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Oil dispute optimism

THE election of Puea Thai has made a solution to the disputed Overlapping Claims Area in the Gulf of Thailand more likely, experts say.

Petroleum companies say they are ready to explore the 27,000 square kilometre region, which is claimed by both Thailand and Cambodia and is thought to contain significant reserves of oil and gas.

The area still remains largely unexplored a decade after the two countries signed a Memorandun of Understanding stipulating joint management of its petroleum resources.

In 2001, Cambodia and Thailand agreed on joint development of the southern portion of the disputed area, with the northern portion to be divided by a defined maritime border.

Thailand, however, cancelled the agreement in 2009 after ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was appointed an economic adviser to the Cambodian government.

But with prime minister-elect Yingluck Shinawatra’s victory in Thailand’s July 3 elections, Cambodian government officials have expressed optimism that a solution can be found.

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said Phnom Penh looked forward to working with the incoming Thai administration to solve the dispute.

“We’d love to see [an agreement on] the overlapping area in the sea implemented so that we can figure out how to share it,” he said.

“We still consider that co-operation in the economy or trade sector is most important, and that both countries need it.”

The disputed area could contain 11 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, along with unknown quantities of oil, market intelligence firm CLC Asia says.

Firms granted exploration licences in the area yesterday expressed hope the dispute over petroleum management would soon be solved.

Total Exploration and Production Asia-Pacific vice-president for China, Vietnam and Cambodia Yves Le Bail said: “Total is ready to start exploration as soon as possible after the two countries solve their dispute.”

Le Bail, who called the area “potentially interesting”, said Total had paid a bonus for a promise of some explorat-ion rights in the area as long as the two countries reached an agreement on joint management of the OCA “within a limited period of time”.

He declined to define that period of time, citing confidentiality agreements.

Le Bail said Total had been in discuss-ions with Cambodia about the OCA,  but a large part of the final solution would come from direct discussions between the two countries.

Nobody knew when that solution would come, he said.

In past years, Cambodia and Thailand have granted overlapping exploration rights in the area to oil companies including Total, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Japanese giant Idemitsu Kosan.

Revenues from the area could “revolutionise” impoverished Cambodia, Chevron general manager for exploration Gerry Flaherty is quoted as saying in a February, 2008 diplomatic cable from the US embassy in Phnom Penh released by anti-secrecy organisation WikiLeaks.

Flaherty is also quoted as saying the OCA is “one of the best areas for exploration in the world”, according to the cable.

An agreement about the OCA was close to being reached just before former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s removal from power in 2006, according to a separate cable from the US embassy in Phnom Penh in 2007.

The cable sources the claim to Cambodian foreign ministry secret-ary of state Kao Kim Hourn, who reportedly said “an additional six months of negotiations would have settled the matter”.

Keo Kim Hourn last week told the Post that he “didn’t remember” those discussions.

But experts have said the election of Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinawatra is a good sign that talks between the two kingdoms would recommence.

“I believe their policy will follow  in her brother’s footsteps,” Chheng Kimlong, business and economic lecturer at the University of Cambodia, said, adding that the impending exploration would benefit both countries.

He also pointed out that although Thailand claimed to have cancelled the 2001 memorandum of understanding, the contract might still be legally  enforceable. If anything, it merely suspended the memorandum for a brief period, he said.

“An already-signed MoU is not easily cancelled. What’s important is that our country has not cancelled.” ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY BANGKOK POST AND MAY KUNMAKARA

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