Cambodia Says ‘Loopholes’ May Have Led to Oil Theft as NGOs Urge Probe

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A tanker with nearly 300,000 barrels of crude oil that went missing last month may have left Cambodia unnoticed due to “loopholes” in enforcement, a ruling party spokesman said Friday, while local NGOs called on the government to investigate any possible official role in the alleged theft.

The M.T. Strovolos, the ship carrying the oil, was seized by Indonesian authorities on July 17 when the Bahamian-flagged tanker anchored off Sumatra with its identification system turned off, three days after Phnom Penh issued an Interpol red notice about the alleged theft.

Sok Ey San, spokesperson for Cambodia’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party, said on Friday that “loopholes by authorities might have contributed to the tanker’s slipping away from Cambodia,” but that proper follow-up led to the arrests.

“When we lost the tanker, we asked for international help, such as Interpol, to intervene. In general, we have now done everything we are supposed to do,” he said.

The Indonesian navy made its arrest of the ship and its captain and crew only on the basis of navigational violations, though, and not in response to the Interpol notice, said Navy spokesperson First Admiral Julius Widjojono, speaking in response to a request for comment by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.

“In the diplomatic note or red notice sent by the Cambodian government to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, there was no request for the return of the crude oil to Cambodia,” Widjojono said. “The return of evidence will depend on a court decision,” he added.

Call to investigate

Cambodia’s government must now thoroughly investigate how so much oil could have been taken so easily out of the country, one NGO worker told RFA, adding that local authorities may have been involved in allowing the theft.

“We need to investigate this case thoroughly and release a report to the public. How could they steal such a large amount of crude oil?” said Yong Kim Eng, president of the People’s Centre for Development and Peace.

Transparency International Cambodia (TI Cambodia) Executive Director Pech Pisey also called on Phnom Penh to work with the Indonesian government to bring back the Strovolos to resolve outstanding questions with the Singapore-based oil and gas company KrisEnergy, which had rented the tanker-ship for oil storage.

“It is important to bring the tanker back in order to resolve this issue with other relevant parties,” he said, adding that the oil’s theft should serve as a lesson to Cambodia for its future dealings with foreign investors.

Tanker’s crew not paid

KrisEnergy, which had worked with Phnom Penh to support Cambodia’s efforts, abandoned in 2019, to extract its own petroleum, had filed for liquidation in June but was unable to pay the tanker’s crew, according to a report by the AFP wire service.

Speaking to RFA on Thursday, Cambodian government spokesperson Phay Siphan said that Cambodia’s Foreign Ministry and embassy in Indonesia have asked the Indonesian government to return the tanker and its oil, but had so far received no reply.

The loss of the Strovolos and its oil is an embarrassment for Cambodia, said Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, the founder of Cambodia’s Mother Nature environmental protection group.

“This has affected the reputations of [Prime Minister] Hun Sen and Cambodia. Cambodia’s government has no transparency and is full of corruption, and corruption may have been involved [in the tanker’s escape],” he said.

“I don’t believe that Cambodia will get the tanker back any time soon. It could take years. And this will also affect other investors,” he said.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Richard Finney.