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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Fish hijack ship not really ours - government

Fish hijack ship not really ours - government

The reputation of the Kingdom's troubled ship registry sank even further this week

when yet another Cambodian-flagged vessel was involved in an international maritime

incident.

The Korf reportedly flew a Cambodian flag when it was used by gunmen to take over

a Russian fishing trawler in the Sea of Japan. The attack stemmed from a business

dispute over the boat's 320-ton frozen fish cargo. The four-day hijacking ended when

Russian warships intercepted the trawler on November 20.

However government spokesperson Khieu Khanarith said Cambodia was absolved from all

blame in the latest in a series of international maritime incidents. The reason,

he explained, was that the ship's registration expired in July, around the same time

the government took over the registry.

He confirmed though that earlier in the year the Korf was registered temporarily

with Cambodia's shipping registry as the Koaf.

"We already checked and we found out that the ship doesn't have the right to

bear the Cambodian flag anymore," said Khanarith. "To use the Cambodian

flag was illegal."

The incident is, however, somewhat embarrassing for the government, since news reports

around the world listed the ship as Cambodian registered. In the eyes of the world,

this was yet another incident involving a Cambodian registered vessel, adding to

the country's reputation as a flag of convenience state.

The country's shipping registry was operated by the private Cambodian Shipping Corporation

(CSC) until the government canceled its contract on July 30. The nail in the coffin

for the privately-owned flag of convenience operator was the discovery of the cocaine

laden Winner under a Cambodian flag off the coast of West Africa in June.

The CSC was linked to Funcinpec and thought to be created for the benefit of North

Korean vessels. It offered online registration in 24 hours, a feature that attracted

at least 450 ship owners to register here.

Under its contract, 15 percent of the company's gross income had to be paid to the

government. The transport ministry estimated earlier this year that fees paid amounted

to about $350,000 since the company was established in 1994.

Now that the government has seized the registry, it hopes to reform the damaged reputation

and generate some revenues. Seng Lim Noeu is undersecretary of state at the Council

of Ministers, and chairman of the bidding committee, which will assess offers to

run the former CSC.

He said a successful bid would have to meet certain criteria.

"First, they must have sufficient experience, and secondly they must have an

international reputation and sufficient resources," he said. "The government

will change the situation, [because] the implementation by the previous company affected

the government's name."

Lim Noeu added that both Khmer and foreign companies would be allowed to bid to take

over the registry. Applications were due December 9, he said, and the committee would

decide on the most reliable company at least one week later. However, he warned certain

conditions had to be met.

"If it is a foreign company, it should set up a subsidiary office in Cambodia

and pay a deposit in case any problem happens. We don't have much experience with

[ship registries]," he said.

Another requirement was an employment quota.

"We are putting a condition that Khmer crew be allowed to work on the vessels.

We demand that, so that they will create jobs for Khmers who will also be the eyes

and nose of the government."

Lim Noeu added that vessels previously registered with CSC would keep paying tax

to the government. They would retain their flags and need not register again.

"We need a company with a good name in charge of the ship registry so that our

reputation will not worsen," said Lim Noeu.

However those changes were not enough to reform Cambodia's damaged international

reputation, said opposition member of parliament Son Chhay, the former chair of the

National Assembly's transport committee.

"I don't think the problem has been solved," he said. "Nothing has

been done but changing hands."

Son Chhay asserted that the changeover was merely a CPP power play to take over a

Funcinpec business, and maintained that standards were still lacking. He said ships

previously registered should be recalled and properly evaluated.

"I would abolish this kind of business," he said.

He said the best thing to do would be to stop the ship registry since it was illegal

from the start, the government had not benefited, and it was bad for the country's

reputation.

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