The US, Sri Lanka, India, the Maldives and others can work together with Bangladesh to deal with regional maritime problems, writes Jubeda Chowdhury for South Asia Monitor
The Bay of Bengal, the northeastern part of the Indian Ocean, is of great political, economic and cultural importance to its coastal countries: Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, and Indonesia. With maritime trade, fishing and tourism being the region's significant economic activities, it faces a variety of maritime security issues, including illicit trade, piracy, armed robbery and illegal fishing.
Incidents of human trafficking after the influx of the Rohingya refugees to Bangladesh from Myanmar, piracy and attacking seamen on cargo and fishing trawlers are increasing. Crews, boatmen, fishermen and owners of cargo trawlers and engine boats do not feel safe in the Bay of Bengal. Fishermen of Chittagong and Cox’s Bazar suffer a lot.
The US has declared an Indo-Pacific strategy to combat traditional and non-traditional security threats in the Bay of Bengal. Combating piracy and human trafficking is one of the main goals of this strategy. The US, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India, the Maldives and others can work together to deal with the maritime problems.
Despite having many challenges, all regional actors should make progress on improving coastal welfare, developing a blue economy, building capable maritime enforcement entities and strengthening mechanisms for international and regional maritime cooperation.
Maritime security and countering terrorism and other crimes in the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal have emerged as a focus area for India as part of its Indo-Pacific strategy and the doctrine of Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR).
The main task of this alliance will be to maintain security in the sea and stop human trafficking and smuggling. The members of the alliance will also work to provide mutual humanitarian assistance. To this end, member States will conduct naval exercises.
Sri Lanka has also faced an increase in heroin use within the country besides becoming a transit country for trafficking destined for other places. Much of the heroin entering Sri Lanka arrives in fishing boats or by air, often through India or Pakistan. The number of seizures Sri Lankan authorities have conducted remains relatively small, meaning the data collected is not always reliable. Smugglers in Sri Lanka have come from many countries including Pakistan, India, Iran and the Maldives.
While India also suffers from petty theft and attempts at armed robbery on board ships at anchor near busy ports, the main threat arises out of the maritime dimension of terrorism, especially landing of terrorists as well as of arms and explosives. These are linked with drug trafficking. The shallow waters and creeks of the Gujarat coast, especially of the Kutch region, now under immediate surveillance of the maritime wing of the Border Security Force (BSF), as well as the sea coasts of Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu are the sensitive areas.
Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and India face piracy, illegal fishing and human trafficking in the Bay of Bengal. Although the Bangladesh Navy and the Coast Guard are very active, the perpetrators are clever. The Rohingya crisis worsened the situation.
Various gangs are involved in human trafficking. Bangladeshis are trafficked to Malaysia, Thailand and North Africa besides Greece and Italy through the marine route via the Mediterranean Sea.
Thus, the authorities in the US, India and Sri Lanka can and should work with Bangladesh law enforcement agencies in combating this maritime threat. This is why recent US sanctions on the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) are inappropriate. The US and India should understand that RAB is a security guarantor in the region, including in the Bay of Bengal. Sections in the US have said that Bangladesh has a special role to play in the security of the Bay of Bengal due to its location. Uninterrupted navigation in the Bay of Bengal is essential not only for Bangladesh but also for the countries of the region.
(The writer did her Master's in International Relations from the University of Dhaka, Bangladesh. The views expressed are personal. She can be reached at email@example.com)