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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Nationalism and oil do not mix

Nationalism and oil do not mix


Some say the Preah Vihear dispute goes beyond an 11th-century temple and into far deeper waters: the disputed oil-rich, offshore block claimed by both Cambodia and Thailand


Monks walk in front of Preah Vihear temple, which may not be at the heart of the current border dispute.

THE implications of the current border standoff with Thailand reach far beyond the 4.6-square-kilometre patch of land  around Preah Vihear.

Allegations are ringing out that the soldiers, RPGs and tanks now stationed on the  frontier are there for a more important reason than the age-old animosity between the two neighbours, a reason that transcends the national pride-imbued issue of ownership of the storied 11th-century Hindu temple: oil.

Thailand and Cambodia both assert claims over some 27,000 square kilometres of disputed maritime territory in the Gulf of Thailand that is believed to contain significant amounts of oil and gas reserves. 

The expanse of water known as the Overlapping Claims Area, or OCA, has been the source of a contentious, decades-old dispute with Thailand but has gained a new imperative amidst the current border crisis. 

Cambodia makes one line, thailand makes another, and it makes an overlapping area.

Typically, a marine border extends out about 22km from a country's coastline. Besides marine resources, the maritime border determines exclusive economic zones where natural resources can be claimed, including those under the seabed.

Talks over the Overlapping Claims Area had resumed in April after years of stalemate but remained in their early stages.

The dispute goes back to the 1970s, but six years ago Cambodia and Thailand negotiated a joint development agreement that was hoped to resolve the problem. Now, things do not look so good.

"Because of politics, we've had no chance to talk with Thailand. Cambodia makes one line, Thailand makes another, and it makes an overlapping area," Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan told the Post on August 27.

The original model negotiated by Thailand and Cambodia called for a 50-50 split of resources, but Phnom Penh has more recently pressured for a 60-40 sharing ratio - a move Thailand has resisted. Oil experts say that Cambodia is likely to resist simply splitting the area down the middle because the better prospects would lie in the Thai half.

More than temples

Since the border dispute erupted, suspicions have intensified that by asserting control over Preah Vihear, Cambodia is angling to improve its claims over the disputed offshore block.

Some in Thailand claim that recognising Preah Vihear as belonging to Cambodia would legitimise the 1908 map and give way to Cambodia asserting more control over the contested waters and its riches.

"What is foreseeable is that the disputed territorial areas on land can be a model for the overlapping sea boundaries, because they are based on the same French mapping principle," the Bangkok Post quoted retired Vice Admiral Pratheep Chuen-arom as saying on July 29.

According to Pratheep, the border drawn by France in the 1960s extended into the sea, "cutting through parts of Thailand's Kud Island, while Thailand drew a different line close to Cambodia's Kong Island."

More than 90 degrees lies between the two lines, forming a vast expanse of disputed waters.

According to Phay Siphan, the borders drawn by Thailand are a "unilateral map" without international legitimacy. 

He said Cambodia's maritime border with Thailand is formed by a line of sight between the summit of Chom Yeam, the international checkpoint at pillar 73, and the summit of Koh Kud.

He said, however, that this demarcation is more than a century old, stemming from the 1908 map and not the 1962 international court ruling that also legitimised Cambodia's sovereignty over Preah Vihear.

Whose land is it?

The 1962 court decision did not draw a new map or "take Preah Vihear temple and give it to Cambodia; it confirmed the borders and proved that Preah Vihear lies within Cambodian territory, and it ordered Thailand to get out of that land," Phay Siphan said. 

"Thailand always treats that area [along the French-drawn border] as a war zone to protect their own interests."

Either way, the border standoff has intensified the race to map out the border between the two.

Hong Sean, a soldier standing guard at the Chom Yeam international checkpoint at pillar 73, said a team of Cambodian and Thai military officials had been in the area two weeks ago and were "still working to reach an agreement on the location of the pillars 71 and 72."

Var Kimhong, head of the National Border Committee, dismissed claims that Thailand could lose maritime territory if it recognises Cambodia's ownership of land at Preah Vihear.

But he added that Cambodia stands by the French-drawn map, saying "existing documents establish the border demarcation". 



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