raised in the Jatiya Sangsad (parliament) on 14 June by a left leader, Rashed Khan Menon, president of Bangladesh Workers’ Party and an alliance of governing Awami League said the countries that “have the US as a friend, do not need any enemies”.

He stressed that the US sought Saint Martin’s and Bangladesh’s participation in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), a strategic Indo-Pacific alliance, where Australia, India, Japan and the United States are primary members.

Six days later, another radical politician Hasanul Haq Inu, president of Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal (JSD), also an ally of Awami League in his speech in parliament said, “The time has come for us to think about the reason for this over-enthusiasm of the US. Is it democracy or Saint Martin’s Island?”

A British team of surveyors’ in 1900 included Saint Martin’s island as part of the British Raj in India and named it after a Christian priest Saint Martin.

The Department of Environment (DoE) in 1999 declared the 8 Sq. Km island an Ecologically Critical Area (ECA). As per section 19 of the ECA Management Rules 2016, notwithstanding anything contained in any other law, the class of land of any ECA cannot be changed without permission of the DoE. Thus, any construction of establishments on the island is illegal and dangerous for saving the coral reef at Cox’s Bazar-Teknaf peninsula.

Despite several official notices and high court orders, the island has more than 230 hotels, resorts, cottages and restaurants, either one-storey or multi-storied.

Green activists and researchers say the island is home to several globally endangered marine turtles and birds, including rare Pacific reef-egret, red crab, dolphin and vulnerable olive Ridley sea turtles, which are also on the verge of disappearance.

Professor Kawser Ahmed, dean of the Earth and Environmental Sciences Faculty of Dhaka University in his article published in Ocean Science Journal in 2020 predicts that coral species would completely disappear by 2045.

Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association’s (BELA) chief executive Syeda Rizwana Hasan doubts whether an ecologically threatened island would be suitable for any military purpose.

The longstanding political debate over the island could be understood from a news report on 18 December 1980. The defunct Dainik Bangla published a report under the heading “None will be allowed to establish a naval base at Saint Martin’s”.

A stern warning was issued in a statement by the Bangladesh Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The statement alleged that several political parties claimed that a country [United States] has been allowed to set up its naval base at Saint Martin’s island is completely baseless.

However, political historian and researcher Mohiuddin Ahmad quoted in a reputed Bangla-vernacular newspaper Prothom Alo that he first heard in February 1971 about leasing Bhola’s Monpura island out to the USA.

The rumour had spread, soon after Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman held a parley with the US Ambassador to Pakistan, Joseph Simpson Farland, on 28 February 1971 – a month before the genocidal campaign ‘Operation Searchlight’ launched by Pakistan military, which sparked the liberation war.

The pro-Chinese left Maoist parties and their affiliated youth organisations printed a propaganda leaflet that Monpura Island will be given away to America, in exchange for US support for the independence of Bangladesh.

The disinformation against Sheikh Mujib died when the United States tilted towards Pakistan’s military junta during the bloody war of Bangladesh’s independence in 1971.

The blame game by political opponents in Bangladesh is a dilemma alleging the ruling elites are going to lease out Monpura or Saint Martin’s Island to the US or going to provide benefit to India are age-old political bashing, said writer Ahmad.

Some political observers believe that the imposition of sanctions by the USA against the anti-crime special unit Rapid Action Battalion’s (RABs) seven current and former senior officers were accused of violating human rights including extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances – recent US visa restrictions for officials, the ruling party and opposition, whoever undermines democracy and cause hindrance to a free and fair parliament elections in January 2024, have raised eyebrows among political leaders and government officials.

They did not hesitate to slam the United States’ foreign policy and deemed the announcement as interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign country.

Meanwhile, Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dr AK Abdul Momen said this week “We welcome the continuous engagement with the US to wipe off misunderstanding between Dhaka and Washington if there was any.” He told reporters when he was asked to comment on the upcoming high-level official visit from the United States.

Dhaka would welcome if the US delegation led by US Under Secretary for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland and US Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu scheduled in early July came up with a “bright idea” as Bangladesh is committed to hold free, fair and violence-free elections, said Dr Momen.

Also Read: Why the world must learn to accept Bangladesh’s imperfect democracy

(Saleem Samad is an award-winning independent journalist based in Bangladesh. Views expressed are personal. Twitter: @saleemsamad)