Government officials have denied a Thai newspaper report claiming that a Cambodian navy patrol entered a disputed maritime area near Koh Kut island in Thailand’s Trat province.
In an article that appeared in the English-language Bangkok Post newspaper yesterday, an unnamed source claimed that Thailand’s defense ministry plans to issue a “strongly worded protest” over two Cambodian warships supposedly seen patrolling last week inside the disputed 27,000-square-km “overlapping claims area” in the Gulf of Thailand. Both countries lay claim to the area, which geologists say contains large amounts of oil and gas.
The claim of a border incursion follows an Aug 15 article in the Bangkok Post, which also cited an anonymous source, claiming that the Thai navy had set up a new base on Koh Kut island to bolster its presence following news that Cambodia would give exploration rights to French petrochemical giant Total for a portion of the overlapping claims area that is claimed by Phnom Penh.
Ouk Seyha, commander of the Ream Naval Base in Preah Sihanouk province, said by telephone yesterday that the Cambodian navy has not at any point sent ships into the disputed area.
“No such action has happened,” the commander said. “We know our own sovereignty and respect our neighbors sovereignty.”
Koy Kuong, spokesman at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, also denied that Cambodian military vessels had entered the disputed waters.
“If we patrol, we only do it on our own territory. Cambodia is a small country but it always follows international law,” he said, adding that reports released by the Bangkok Post recently were not true and were merely published “in order to have a story.”
Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, also said yesterday that any claims in the Thai media that Cambodian warships had entered the disputed zone were “assumptions.”
“I don’t think that any Cambodian navy or soldier are doing an invasion,” he said. The modest Cambodian naval presence in the Gulf of Thailand was designed to provide “civil security” and survey the activities of smugglers, he said.
“We aren’t designed to fight against any neighboring country,” Mr Siphan said. “It is impossible that we challenge with the Thai navy.”
Officials at the Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh as well as the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Bangkok could not be reached for comment Thursday.
On July 19, the Cambodian government announced that it had awarded Total exploration rights in the 2,430-square-km Area 3, which is within the overlapping claims area. Total was also granted rights to explore 22,000 square km of land around the Mekong River bordering Vietnam. News reports out of Bangkok following that Total deal announcement indicated that elements within the Thai military disapproved of Cambodian negotiating on anything to do with disputed maritime border area.
According to Total, the government earlier this month pulled back from what appeared to be a done deal and is now asking for numerous changes to the exploration agreement.
Officials from Total have said that there is a meeting scheduled for August 24 with Prime Minister Hun Sen to negotiate the contract further.
Government officials have declined to comment on the Total deal controversy and have not linked it to the reported displeasure by elements in the Thai military.