Before the Cosmos Group even opened the doors of the International Shipping Registry of Cambodia office in Phnom Penh, it had been publicly condemned in international shipping circles, had its newly acquired registry blacklisted by watchdog groups, and has been denied association with Lloyd’s Register beginning July 31. Now ISROC claims that its exiled predecessor, the Cambodian Shipping Corp, is employing dubious measures to draw ships from the Cambodian registry to a brand-new open registry, or flag of convenience, in land-locked Mongolia.
In a letter from the Cosmos office in South Korea to the Cambodia Daily, ISROC Director General Captain Hae Jin Shin wrote that CSC has not handed over the database containing information on more than 900 ships currently sailing under the Cambodian flag. He alleged that CSC is using the database to contact those ship owners and entice them to Mongolia with free registration and loose regulations.
“It seems that CSC do not intentionally transfer all Cambodia-flagged vessels’ detailed database which is the own property of the Royal Government of Cambodia. Instead CSC is directly contacting all ship owners, by using such important database. And they are severely annoying ISROC’s new Cambodia ship registration system through their ill-willed strategy and tactics,” Hae wrote.
Attached to the letter was a copy of an e-mail allegedly sent by CSC to “all shipowner/managers concerned,” which read, “We are no longer able to issue renewal certificates for all Cambodian registered vessels…. We recommend owners to consider transferring their vessels to the Mongolia Registry which is offering a very attractive discount package for vessels being transferred from the Cambodia flag.”
While those at ISROC and concerned individuals at the Council of Ministers are confident CSC and the Mongolian Ship Register are the same entity, Lloyd’s List International reported, albeit with some skepticism, that CSC’s executive director, Captain Ng Eng Choon, has denied those ties. Ng told Lloyd’s the e-mailed appeal to ship owners was simply an act of “good will.”
Khek Sakara, a former partner in CSC, has denied any current affiliation with the Singapore-based outfit and knowledge of its dealings.
Speculation aside, ISROC country representative Li Li said she had no idea how many vessels are under her company’s stewardship, where those vessels might be or, more importantly, how to contact anyone who might have that information. She said Monday that the database had still not turned up.
Casting further suspicion on CSC is a copy of a faxed “deletion certificate” sent by the tarnished company on April 11, long after CSC had lost its authority to remove ships from the Cambodian registry.
Seng Lim Nou, an undersecretary of state for the Council of Ministers, said last week that the government might take CSC to an international court to settle its grievances.
“First, we might complain about CSC, demand to have the database returned. Second is about legality because [CSC] has illegally deleted a ship from the registry. But we are not clear who we should complain to,” he said.
Seng Lim Nou, who helped broker the council’s 10-year contract with Cosmos, said he is pleased so far with ISROC’s efforts. CSC ran Cambodia’s register “from 1994 until the government fired it in 2002. It paid the government $300,000. But Cosmos pays the government $25,000 per month during this difficult situation. If the number of ships increases in another year, then…the government will receive at least $1 million per year,” he said.
The government fired CSC following a high-profile scandal in which a Cambodian-registered freighter, The Winner, was seized by the French Navy last June. The Winner was reportedly hauling nearly 2 tons of cocaine. But that was only one in a string of embarrassing mishaps that sullied Cambodia’s reputation in ports and waters worldwide.
After the government’s contract with Cosmos was announced, officials said the South Korean company had served as a CSC agent for years and had actually facilitated the registration of several problematic vessels.
In his recent letter, Hae denied any responsibility on behalf of his agency for the shipping scandals of the CSC days. He said that Cosmos Bureau of Shipping Inc in 1996 began to “introduce and recommend ship registration to CSC.” He wrote that this involved sending application documents to CSC over the Internet. Ultimately, CSC approved all ships for registration, Hae wrote.
Hae also went on to say he expects a decrease in Cambodian-flagged ships, as ISROC’s registration process will be much more thorough and discerning than CSC’s “indiscriminate registration way.”
“However,” Hae wrote, “we expect that the amount which ISROC [will] pay to the Royal Government of Cambodia will be about five to 10 times more than previous CSC, even though registered vessels’ numbers are fewer than previous time.”
In January, shortly after receiving stewardship of the registry, Cosmos advertised the Cambodian flag on its Web site as the most convenient flag-of-convenience, citing low tariffs and few regulations. The page disappeared from the Web site shortly after some of its copy was quoted in press reports. Judging by the stack of paperwork ISROC now requires of customers, Cosmos has opted since for a tact more prudent than its predecessor.
Hae also wrote that as of April 15, six new vessels have been registered in Cambodia.
Lieven Geerinck, a retired ship’s captain and local maritime expert, said Monday that the Ministry of Public Works and Transportation is currently writing a self-assessment report invited by the International Maritime Organization. As an IMO member state, Cambodia has ratified a number of safety and environmental protection measures. However, Geerinck said, enforcement of these measure is a concern.
The government report will be filed in June and then “will provide a road map of what has to be changed,” Geerinck said.
CSC is undoubtedly responsible for leaving the flag of Cambodia in tatters, but ISROC has been heralded by few outside the Council of Ministers as a likely savior. In January, Sam Dawson, press officer of the International Transportation Workers’ Federation, wrote in an e-mail, “I have heard a forecast that the Cambodian registry in its present form will not survive more than another five years—the post Sept 11 world can no longer allow such a rogue operation.”
Little can be predicted yet with ISROC reportedly awaiting cooperation from CSC, and without knowing what the registry looks like. Hae closed his letter with the entreaty that judgment of his outfit be withheld for two to three years, as “the recovery of such a bad reputation cannot be achieved within one day.”