Border Disputes

Border Delineation and Geopolitical Wrangling between India and Bangladesh

Map of Indian and Bangladeshi enclavesProgress on the India-Bangladesh border barrier has been slower than expected, due in part to difficulties in determining precisely where the border runs. Such problems might seem surprising. In the standard model of geopolitics, international borders are clearly delineated, one-dimensional lines that absolutely separate sovereign states. In practice, however, borders are often contested and sometimes indistinct—and few are as fraught as the boundary separating India from Bangladesh. The conflict is serious enough to have produced a micro-war in 2001, which according to some reports took 100 lives.

The origins of the Indo-Bangladeshi border dispute predate British colonialism. As in Europe, traditional polities in South Asia often consisted of dispersed territories. Lands sometimes passed back and forth among different rulers and dynasties, generating intricate arrangements that might eventually be inherited by modern countries. Such was the case in a large swath of the India-Bangladesh boundary. According to an often-told story, two rulers, the Raja of Cooch Behar and the Nawab of Rangpur, divvied plots of land with abandon. As related in a Time magazine story:

the rulers … staked games of chess with plots of land. To settle their debts, they passed chits — pieces of paper representing the territory won or lost — back and forth. When Sir Cyril Radcliffe, the law lord who partitioned India, drew the 1947 border, Cooch Behar went to India and Rangpur to Bangladesh — including the people who lived on the two kings’ 162 “chit mahals,” or paper palaces.

Detail of map of Indian and Bangladeshi enclavesRegardless of the story’s accuracy (see Editstreet for an alternative view), the Indo-Bangladeshi border in the vicinity of Cooch Behar remains staggeringly complex. On the Indian side of the main demarcation line, one finds 92 pieces of Bangladesh, while on the Bangladeshi side one finds 106 Indian exclaves. (The map posted here predates Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan, but the same situation obtained afterward.) As can be seen, some plots are doubly enclaved: in other words, a few Bangladeshi territories are wholly surrounded by Indian territory, which in turn are wholly surrounded by Bangladeshi territory. Although not easily visible on the map, another level of complexity is encountered as well. As Evgeny Vinokurov recounts in his A Theory of Enclaves (2007, Lexington Books), Dahala-Khagrabari is a sliver of India (a jute field, more or less) engulfed by Bangladeshi land that is enclosed by Indian land that is encircled by Bangladeshi land, thus forming, in technical parlance, a counter-counter-enclave.

India and Bangladesh agreed to clean up their border with land swaps as early as 1974, since a politically fractured landscape creates humanitarian as well as geopolitical concerns. Initial talks came to nothing, however, and the resulting tensions provoked the 2001 border clash. That conflicted ended with promises of renewed negotiations, but subsequent progress was minimal. The Wikipedia describes conditions in the enclaves today as “abysmal,” while Sujit Roy depicts them as hellish places where “looting, arson, rape, [and] murder, is all in a day’s work.” Construction of the border barrier raised the stakes, resulting in a resumption of talks in 2010 and 2011. Resulting land exchanges may clarify the divide between the two countries, but they will not necessarily benefit the inhabitants of the aberrant territories. According to Sujit Roy, “As soon as news of settlement arrived…, land sharks became active and started evicting people forcibly, especially in the Indian enclaves in Bangladesh.” The result, Roy claims, is “a new chapter of woes” for the roughly 200,000 inhabitants of the enclaves.

Fencing off India from Bangladesh does not require the elimination of all enclaves, or even a precise delineation of the border. By international convention, barriers between countries are not supposed to follow the actual borders, but are rather to parallel them 150 meters inside the country responsible for the fencing. By honoring this provision, India has walled off some of its own territory. A number of Indian hamlets now find themselves on the Bangladeshi side of the fence, generating serious hardships for their residents. Farmlands are also being partitioned. According to the revenue and finance minister of the Indian state of Tripura, in his state alone “over 8,730 Indian families’ homes, paddy fields, lands, farms and other assets had fallen outside the fence,” encompassing “over 19,359 acres of land.”

Due both to such dislocations and to topographical constrains, India has been negotiating with Bangladesh for leeway. In early 2011, Bangladesh agreed to let India run the barricade along the official border in certain areas. But any such “zero-line” partitioning, Bangladesh insists, can only entail a single line of barbed-wire fencing. Indo-Bangladeshi negotiations also led to a recent announcement that the two countries would agree to “joint inspection of 20 out of the 46 unfenced patches along the border.”

Map of Hindus in BangladeshBangladesh’s cooperation with India is likely linked to its desire for concessions on related issues. Dhaka’s economic concerns were discussed in last Thursday’s post; also to note is its call for New Delhi to crack down on opponents of the Bangladeshi government active on Indian soil. Of particular concern is Bangabhumi Andolan, an organization dedicated to carving out a Hindu-dominated country from southeastern Bangladesh. Although Hindus are relatively numerous in this region (see map), they are still clearly outnumbered by Muslims. Bangabhumi Andolan hopes to create a Hindu majority through the immigration of those who left or were forced out of the region during and after the partition of 1947, although the removal of Muslims would probably be necessary as well. In 2003, movement organizers symbolically declared the independence of the Hindu Republic of Bangabhumi (alternatively called Bir Bango).

Map of proposed state of BangabhumiAlthough Bangabhumi Andolan does not seem to be very potent, Bangladesh is worried. According to Bangladeshi sources, “the movement has set up more than a dozen training centres with clandestine supply of money and arms … with the objective of arms struggle for creation of the Hindu land.” It has also staged public rallies on Indian territory, most recently in July 2010. Both Bangladeshi and Pakistani sources have accused India of supporting Bangabhumi Andolan in order to destabilize Bangladesh. According to Pakistan Defense, the Indian external intelligence agency RAW (Research and Analysis Wing) created the group in order to “disintegrate Bangladesh.” Several hard-core Hindu nationalist groups have rallied to the cause. A 2003 article on an extremist website asks, “how long can the Hindus live under House-Arrest in the Barbaric Bhoot-Bangla of Bangladesh?” The article itself is tellingly entitled, “Recognize The New Hindu State As You Cowards Recognize Islamic Bogusdesh.” (According to the website in which it appears, Bangladesh is a “bogus” country—hence “Bogusdesh”—originally “created by the British … [as East Pakistan] to cut off direct land, spiritual, trade and cultural communications between Hindu Bharat and Buddhist Myanmar.”)

If the Indian intelligence agency RAW has indeed created Bangabhumi Andolan to use against Bangladesh, it could be playing with a two-edged sword. Recent reports claim that the organization also wants to hive off a section of the Indian state of West Bengal for its proposed country, thus potentially diminishing India. It is entirely possible, however, that Bangladeshi partisans would regard such claims to Indian territory as a mere smokescreen, designed to superficially distance Bangabhumi Andolan from its handlers in Indian intelligence. In South Asian geopolitics, such allegations of subterfuge are hard to escape.

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When Is an Island Not An Island? Caribbean Maritime Disputes

caribbean maritime disputes map

caribbean maritime disputes mapaves island caribbeanMatters of basic geographical definition can be extremely important in international disputes and negotiations, especially when it comes to maritime claims. According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, any country can claim a 200-nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) around every island that it controls, usually splitting the differences with the EEZs of other countries that have territories, insular or otherwise, within those limits. But what exactly constitutes an island? How large does it have to be? The Convention on the Law of the Sea is rather vague on this score. It defines an island clearly enough as “a naturally formed area of land, surrounded by water, which is above water at high tide,” but it does not specify a minimum size. Two sections later, certain “naturally formed areas of land, surrounded by water, which remain above water at high tide,” are removed from the category: “rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone.”

The definitions difficulties here are profound. A mere clump of stone barely extending above the high-tide line obviously does not qualify as an island, but what about a larger rocky mass that could conceivably “sustain human habitation?” What about a non-rocky island too small, too arid, or too cold to sustain human habitation under normal conditions? What if those conditions were modified by human engineering? Such questions are not answered, leading to inherent ambiguity and numerous diplomatic disagreements.

Consider Aves Island, a speck of sand in the central Caribbean, 1,230 feet (375 meters) by 160 feet (50 meters), that supports a few scrubby bushes. That, at any rate, is the current extent of the island; storm surges occasionally submerge the entire islet, changing its size and rearranging its topography. Venezuela currently controls Aves, and claims that it is an island, potentially giving it a sizable extension of its EEZ in the central Caribbean Sea. Since 1978, Venezuela has maintained a permanently staffed scientific station on Aves built on large pilings and protected by a small naval contingent. As a result, the island might be said to sustain human habitation, but it certainly does not do so on the basis of its own resources.

The Venezuelan position has been challenged by several parties. The United Nations considers Aves a mere rock, denying Venezuela an EEZ in the vicinity. Until recently, Dominica also claimed Aves, with support from the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). In 2005, a group of eastern Caribbean countries denounced the Venezuelan claim to the waters around Aves. Venezuela’s vice president José Vicente Rangel responding by asserting that, “Venezuela has been exercising sovereignty since about 1800. I think that the empire’s long arm is involved in this mobilization around Aves Island.” (“The empire,” in Venezuelan diplomatic code, refers to the United States.)

Rangel’s historical assertion is questionable, as American guano collectors occupied the island periodically in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The United States, however, subsequently dropped all claims to the islet, and in 1978 acknowledged Venezuelan control over both Aves and its marine environs, as specified in the United States-Venezuela Maritime Boundary Treaty. The treaty sets the maritime division between the two countries halfway between Aves and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The Venezuelan position was further solidified in 2006 when Dominica dropped its claims. Dominica, not coincidently, soon afterward joined the ALBA alliance, and as such now receives Venezuelan subsidies. Venezuela’s position, however, is complicated by the fact that it has not signed the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. As such, its claims to an exclusive economic zone around Aves have not been formalized. (The United States has signed the convention, but has never ratified it; the U.S. does, however, honor “almost all the provisions of the treaty.”)

Aves Island – or non-rocky rock, as the case may be – is not the only site of a territorial dispute in the Caribbean. Navassa Island, between Haiti and Jamaica, is occupied by the United States but constitutionally claimed by Haiti. Covering two square miles (5.2 square kilometers), it is a veritable giant compared to Aves. Navassa is currently administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a National Wildlife Refuge. A more complex dispute involves a number of tiny islets and sand bars in the western Caribbean. An area known as Serranilla Bank is currently controlled by Colombia but claimed by Honduras, Nicaragua, and the United States. Sixty-three miles (110 kilometers) to the east, the sand specks known as Bajo Nuevo Bank are also controlled by Colombia, but are claimed by Jamaica, Nicaragua and the United States. Nicaragua also claims the vastly larger and well-inhabited – and historically English-speaking – Colombian archipelago of San Andrés and Providencia. In 2007, the International Court of Justice recognized “the full sovereignty of Colombia over the islands of San Andrés [and] Providencia…, but left open the question about the demarcation of the maritime boundary… .”

A number of additional maritime boundaries remain in contention across the Caribbean. On February 24, 2011, for example, the Minister of Tourism and International Transport of St. Kitts and Nevis, “informed the Cabinet that [the country] has overlapping or disputed maritime boundaries with the Netherlands Antilles (St. Eustatius), Venezuela, The French Antilles (St. Barthelemy), Antigua and Barbuda, and Montserrat (effectively, the United Kingdom).” When it comes to sea-space dotted with tiny islands, geopolitical boundaries can be extraordinarily difficult to establish.

St. Kitts and Nevis may have an especially hard time demarcating a firm maritime border with “the Netherlands Antilles,” seeing as a geopolitical entity of that name no longer exists, as tomorrow’s post will examine.

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Territorial Disputes and Cultural Accommodations in Vanuatu

Melanesia, as we have seen, is culturally varied. Global linguistic diversity probably reaches its extreme in the highlands of New Guinea, but Vanuatu contends for the title. Its 243,000 people speak 113 indigenous languages. According to the Wikipedia, its “density of languages, per capita, is the highest of any nation in the world, with an average of only 2,000 speakers per language.” But as all Vanuatu’s languages are Austronesian, its linguistic diversity at the family level does not match that of Solomon Islands, much less New Guinea.

Vanuatu’s unifying language is Bismala, a creole tongue often called “Pidgin English.” Although more than 95 percent of its vocabulary is of English derivation, Bismala’s grammatical structures are heavily Austronesian. But Bismala is only one of three official languages of the country, the others being English and French. Their use reflects Vanuatu’s unique colonial heritage as an Anglo-French “condominium.” After competing for control of the archipelago in the late 1800s, Britain and France decided in 1906 to rule it jointly. Unfortunately, rivalry between Anglophone and Francophone Vanuatuan elites has generated much tension.

Vanuatu’s current relations with France are strained, owing to the Matthew and Hunter Islands dispute. These small, uninhabited volcanic islets are conventionally mapped as part of New Caledonia, hence of France. France maintains an automated weather station in the area, and its navy patrols the local waters. Vanuatu, however, claims sovereignty. In June 2010, a high-level delegation from Vanuatu visited New Caledonia to take on the issue, apparently with little success. Vanuatu’s political opposition was not pleased, claiming that “the government is on the verge of backing down to France in the dispute over Matthew and Hunter islands.” One opposition leader appealed to physical geography to uphold Vanuatuan sovereignty: “Geographically, it [Matthew and Hunter] belongs to Vanuatu, that’s all our interest.” As the Google Earth image post above shows, the two islands are linked by submarine physical features to Vanuatu rather than New Caledonia.

Vanuatu is a poor and remote country with few economic resources. As part of its development policy, the government has been encouraging off-shore banking and tourism. The latter strategy has been relatively successful, building on Vanuatu’s remarkable natural and cultural environments. Tourist arrivals reached almost 200,000 in 2008, propelled in part by the 2004 television show,Survivor: Vanuatu — Islands of Fire.

Some Vanuatu tourism sites tout the island of Tanna, noted for its cultural preservation. A number of Tanna communities have partially opted out of the contemporary world, restricting modern inventions and eschewing public schools. In these so-called kastom (“custom”) villages, women wear grass skirts and men don the time-honored Melanesia penis sheaths. Another tourist attraction of Tanna is kava, the traditional psychoactive beverage of the region.

Despite its reputation for traditional customs, Tanna has intensively interacted with contemporary global culture, interpreting the outside world in its own terms. The most intriguing of its cultural accommodations may be the John Frum Cargo Cult, which essentially worships an American solider from the second world war, and the Prince Philip Movement, which venerates the husband of Queen Elizabeth the Second, the United Kingdom’s prince consort.

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China’s Troubled Korean Border Zone

The Korean language extends well beyond North Korea’s boundary into Manchuria in northeastern China. Roughly two million Koreans live in China, mostly in the border zone. Almost half of them reside in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, where Korean cultural institutions receive official support. Although the area was part of several historical Korean kingdoms, its current Korean population stems largely from northward migration in the late 1800s and early 1900s. During this period, Korea was falling under Japanese domination, while southeastern Manchuria beckoned as a lightly populated area of pioneer farming.

China has long had a number of concerns about its Korean-populated area. It worries that a united Korea might someday claim the region as part of its national patrimony, owing both to historical patterns of rule and to the ethnic background of its inhabitants. More immediately, it fears that a collapse of North Korea could generate a massive northward surge of desperate refugees across its border, where they would seek shelter in Korean-speaking communities. The border zone is already a place of tension and intrigue. Hungry North Koreans have been slipping into China for years, causing headaches for Chinese authorities and complicating already tense relations among Beijing, Pyongyang, and Seoul. Fewer people cross in the opposite direction, a far more perilous undertaking, but it does occur. In early June 2010, North Korean border guards shot and killed three Chinese citizens who were trying to cross the border, claiming that they were either seeking to conduct illegal trade or to spy for South Korea.

Concerned about the security of its Korean border zone, China has sought to incorporate its Korean-speaking minority into its larger national community while continuing to respect its basic cultural rights. This endeavor has proved relatively successful. Enrollment in Korean schools is rapidly declining, as education in Mandarin Chinese is increasingly desired, mostly for its economic advantages. Han Chinese and other non-Koreans have also moved into the Korean zone in large numbers, just as large numbers of Korean Chinese – almost half of a million in 2009 – have moved to South Korea. As a result, the Korean proportion of the Yanbian Autonomous Prefecture has dropped from almost two-thirds in the early 1950s to about a third at present.

By all indications, China’s Korean community seems reasonably satisfied with its political situation, showing few signs of wanting to separate from China. But general strains between Korea and China still focus on the border region, many of which concern historical representation (to be explored in tomorrow’s post). One particular flashpoint is Mount Baekdu, located on the China-North Korea border. Widely viewed as the place of origin of the Korean people, Baekdu is one of Korea’s three most important sacred mountains. Many South Koreans believe that the entire volcanic peak is rightfully Korean territory, arguing that its northern slope was illegitimately ceded to China by the northern regime during the Korean War. In 2007, South Korean athletes at the Asian Winter Games infuriated Chinese officials by holding up signs proclaiming Korean sovereignty over the entire peak. South Korean nationalists are angered by China’s development of a tourism industry on its side of the mountain, as well as by its use of the term Changbai Mountain, which some see as an attempt to pry away a key natural symbol of Korean identity.

Professor Guofan Shao of Purdue University has recently determined, through Google Earth analysis, that North Korea is massively logging its slopes of Mount Baekdu, despite its status as a Biosphere Reserve. Such activities are not surprising, as a largely deforested North Korea faces severe lumber shortages. But the situation is tragic: according to some experts, “Mount Paekdu [Baekdu] along with adjacent areas in China possesses the world’s highest plant diversity found in a cool, temperate zone.”

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Western Sahara, The United States Senate, and McDonald’s

On March 16, 2010, fifty-four U.S. senators sent a letter to Secretary of State Clinton urging the Obama administration to seek a resolution to the conflict in Western Sahara. They argued that the United States should accept Morocco’s annexation of the territory, provided that Morocco allows Western Sahara the autonomy that it promised in 2007. The letter, signed by 24 Republicans and 30 Democrats, represents one of the Senate’s few truly bipartisan maneuvers of recent years. In regard to regionally and ethnically based rebellions, both parties have generally favored negotiated autonomy and remained wary of independence. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Michael Ussery lauds the letter as “an extraordinary event involving an important national security concern,” arguing that the senators hope to “resolve the conflict through the United Nations, bringing together the parties to achieve a compromise political settlement.” Not all experts agree on such a course. Stephen Zunes, chair of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco, describes the letter as “another assault on fundamental principles of international law.” If the United Nations agrees to the plan, he warns, it would set a dangerous precedent, endorsing for the first time “the expansion of a country’s territory by military force.”

The Western Sahara, a sizable but sparsely populated desert territory, was a Spanish colony until 1975. When Spain withdrew from its colonial holdings after the death of Francisco Franco, Morocco and Mauritania invaded the phosphate-rich region. Mauritania subsequently withdrew, but Morocco stayed, formally annexing the area. The indigenous inhabitants, the Sahrawi, resisted Moroccan rule, and soon formed an insurgent force called the Polisario Front that proclaimed its own state, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. Algeria has long allowed the Polisario Front to operate out of the Tindouf refugee camp in its western desert, near the Western Saharan border. Morocco battled the Polisario Front for years, eventually building a line of heavy fortifications along a sand berm to keep insurgents out of the core parts of the territory (see map). In 1991 the two parties signed a ceasefire, and the conflict has essentially been frozen ever since. The result on the ground is yet another case of divided sovereignty: Morocco controls the bulk of the Western Sahara, while the rebels have the virtually unpopulated eastern strip, as well as power over the Tindouf refugee camp in Algeria.

The international political community has in general regarded the Moroccan occupation of the Western Sahara as illegal. Currently, 81 countries recognize the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic as the legitimate government of the Western Sahara. As a result, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic occupies a seat in the African Union, while Morocco has been denied membership – the only African country that does not belong to the continental club. The United States has long taken an intermediate position, neither fully accepting Morocco’s annexation nor recognizing the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic as the legitimate government. Fifty-four US senators now want to end this ambivalence.

While the U.S. government has remained neutral on the Western Sahara issue, the same cannot be said for the American cartographic community. World political maps produced in the United States almost always portray the Western Sahara as if it were an independent country rather than an occupied territory — much less as merely the southern part of Morocco. Such maps portray political geography not as it actually is, but as it would be if global legal norms were strictly followed. The standard political map of the world, in other words, is a normative document masquerading as a descriptive one.

Mapping Western Sahara as if it were an independent country can cause problems, including embarrassment and even lost profits. In 2008, McDonald’s included standard world maps in some of its happy meals distributed in Morocco. After the Moroccan government protested, McDonald’s Moroccan branch quickly recalled its meal packages, and issued the following statement: “The toys included a small map on which the borders were incorrectly drawn. We profoundly regret making this mistake and we apologize to our loyal customers and our fellow citizens.”

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Belize Vs. Guatemala

Belize Linguistic Map of Guatemala
Belize Linguistic Map of Guatemala

A major controversy engulfed the small Central American country of Belize in early January 2010 after its foreign minister, Wilifred Erlington, described the border between his country and Guatemala as “artificial.” Enraged Belizean nationalists denounced Erlington as a “sell-out,” while opposition leaders demanded his resignation.

As the border between Belize-Guatemala mostly follows a straight line, “artificial” might seem an appropriate word. Erlington defended himself along similar lines: “The first meaning of the word artificial in the dictionary is manmade but nobody seems to want to even read the dictionary these days.” Outraged nationalists were not mollified. Opposition leader Mark Espat replied that “Belizeans are frustrated and tired of disloyal double speak. We are tired of splitting hairs and litigating matters that should be straight forward. The issue is very simple: our border is real, the Foreign Minister should not be saying that our borders are artificial, he has shown a clear lack of political maturity in not accepting that he misspoke…” (

The controversy involves far more than semantics. Erlington’s opponents fear that his statement could play into Guatemala’s hands as the two countries remain embroiled in a territorial dispute. The Government of Guatemala has been reluctant even to accept Belize’s existence, arguing that area was rightfully Guatemalan territory before it was wrested away by Britain to form the colony of British Honduras. Although Guatemala recognized Belizean independence in 1991 (ten years after the British left), it has continued to put forth territorial claims. Maps of Guatemala (see above) occasionally depict Belize as if it were part of Guatemalan (see above).

Belize objects not only to its neighbor’s claims, but also to the fact that Guatemalans continue to illegally cross over into the much wealthier much less densely populated country of Belize. Due in part to such migration, the demography of multi-ethnic country of Belize is being transformed. According to the 2000 census, the Afro-Belizean (or Creole) community now accounts for only one quarter of the population, whereas mestizos form almost half. Another 10 percent are Mayan Indians, while over 6 percent are Garifuna (a people of mostly African descent who speak a Native American language).

The most interesting aspect of Belizean demography, however, concerns contemporary birthrates; the ethnic group with the highest fertility rate appears to be the Euro-Belizeans. The White population of Belize is not large; one Wikipedia article puts it at a full zero ( Contrary to this figure, Belize does have a small population of European extraction, including almost 10,000 Mennonite settlers. The Mennonite birthrate is reportedly 42.5 per thousand, as against 31 per thousand for the country as a whole. These religiously conservative farmers are classified as “Russian Mennonites,” even though their ancestors came originally from the Netherlands and they still speak a Low German dialect. The migration history of the Mennonites is a fascinating story in itself, put that is a topic for a later post.

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