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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Kingdom is defiant over Thai warships

Kingdom is defiant over Thai warships

Govt says Gulf deployment over gas deal OK if kept in Thai waters.

MARINES and warships from the Thai navy's 1st Fleet have been deployed close to disputed areas in the Gulf of Thailand to monitor Cambodian oil explorations in the area, according to Thai media reports, prompting warnings from Cambodian officials that the country reserves the right to defend its sovereignty against any naval incursions.

On Saturday, the Bangkok Post reported that the forces have been deployed at Koh Kut, close to the 27,000-kilometre overlapping claims area (OCA), to monitor a recent exploration deal between the government and French petrochemical giant Total.

"We have to send our royal warships on patrol to proclaim our territory and warn Cambodia against initiating any action in the overlapping area," the newspaper quoted an anonymous Thai naval source as saying.

"If we let Total explore in the overlapping areas, it would mean we admit the area belongs to Cambodia."

Cambodian officials said that the Thai deployment was legitimate so long as it took place inside Thai territory, but warned that Cambodia would move to protect its sovereignty in the Gulf if Thai forces made incursions into the overlapping area.

"If their deployment moves into the [overlapping claims area] or into Cambodian waters, then we will defend our nation," said Var Kimhong, Cambodia's top border negotiator.

Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said the deployment was Thailand's decision, but that it would do little to resolve the maritime boundary dispute.

"[The deployment] will not scare Cambodia," he said.

"Thailand cannot use its forces to threaten Cambodia's security. Cambodia will defend its rights as an independent, sovereign state."

He added: "[We] will still keep [our] stance of resolving the dispute peacefully."

If we let Total explore in the overlapping areas, it would mean we admit the area belongs to Cambodia.

During Prime Minister Hun Sen's visit to France in July, officials announced an agreement offering Total the exploration rights to a 2,430-square kilometre block - known as Area III - that sits inside the OCA.
The deal prompted complaints from the People's Assembly of Thailand (PAT), a nationalist advocacy group, that the Total agreement was a violation of Thai sovereignty.

The group wrote to Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva on July 30, criticising the government and armed forces for not taking action to head off the deal.

A copy of the letter was also reportedly sent to the French Embassy in Bangkok.

Matters are complicated by the fact that Bangkok also allocated the zone - which it refers to as B10 and B11 - to US oil company Chevron and Japan's Mitsui in 1971.

Var Kimhong said that Thailand's claims about the Total deal were "unreasonable", adding that Cambodia had not complained to Bangkok when it granted oil exploration rights in the OCA to Chevron and Mitsui.

Var Kimhong added that Cambodia was always open for negotiation on the two countries' maritime border, which has never been fully demarcated.

In Sokhemra, chief of the Cambodian coast guard stationed in Preah Sihanouk province, said that he had not heard of the naval deployment at Koh Kut, but that the Cambodian navy conducts regular patrols near the OCA and would be immediately aware of any Thai incursions.

Chum Socheat, spokesman for the Ministry of Defence, could not be reached for comment on Sunday, and Jean-Pierre Labbe, general manager of Total EP Cambodge, said he was out of the country and did not wish to comment over the phone.

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