Weeks after a fleet of 18 Chinese trawlers was detained by the authorities in Koh Kong, the vessels and their skeleton crews remain in Cambodian waters amid conflicting reports on why they were impounded, and with little indication as to when they and their crews will leave.
Koh Kong Provincial Governor Bun Leut yesterday told the Post that an official from the Chinese Embassy visited the impounded vessels – each of which has a crew of two Chinese nationals – a fortnight ago to identify the owning company.
“These are international fishing boats, and they cannot fish our waters,” Leut said of the trawlers, whose home port is marked as Guangzhou.
On August 16, Leut had told the Post it marked the first time Chinese ships had been found in Cambodian waters, adding: “We sent a report to the top leaders and wait for their decision”.
As of yesterday, said Leut, no decision had been taken.
Defence Ministry spokesman Chhum Socheat said Open Seas Security – the committee that detained the vessels and which involves the Navy, the Fisheries Administration and provincial authorities – had been working with Chinese officials. However, “in short we have not received the result yet”.
In emailed comments, Cheng Hongbo, chief of the Chinese Embassy’s political section, told the Post that, “as we know, some Chinese ships are temporarily halted in the Cambodian waters due to technical problems caused by the recent bad weather and atrocious climatic conditions”.
“The ships will soon leave the waters once they get repaired and changed the broken machine parts,” he wrote. “We highly appreciate the humanitarian assistances provided by the Cambodian side.”
When asked about the conflicting narrative provided by Cambodian authorities, Cheng wrote that, “it seems there is some information misunderstanding”.
Neither the head of the Navy, Admiral Tea Vinh, nor his deputy Tea Sokha – Vinh’s son and the official in charge of Open Seas Security – could be reached for comment.
Mao Sambo, the captain of the Navy’s Marine Boat 1106, which took part in the operation to detain the vessels, told the Post on Saturday that, “the top leaders had ordered to seize the boats … This is first time that we see Chinese boats.”
Asked what would become of the boats and crew, Sambo said: “We have not received orders from leaders yet.”
If the Chinese fleet was caught fishing in Cambodian waters, it would be of a piece with the increasing range of Beijing’s vast trawling industry, which, having over-exploited domestic stocks, now sends ships as far afield as South America.
“In the past few years, China has tended to allow – even encourage – its fishing trawlers to travel to all parts of the world to fish, sometimes irrespective of territorial waters of other countries,” said Dr Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs at Chiang Mai University, in an email.
Chambers added that through this event, Beijing might be gauging the extent to which Prime Minister Hun Sen would ignore breaches of Cambodian territorial waters.
Earlier this month, Navy Chief of Staff Mei Dina told the Post the Open Seas Security forces had detained some of the Chinese vessels in mid-July.
“Before these boats paid tax in Thailand for [docking], but when their licence had expired, the Thai [authorities] had asked them to move out,” he said, adding: “We do not know who those boats had communicated with.”
By August 4, he said, 18 boats were being held.
“We do not know who is behind this and it might be related to a small or big man,” he said. “They came to shelter [in our waters] and whom they depend on I do not know.”
Local fisherman Sok Chea, 30, on Thursday told Post reporters that he had seen a Navy vessel with seven soldiers escort the trawlers a month ago to their present location near the Oao Wov naval base, a few minutes by sea from Koh Kapi village.
“There were our Cambodian solders protecting those boats . . . They are stationed on the boats with Chinese crews, taking shifts,” he said, adding that “they had questioned the crews why the boats [were] coming to dock in Cambodian territory”.
Chea said that he and his fellow fishermen have become used to seeing foreign vessels, but that they were usually Thai or Vietnamese.
“The number of Thai boats has increased because they’ve tightened their fishing regulations,” he said. “Therefore, they come to fish in Cambodian territory because our country’s law is flawed and they just pay our Navy soldiers to fish in our territory.”
The interview with Chea came to an abrupt end when several Navy officers boarded his fishing boat, telling reporters they were not allowed to be there and instructing them to delete photographs.