The Ministry of National Defense is planning to significantly expand the Royal Cambodian Navy’s presence in the Gulf of Thailand to provide security for companies searching for and extracting oil, government officials said this week.
The navy will triple in size and increase patrols to defend Cambodia’s offshore oil fields and maritime integrity, Minister of Defense Tea Banh confirmed Tuesday. He declined to comment further on the plan, which has not yet been officially approved.
“It is so, but I do not have time to talk about it,” Tea Banh said of the planned expansion.
The details of the naval expansion will be decided next month at a Ministry of Defense seminar, said SRP lawmaker Yim Sovann, chairman of the National Assembly commission on national defense. The seminar will be co-sponsored by the Germany-based Friedrich Naumann Foundation, he added. Officials at FNF’s Bangkok office were unavailable for comment Thursday.
“We need to post troops along the coast in order to provide security to oil exploration companies. We want to protect the property of investors from terrorism,” Yim Sovann said Wednesday, adding that the Cambodian navy’s current Gulf of Thailand mission is limited to routine border patrols. “I think it’s a good idea,” he said.
Senior CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap said Thursday that the government first considered increasing its maritime security after US petroleum giant Chevron discovered oil in Cambodia’s territorial waters in 2005, although he added that the naval plan remains preliminary.
“We need to defend our natural resources. I don’t know how many marines we would need,” said Cheam Yeap, who is chairman of the Assembly’s commission on banking and finance. He added that the proposed expansion was not brought on by any threat from another country but as a defense against sea pirates.
Beyond the offshore oil blocks under undisputed Cambodian control, Cambodia and Thailand have each laid claim to 27,000 square kilometers in the Gulf of Thailand. In 2002 the neighbors signed an agreement stating that neither country could begin drilling in the area until they reach a mutual agreement.
Thai Embassy First Secretary Chaturant Chaiyakam declined to comment Wednesday when told of the planned naval expansion.
A Western diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity said the discovery of oil has created a new strategic priority for Cambodia.
“[The navy’s] mission is going to change,” the diplomat said, adding that the expansion would increase the navy’s size from 1,000 to 3,000 people by creating 2,000 “marines” pulled from Cambodia’s army.
Cheam Yeap confirmed that soldiers could be moved from the army to reduce the cost of the naval expansion.
“Infantry soldiers could be trained to work as marines,” he said.
Yim Sovann also said that the planned naval expansion would not require new recruits, saying that army soldiers could be retrained and transferred to the navy. He added that he does not know the navy’s current size.
Information Minister and government spokesman Khieu Kanharith declined to detail the navy’s arsenal Thursday, saying only that it includes missile launchers, personnel carriers and artillery. “No one would tell you how many,” he said.
In 2003, officials said that only four of Cambodia’s 12 Soviet-built Stankar-class ships were operational. In 2004, the Defense Ministry declined an invitation to take part in international naval exercises in Japanese waters, saying Cambodia’s ships were too eroded and obsolete to make the journey.
When told of the naval expansion plan, a Chevron spokeswoman in Bangkok did not respond directly to the matter, saying via e-mail: “Chevron is pleased to be working with the Royal Government of Cambodia to evaluate the country’s petroleum resources.”