Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Cambodia files lawsuit against vessel owners over alleged crude oil theft

A view of oil extraction facilities being operated by KrisEnergy and the Cambodia government in the Gulf of Thailand, in December 2020. KrisEnergy
A view of oil extraction facilities being operated by KrisEnergy and the Cambodia government in the Gulf of Thailand, in December 2020. KrisEnergy

Cambodia’s first entry into oil extraction may have ultimately failed, but the government is turning to the law to salvage at least one part of the attempt.

When pumping came to a halt at the offshore Apsara oil field, developed in a joint venture by the Cambodian government and the now-defunct Singaporean firm KrisEnergy, a tanker ship added to the disappointment by hauling away a load of crude oil in what the Cambodian government said last month was an act of theft.

The Cambodian government has now filed a criminal lawsuit against the vessel owner, its managers, shipmaster, chief officer and others, alleging the tanker had stolen its cargo of crude oil. The vessel’s crew is currently being held for questioning in Indonesia, where their ship, the Bahamian-flagged MT Strovolos, had been apprehended by that country’s navy after anchoring without permission in its national waters. The tanker is operated by the Singapore-based World Tankers Management.

Cheap Sour, director-general of petroleum at the Ministry of Mines and Energy, confirmed the criminal complaint had been filed in a Cambodian court. He also said the Cambodian government had made a request to Indonesian authorities to transfer the suspects to the Kingdom for investigation but did not provide specific details, instead referring to a ministry statement released Friday.

According to the statement, the Royal Government has sought the assistance of the Indonesians to bring the alleged perpetrators and their accomplices “to justice and to obtain the restoration of the cargo of crude oil” to the Kingdom of Cambodia.

 “Those matters will have to take their legal course and they are neither political nor commercial matters,” the statement read.

The ministry also stated there are ongoing claims between the managers of the Strovolos and KrisEnergy regarding, among other things, the payment of the hire of the vessel. Past media reports indicated the vessel owners had taken the oil to recoup payment owed to them by KrisEnergy, a condition the ministry dismissed as irrelevant.

“It is a matter between them and has nothing to do with the Royal Government of Cambodia and its crude oil,” the ministry stated.

It went on to explain that, while under charter of KrisEnergy, the vessel master was instructed by World Tankers in the evening of June 18, 2021, to depart Cambodia and sail into Thai waters with the cargo of crude oil. The departure of the vessel was without obtaining customs clearance or permission from the Cambodian authorities, and in breach of Cambodian laws.

The Indonesian navy later seized the Strovolos and its crew after the vessel was picked up on July 27 off the coast of Sumatra.

The 183-metre (600-foot) tanker, sailing from Thailand to Indonesia’s Batam island, had reportedly turned off its identification system and anchored illegally in the archipelago’s waters. Indonesia’s navy said it was questioning the crew of 13 Indians, three Bangladeshis and three Myanmar nationals at a base near Singapore.

However, World Tankers denied allegations that the oil had been loaded illegally and that the ship did not have permission to anchor in Indonesian waters, according to a report by Reuters.

The company said the Strovolos loaded about 300,000 barrels of crude oil on May 21 based on an understanding that the cargo belonged to the charterers, according to the report.

A World Tankers spokesperson told CamboJA by email that relevant parties are working on the issue but did not provide details.

“All parties involved in this case are now working together to ensure a swift and amicable outcome and we believe this will be possible soon,” the spokesperson said.

World Tankers has also stated the vessel’s crew had no realistic choice but to sail out of Cambodian waters to undertake crew change and bunkering. The Cambodian Ministry of Mines has rejected that claim, stating that at no time were authorities contacted by the vessel owners, managers or any other party to arrange or permit such actions.

“Neither of these matters would excuse the removal of the vessel and cargo of crude oil from Cambodian waters in breach of Cambodian laws,” the ministry stated. “Since her unlawful departure, the vessel has made no attempt to return to Cambodian waters nor has she taken any steps to return the cargo of crude oil.”

Pech Pisey, executive director at Transparency International Cambodia, applauded the move to carry a legal complaint against the alleged thieves.

“It is absolutely critical that Cambodia takes the suspects to court and law must be fully applied to those involved if they are found guilty,” he said. “Cambodia’s reputation is at risk if we don’t pursue this appropriately.”

Pisey said Cambodia should follow all applicable legal and regulatory frameworks to pursue the case and work closely with relevant authorities and stakeholders in a just and transparent manner.