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Oil dispute flares up

Secret meetings between high-ranking Thai and Cambodian officials to solve the demarcation of disputed offshore petroleum resources took place during the administration of Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, the Cambodian National Petroleum Authority revealed yesterday.

In a statement some commentators described as “coordinated attack” by the current Cambodian and Thai governments against political opponents, it also claimed there have been no such discussions since the election of Puea Thai in July.

The two countries first signed a memorandum of understanding on joint management of the Overlapping Claims Area in 2001, with a joint working group discussing further details from 2001 to 2007. The MoU for managing the OCA, which is thought to hold significant oil and gas reserves, was put on hold by the Thai government in November 2009.

“Even during the past few years when the [joint working group] did not meet formally, the Abhisit government continued to engage the Royal Government of Cambodia in negotiations on the OCA on multiple occasions …” the statement said.

Discussions had been held by high-ranking officials including Prime Minister Hun Sen and Deputy Prime Minister Sok An, and Thai counterparts such as former Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban and former Minister of Defence Pravit Wongsuwan, it said.

Those meetings took place between June 2009 and July 2010 in locations including Kandal province, Kunming, China, and Hong Kong, according to the CNPA. Suthep Thaugsuban at the time “indicated a strong preference to resolve this issue during the mandate of the Abhisit government,” and was instructed to do so by Abhisit Vejjajiva himself.

The CNPA claimed that Abhisit Vejjajiva had “wildly accused [deposed former Thai Prime Minister] Thaksin Shinawatra, who openly worked with Cambodia, of having secret interests with Cambodia”, adding that Abhisit Vejjajiva is now “attempting to derail” any future talks between Cambodia and the newly elected Thai government.

“Cambodia is obliged to reveal this secret in order to protect the interests of Cambodia and H.E. Thaksin Shinawatra against the baseless allegations made on the part of the Democrats,” it said.

Although representatives from the Thai Democrat Party could not be reached yesterday, some expert observers questioned the overtly political nature of the statement.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun, lead researcher for political and strategic affairs at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies’ ASEAN Studies Centre in Singapore said the statement could be the result of political maneuvering by the governments in Bangkok and Phnom Penh.

“I should think that this is a coordinated attack between Cambodia and the Yingluck government in discrediting the Democrat [Party] and at the same time enhancing their position at home,” he said.

OCA negotiations most likely will not be hurt by recent claims from the Democrat Party, he added. In fact, he said they may result in greater transparency as Cambodia and Thailand look for an equitable solution.

Regardless, the issue will remain unsolved until the two countries find a solution to the disputed area around Preah Vihear temple, said Christopher Larkin, managing director of political risk consultancy CLC Asia.

“No matter what Thaksin’s relationship with Cambodia is, I think an agreement on the street level is something that’s not palatable to the Thai public. Preah Vihear needs to be solved first.”

He added that the OCA was a “very politically unpopular issue” in Thailand, and that compromise of any kind carried with it serious political risk.

“I think there is the worry within policy-making circles that any talk of settling the maritime disputes generally leads to accusations of ‘selling out’, especially from the Thai side, where compromises on the Preah Vihear issue are seen as a trade-off for additional economic benefit from the Cambodians in the OCA.”

The CNPA’s statement also highlighted claims from Democrat Party Member of Parliament Anik Amranand last week, who it says accused Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government and Cambodia of meeting in secret to negotiate over the OCA for reasons of personal rather than public interest.

The CNPA yesterday denied such meetings took place, though added it hoped talks would openly resume soon.

“So far, the newly formed government led by Prime Minister Yingluck has not yet held any meeting or raised any proposal with the Royal Government of Cambodia to resolve the OCA, let alone any proposal to settle the dispute in exchange for any private individual gains as alleged by” Anik Amranand, it said.

“Nevertheless, the Royal Government of Cambodia would welcome the resumption of open and official negotiation on this issue and will pursue such a course as soon as practicable in the mutual interests of both people and countries.”

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