BELMOPAN, Tues. Sept. 22, 2015–The Sarstoon River and the island in its midst (Sarstoon Island) have become a dangerous flashpoint in the territorial dispute between Belize and the Republic of Guatemala, which is now saying that the entire Sarstoon River, including the island, belongs to them.
As a result, the Guatemalan navy has been maintaining a constant presence in Belizean waters, and has been insisting on enforcing its claim. This was demonstrated forcefully on August 16, when the Belize Territorial Volunteers (BTV) led an expedition to Sarstoon Island and faced a blockade of Guatemalan navy boats.
The resulting Guatemalan aggression against the unarmed BTV catapulted the Sarstoon Island incident into the national spotlight and led the Government of Belize to issue, in the words of Prime Minister Dean O. Barrow, “a strongly worded protest note” to the Guatemalan government.
Guatemala responded with a diplomatic note of its own, saying that they do not recognize Belize’s borders and that they “escort” Belize Defence Force (BDF) patrols to and from their base at Cadenas “as a matter of courtesy for which Belize should be grateful.”
The Citizens Organized for Liberty through Action (COLA) and the BTV launched a campaign earlier this month, calling on the Barrow administration to immediately begin construction of a Forward Operating Base on Sarstoon Island, notwithstanding the sentiment expressed by BDF General David Jones that Sarstoon Island is unsuitable as the location of an FOB and Guatemala’s insistence that Belize delay the construction of its FOB until the territorial dispute has been taken to the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
Remarkably, PM Barrow refused to release the contents of his alleged “strongly-worded” note to Guatemala, and refused to release Guatemala’s note to Belize.
Whatever Belizeans know of Guatemala’s diplomatic note to PM Barrow is known through Opposition Senator Lisa Shoman, who is also a member of Bipartisan Commission on the unfounded Guatemalan claim. Shoman released the information to the Senate, invoking her privilege of immunity.
It is against that backdrop that Prime Minister Barrow announced, during his Independence Day address, that Government would build the FOB, not on Sarstoon Island, but on the north bank of the Sarstoon River.
Speaking on national security issues, PM Barrow also announced, “The Coast Guard will get two new, latest model vessels for maritime protection and illegal drug and fishing interdiction. And the BDF will be able to acquire multiple additional assets that, along with one helicopter already confiscated and the two more coming from Taiwan by Christmas will greatly increase its capacity as the frontline guardian of our territorial integrity.”
PM Barrow added, “Of course, the BDF will also build the forward operating base on the north bank of the Sarstoon River as it continues to assert and exercise Belizean sovereignty in that area.”
The truth of the continuation of the Prime Minister’s statement was not in evidence, however, when the Guatemalan navy blockaded Belizean citizens from traveling to Sarstoon Island, in Belizean territory, on August 16, 2015: “This is a sovereignty that government and all our security forces, as a matter of first principle and existential duty, will wholly maintain. In flashpoint situations, preservation of the sovereignty and security equation must be left to our trained professional and highly skilled military that has time and again demonstrated its ability to take care of business and perform at a level out of all proportion to its small size,” he said.
The Prime Minister, however, did not provide any details on exactly where the base is to be constructed, when the construction will commence, nor how much money has been allocated for the construction of the FOB. Neither did he elaborate on the position taken by Guatemala with respect to its claim of the whole Sarstoon River.
Despite the PM’s assurance that the BDF and his government “wholly maintain” Belizean sovereignty, there has been no effort on the part of the Belize Government to further internationalize the territorial dispute in light of Guatemala’s aggressive, stepped-up military activities in the Sarstoon area.
Also, it is still not known whether the government will step up to the challenge of enforcing Belize fisheries laws and customs regulations in the Sarstoon area, where, according to the BTV, scores of Guatemalan fisher folks are present on a daily basis on the Belize side of the river, fishing illegally and using gill nets.
The announcement that the BDF will build the FOB appears to have raised more questions than answers, even as the PM continues to discourage Belize Territorial Volunteers (“civilians”) from venturing into the Sarstoon River area.