When the Similan Islands began getting “crowded” in the late 1980s, certain dive operators began looking at exploring new dive sites. Pouring over charts, we saw a vast area just north of our border which was called the Mergui Archipelago.
At that time, Burma was completely closed and under military rule making it almost impossible to visit the country, so that option was out. Around this time, GPS units became affordable so operators started looking at the offshore banks west of the Burmese archipelago.
We began diving the banks which are 90 miles from the Similan Islands and 70 miles from the Surin Islands, a long but manageable overnight trip. We would travel west out to sea and then turn north to get to the banks at day break, spending one or two days there and then return to Thailand. Little did the dive operators know that even though this area is in international waters (more than 12 nautical miles from land) Myanmar claimed it as her exclusive economic zone (more than 200 nautical miles from land).
Eventually the government contacted us and asked the reason we were visiting these banks, thinking that maybe we were fishing or worse, salvaging shipwrecks. We assured them were doing neither, but since the boats were benefiting economically, the Myanmar Government asked us to the capital to discuss formal permissions, and we began some heavily supervised exploration of the Mergui Archipelago.
Due to assumed security concerns, army and naval escort was required with a flotilla of boats. The poor soldiers became very seasick. After three years of negotiations during which time we were not allowed to dive at the Burma Banks, an agreement was struck for a proper entry system by boat into the country.
And to our surprise, we were also given permission to visit the many inshore islands, a real surprise if you remember how tightly closed Myanmar was at that time. We were overjoyed as this effectively multiplied our diving area by a factor of 500.
Now we may dive where we like, but we must make a formal check in at Kawthaung. There is no more sneaking across international borders to dive the Burma Banks. The agreement is a win-win situation for all parties as Burma began to have a marine and boating industry, and divers are allowed to visit an area that has been effectively closed since World War 2.
Composed and written by John B. Williams.