Officials Unable to Explain Mystery Ships

Officials in Preah Sihanouk province on Thursday gave a series of conflicting explanations as to what a team of cargo ships and accompanying barges are doing in the waters between Koh Rong and the mainland.

Pierre Kann, whose Koh Rong Dive Center operates tourist boats from Sihanoukville to the holiday island, said that on four days this week he saw a cargo ship stationed in the same area about 10 km from the coast. He said that barges loaded with sand were moving back and forth between them and an unknown third location. Photos show at least two different cargo ships cooperating with barges in the area.

Two barges, one carrying sand, are seen alongside a cargo ship in the waters between Sihanoukville and Koh Rong. (Pierre Kann)
Two barges, one carrying sand, are seen alongside a cargo ship in the waters between Sihanoukville and Koh Rong. (Pierre Kann)

Contacted Monday, Preah Sihanouk governor Yun Min said he was unaware of the cargo ships and barges and said he would order the navy to find out “why these ships are in Cambodian water.”

Thursday, Brigadier General Min said a firm, which he said he did not know the name of, had struck a deal with the government in 2014 to bring 2,000 to 3,000 cubic meters of sand to the cargo ships to “test it for making mirror and glass.”

However, he said there was no dredging happening in the waters off Sihanoukville and that he did not know where the sand was being taken from.

“The barges transport sand to drop at the big ship in the ocean near Koh Rong,” he said. “But I am not sure where the sand comes from.”

“For now, I don’t see any company doing any sand dredging here,” he added.

Brig. Gen. Min said he also did not know where the cargo ships had come from.

In March, following a long-running row over excessive dredging around the confluence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers in Phnom Penh, Prime Minister Hun Sen charged the Ministry of Mines and Energy with policing dredging firms, a task that was previously carried out by the committee for sand resources management, a body headed by the Ministry of Water Resources.

Contacted Thursday, Dith Tina, a spokesman for the Ministry of Mines and Energy, said that no company had permission to dredge off the coast of Preah Sihanouk.

“All licenses to pump sand in that area have already expired,” he said.

“It may be that they pump sand from Koh Kong [province] and transport it to Preah Sihanouk.”

Mornh Chhundy, the deputy commander of the Ream Naval Base, which oversees the waters off the coast, said he was unaware of the cargo ship and barges, despite Brig. Gen. Min saying he had instructed the navy to investigate.

Nen Chamroeun, director of the Fisheries Administration in Preah Sihanouk, also said he did not know about the boats.

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