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IBRU: Centre for Borders Research

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Brunei and Malaysia move toward land and maritime boundary settlement

(17 March 2009)

Although details are still not clear, it appears that Brunei and Malaysia have agreed mechanisms to resolve their land and maritime boundary disputes. Letters of Exchange were signed by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei and Malaysia's Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi at their meeting on 16 March 2009. The document has not been made public but reports suggest that within the agreement Brunei has rescinded its claim to the Limbang district that is currently under Malaysian administration. Situated between Brunei's eastern Temburong district and its larger western area, claims to Limbang date back to colonial documents of the late-nineteenth century. This substantial move allowed the neighbouring states to establish mechanisms in Letters of Exchange for demarcating the land boundary. It also reportedly allows Malaysia to undertake a number of projects in the Limbang district (part of the Sarawak region) that had been put on hold and will facilitate easier border control measures with Brunei. In addition, the alleviation of Brunei's claim to Limbang no doubt paved the way for more progress on the disputed maritime claims.

Reports indicate that the Letters of Exchange also resolved the maritime boundary between Brunei and Malaysia. Their disputed maritime claims date back to 1979 and negotiations have progressed through 39 rounds of talks since that time. Negotiations were brought to a stand still in 2003 when both sides awarded four concession blocks in the disputed maritime area to different operators. The blocks were situated near to where discoveries had proved substantial deposits. While no details about the maritime boundary itself have been released, it is widely believed that the agreement establishes a 'commercial arrangement area' in the maritime area. Presumably this arrangement will be similar to a joint development zone and is likely an effort to facilitate off-shore oil and gas operations. Given Brunei's two seperated sections of coastline and geographic situation, especially within Brunei Bay, delimitation of the maritime boundary was always likely to be complex. The Letters of Exchange set up technical committees to deal with the land and maritime boundaries, so further details on both probably will be worked out within those groups.

Sources: 'Brunei drops claim over Limbang in Sarawak' author Leong Shen Li, The Star, 16 March 2009; 'Malaysia-Brunei Boundary Issues Formalised' author, Hafizah Kamaruddin, Bernama (Malaysian National News Agency), 16 March 2009. For background to the dispute, see also R. Haller-Trost 'The Brunei-Malaysia dispute over territorial and maritime claims in international law' Maritime Briefing 1:3, International Boundaries Research Unit.