UPDATE: "A tale of two oil blocks", The STAR 9th May 2010
I suppose this settles it but the question that remains is; what's up Mahathir? Please read:
A tale of two oil blocks
By LEONG SHEN-LI
The 2009 agreement between Malaysia and Brunei over territorial dispute has come under intense criticism for supposedly putting the former at a disadvantage. But is the picture being painted the correct one?
THE historic Exchange of Letters between Brunei and Malaysia, which ended two decades of territorial dispute between the two countries, was controversial from the day one.
Reporters who covered the March 16 event in Brunei last year and had filed their stories with their respective papers were stumped on their flight home – headlines like “Brunei denies Malaysia’s Limbang story” and “Limbang issue never discussed” were splashed across Bruneian newspapers available on the plane.
Just two days before, then Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi had signed the Exchange of Letters (essentially an agreement between countries) and had proudly told newsmen that Brunei had dropped its claim over Limbang in Sarawak as a result of the agreement.
But the Bruneian newspapers, quoting Brunei’s Foreign Affairs and Trade Minister II Pehin Lim Jock Seng, effectively denied Abdullah’s version of the agreement.
A little more than a year later, the agreement is still creating controversy.
This time, not only is the status of Limbang being questioned. The other major point of the agreement, that concerning the dispute over maritime territories, beneath which could lie billions of ringgit worth of oil and gas, is also being scrutinised.
The severe lack of information concerning the agreement has created opportunities to fan confusion and emotions among Malaysians. But thanks to the recent prodding by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the Government has been forced to let more details out into the public domain.
With the information now available, it may be possible to see if Malaysia has benefited from the deal, or otherwise.
Let’s deal with the Limbang issue first. Brunei’s Lim was right to say that nowhere in the 2009 agreement was the word “Limbang” mentioned.
Reacting to Brunei’s denial, Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim, who was then Foreign Minister, confirmed that Limbang was not mentioned in the agreement.
“But what was agreed to was for five historical border treaties between Brunei and Sarawak to be adhered to. This effectively makes the Limbang issue no more,” he said.
Two of the five treaties – one signed in 1920 and the other in 1933 – directly concerned Limbang. They established the border between Limbang and Brunei where it is today. As the border now places Limbang inside Malaysia, Brunei’s act of agreeing to follow the two agreements effectively means it agreed to let Limbang remain Malaysian. Once the demarcation of the border is completed, Limbang would be without question part of Sarawak.
So why the initial uproar by Brunei? One view is that it was not too happy with Malaysia quickly saying that it had got Limbang. It is extremely sensitive to the Bruneians as its loss in 1890 resulted in the Sultanate being split into two parts.
“Furthermore, they did not go around thumping their chests saying that they now got the oil that we wanted,” one commentator said. Nevertheless, he pointed out that Brunei’s Lim did not actually deny the statement that the Sultanate had dropped its claim over Limbang, indicating that there is no doubt that the claim had been dropped.
One of the points raised recently was whether Limbang was worth trading for the two oil-rich blocks. While the suggestion of such an exchange is wrong to begin with, the importance of Malaysia getting the isolated Limbang district should still not be downplayed.
A rather interesting but possibly exaggerated scenario was given by a historian. Brunei’s claim over Limbang, he pointed out, is based on the “unfair treaty” of 1890 between its Sultan and the White Rajahs of Sarawak.
“Brunei lost Limbang in an unfair treaty. But there is a school of thought that all treaties between the White Rajahs of Sarawak and Brunei, which resulted in Brunei losing the whole of Sarawak and the west coast of Sabah, were also unfair.
“After Limbang, could Kuching – or Kota Kinabalu for that matter – be claimed?” he queried.
Maritime territorial claims
Let’s move on to the maritime territorial claims and the two oil blocks.
Malaysia’s claim over the stretch of South China Sea where the two oil-rich exploitation blocks – named Blocks L and M by Malaysia (but were named as Blocks J and K by Brunei) – are located, and which Brunei claims to be its exclusive economic zone, has been described as akin to a person claiming ownership of the front yard of his neighbour’s house.
In 1979, Malaysia published a map showing its maritime territories. Whether rightly or wrongly, the map denied Brunei most of its territorial waters.
The UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (Unclos), of which both Brunei and Malaysia are signatories, gives all countries with coastlines the right to claim territorial waters up to a certain distance from the coastline. Malaysia’s 1979 map clearly did not conform to that provision as far as Brunei’s right to territorial waters was concerned.
It took four long days after the controversy blew up – after Abdullah and Petronas had issued statements – for Malaysia’s Foreign Ministry to state unequivocally that Malaysia’s dropping of its claim over the two oil blocks and the rest of Brunei’s territorial waters was based on sound international law.
There was no “signing away” of the two blocks because Malaysia could never have owned them in the first place. It would now seem unlikely that the two blocks could have been a major bargaining chip for Malaysia to get Limbang.
Malaysia awarded a concession over the two blocks to Petronas Carigali and Murphy Oil in 2003 as an assertion of its claim over the area, just as Brunei awarded concessions to six international companies to assert its claim over the same area.
But because of the dispute over sovereignty, none of the companies could start drilling for anything.
In March 2003, Murphy’s boat was chased away by a Bruneian gunboat and the following month, the Malaysian navy sent several gunboats into the area to block the arrival of a ship owned by Total, one of the companies awarded the concession by Brunei.
It was clear that not a drop of oil or a whiff of gas could be extracted from the area without the deadlock being resolved.
For more than half of the duration of the dispute, Dr Mahathir was Prime Minister. Going by what he has been saying recently, it is no surprise that there was no breakthrough in negotiations during that time.
However, as the realisation that no one would gain if the deadlock continued, pressure to move on started mounting.
A senior diplomat familiar with the negotiations said one of the things which broke the deadlock was when Malaysia indicated that it was willing to “discuss” its claim over the disputed waters.
Compromises were made by both sides and, because of the spirit of neighbourliness and close cultural ties, the matter was finally settled in late 2008. Malaysia recognised Brunei’s ownership of the disputed waters while the legality of the land border between Sarawak and Brunei – with Limbang remaining in Malaysia – would no longer be raised again by Brunei.
Despite Brunei becoming the owner of the oil and gas from the two blocks, the 2009 agreement allowed Malaysia to jointly exploit the resources of the area for 40 years. Petronas has confirmed that it has been invited by Brunei to take part in the development of the area.
Unlike two other existing “sharing agreements” – that between Malaysia and Thailand, and Malaysia and Vietnam – the one with Brunei is unique. In the two earlier cases, sovereignty of the overlapping area is still in dispute but with Brunei, this issue has been settled.
The cake is Brunei’s but Malaysia’s got a significant slice of it. More importantly, after waiting for 20 years, the two countries no longer need to wait further to start eating it.
Leong Shen-li, the senior news editor in The Star, is one of the reporters who covered the signing of the Exchange of Letters. He also has a big fascination for border disputes.
1890: Brunei gives up Limbang to Sarawak’s second White Rajah Charles Brooke, splitting the Sultanate into two parts.
1979: Malaysia publishes map of its territorial waters. Map denies Brunei of any territorial waters in the South China Sea beyond the depth of 100 fathoms (182m), leaving Brunei with just a narrow strip of territorial waters, and claims the entire area beyond 100 fathoms as belonging to it.
1984: Brunei gains independence from Britain. It claims a 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone which overlaps with the territorial waters claimed by Malaysia as shown in the 1979 map.
2003: Malaysia awards Petronas Carigali and Muphy Oil production contracts for the disputed Blocks L and M which lie within areas claimed by Brunei. Brunei also awards production contracts to Total, BHP Biliton and Hess for one block, and to Shell, ConocoPhilips and Mitsubishi for the other block.
March 2003: Brunei gunboats chase away Murphy Oil’s boat. One month later, Malaysian Navy gunboats prevent a Total boat from entering disputed area. All exploration work is suspended by both sides.
2009: Brunei and Malaysia sign Exchange of Letters to settle their land and maritime territorial disputes after more than 30 sessions of negotiations.
With the 2009 Exchange of Letters, Brunei and Malaysia agreed to establish their common border in two ways:
> By following five border treaties which were signed between 1920 and 1939.
> By filling the gaps not covered by the five treaties by following the “watershed” principle. This effectively means that there would not be any major deviation from the current border between Malaysia and Brunei. As Limbang is currently in Malaysian hands, there would be no change in its status once the demarcation process is completed.
1. The 1920 treaty establishes the eastern boundary of Limbang with Brunei along the entire length of the Pandaruan River.
2. The 1933 treaty establishes part of Limbang’s western boundary with Brunei along the watershed of the Brunei and Limbang Rivers “until a point west of Gadong Hill”.
3. The 2009 Exchange of Letters will fill in the gaps in the border according to the watershed principle.
Any decent chess player will tell you that in chess the end-game refers to the stage of the game when there are few pieces left on the board.
The line between middlegame and endgame is often not clear, and may occur gradually or with the quick exchange of a few pairs of pieces.
The endgame, however, tends to have different characteristics from the middlegame, and the players have correspondingly different strategic concerns. In particular, pawns become more important; endgames often revolve around attempting to promote a pawn by advancing it to the eighth rank.
The king, which has to be protected in the middlegame owing to the threat of checkmate, becomes a strong piece in the endgame. It can be brought to the center of the board and be a useful attacking piece.
BN seemed in a comfortable middle-game position in the political chess game of Sabah and Sarawak just a week ago and it was "safe" for Najib to be in Sibu bringing Christmas early, continuing from where he left off in Hulu Selangor. Then the Limbang debacle breaks. Suddenly BN may be staring at a sudden end-game; will the Limbang Limbo bring BN down in East Malaysia? Can the Sabahans and Sarawakians unite behind Blocks L & M? What can be more sensitive and close to the East Malaysians' soul than sovereignty? Has the last straw landed on the camel's back? Giving away State land without consulting the State governments?
Well, East Malaysian newspapers are not as easy to muzzle compared to their West Malaysian counterparts so it is interesting to watch attempted spin result in another tsunami in the opposite direction. Suddenly it may not seem so cushy sitting in the Federal Government chair.
The secondary question is; if Blocks L & M were given away to Brunei in exchange for ownership of Limbang yet Brunei has disputed dropping its claim, then WTF? Maybe the Sultan of Brunei paid cash for Blocks L & M? Under-table money ar? Though it was Bodohwi who did it, Najib was DPM then, so how?
Read this from Malaysiakini:
Sabahans livid over loss of oil blocks
May 4, 10
The chickens have come home to roost in the growing controversy over Malaysia's 'secret' handover of offshore oil blocks L and M to Brunei last March, during the tenure of premier Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
The opposition in Sabah has charged that the handover was done without complying with Article 2 of the federal constitution, and wants it to be scrapped immediately.
PKR vice-president Jeffrey Gapari Kitingan pointed out that, under Article 2, no alterations can be made to the borders of a state without the express approval of the state assembly concerned by appropriate legislation, and without the consent of the Conference of Rulers.
“There is no record that the Sabah state assembly passed any law giving its seal of approval to the handover. Any such law would also need the consent of the governor,” he said.
Moreover, the 1976 oil agreement between Sabah and Petronas does not give the latter the authority via the Malaysian government to cede Sabah territory to a foreign country.
“Land remains a state matter under the federal constitution notwithstanding the 1976 oil agreement,” said Jeffrey.
The handover became public knowledge after an oil company announced that Petronas had terminated its oil contract involving the two blocks.
Abdullah had not publicly disclosed the handover in March last year, but had only claimed then that Brunei had dropped its claim to Limbang in Sarawak. The Brunei government had immediately disputed this.
Jeffrey castigated the government for being a willing party to the handover at a time when it was not willing to consider even a modest increase in the “measly 5 percent oil royalty to (Sabah)”.
He said he sees no reason why the government could not have surrendered the oil blocks back to Sabah by an amendment to the oil agreement.
Instead, noted Jeffrey, Putrajaya was more willing to hand over the oil blocks - even illegally under “suspicions circumstances” - to Brunei, while Abdullah had engineered the handover just three weeks before he stepped down as prime minister.
“He should not have been a party to the handover since he was in the process of stepping down. He should have left it to his successor, Najib (Abdul Razak), to sort out the border disagreements with Brunei so that suspicions would not be aroused. Why the great hurry?”
While stressing that he did not want to cast aspersions on Abdullah's character, Jeffrey demanded that the former premier should disclose any interest he may have had in the handover.
“It is not enough that we be asked to give him the benefit of the doubt on the handover - this is not a question of trust but of procedure.”
Abdullah (left) has claimed that the oil blocks are now shared by Malaysia and Brunei under a territorial and commercial deal inked on March 16 last year, but Wisma Putra has since acknowledged that Brunei has sovereignty over the two areas.
Since Brunei and Malaysia had been bogged down in border disagreements for decades, Jeffrey said “there is no reason why they could not have waited a little while longer while everything was done properly and legally in accordance with the federal constitution”.
He urged a halt to oil exploration and production activities in blocks L and M, now re-designated CA1 and CA2, pending resolution of the final status.
An emergency meeting of PKR's Sabah-Sarawak Consultative Committee will be called to determine a response, he said, hinting that a royal commission of inquiry on the handover may be a first step, followed by a referendum.
“Petronas, other oil companies and Brunei can't hang on to any proceeds and revenue from oil blocks L and M. The Sabah government has an equal claim to any revenue. Even royalties alone work out to nearly RM20 billion by conservative estimates at today's prices.”
He said the government cannot claim that the Sabah and Sarawak governments had been briefed on the handover and consulted accordingly.
“Even if the respective chief ministers were indeed briefed and consulted, it's not up to them to do what they like on the handover. There is still the need to comply with the federal constitution on the matter.”
Asked how he sees the way forward, since the deed is done, Jeffrey reiterated that the handover must be abrogated, and both the Sabah and Sarawak governments should be brought into renewed negotiations with the Brunei government.
He favours Petronas handing back the two oil blocks to Sabah for the state to consider “joint sovereignty” with Brunei, adding that this can be done if the Sarawak government can be persuaded to consider “joint sovereignty” over Limbang Division with Brunei.
Jeffrey's remarks have struck a chord with other opposition leaders including Sabah Progressive Party president Yong Teck Lee and Common Interest Group Malaysia deputy chair Daniel John Jambun.
Daniel said he is not surprised by the handover of the two oil blocks by Malaysia, and pledged to pursue the issue until justice is done to Sabah.
“This not the first time that the government has run foul of the federal constitution. The issuance of MyKad to illegal immigrants, refugees and other foreigners in Sabah is also being done without the approval of the state government,” he claimed.
He sees parallels, up to a point, between the handover of the oil blocks and the conversion of Labuan to a federal territory in 1984. In the case of Labuan, he said everything was done legally except that the people were not consulted.
“Even then it led to the downfall of the Berjaya government under Harris Salleh,” he said, predicting a similar fate for the current Umno-led Sabah government.
Yong, in dramatic vein, said Abdullah has committed “high treason” by handing over the oil blocks to Brunei without Sabah's approval.
“The government should make public the handover agreement. It should also publish the map of Sabah showing its land and maritime boundaries,” he told a press conference yesterday.
He insisted that the government must make good the loss that Sabah has suffered by the handover, and that the losses should be properly quantified and recorded.
“If we don't take action on the handover, a dangerous precedent would have been established. What is there to prevent the federal government from selling chunks of Sabah in future to foreigners?” he asked rhetorically.