Navy To Be Expanded To Guard Oil Sites

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.”

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