The implications of the Thai-Cambodian border dispute reach far beyond the 4.6 sq km of scrub around Preah Vihear, writes Piyaporn Wongruang
The disputed area adjacent to Preah Vihear covers only 4.6 square kilometres _ a very small area when compared to the total size of the countries of Thailand and Cambodia. But neither of the countries can afford to lose any of this land.
This is not only because the area carries with it the issue of territorial sovereignty, which no modern state can bear to lose, but also because the final fate of the area could signify the future of other overlapping areas still to be demarcated, particularly those in the sea, military analysts say.
While a lot of people are concerned about the possible loss of territorial sovereignty over the disputed land to Cambodia, Vice-Admiral Pratheep Chuen-arom (retired) has been pondering what will happen to the disputed areas in the Gulf of Thailand, which cover about 20,000 square kilometres.
For months, the vice-admiral has reviewed the information to hand and applied the lessons he learned when commander of a patrol fleet in the Gulf. He has decided to make public his concerns.
''When we lost Preah Vihear temple, we lost spiritually,'' said Vice-Admiral Pratheep.
''But if we lose the claimed land again, there is very much more at stake to be lost.''
Over a hundred years ago, Thailand was forced to demarcate its borders with two imperial powers, Britain (which ruled Burma and Malaya) and France, which had colonised Indo-China, including Cambodia.
Some maps helping define the borders between Thailand and states under protection of those imperial countries were drawn up. However, these were not officially accepted by Bangkok, especially those covering the border between Thailand and Cambodia.
While Cambodia continues to use the French maps, Thailand has its own versions and has used them as its border references. And because they use different maps, the two countries claim different borderlines.
Along the 800km territorial border between Thailand and Cambodia, there are at least 15 areas awaiting agreement from both sides.
But the issue does not stop there.
According to Vice-Admiral Pratheep, the border line was drawn down to the sea. From the 73rd kilometre territorial border peg in the district of Khlong Yai, in Trat province, France had drawn the boundary line cutting through part of Thailand's Kud island, while Thailand drew a different line close to Cambodia's Kong island.
This resulted in the different marine maps showing different sea boundaries. Typically, a marine border extends out 12 nautical miles, or about 22km, from a country's coastline.
The sea territorial boundaries play a crucial role in determining exclusive economic zones, where countries can claim natural resources, including those under the seabed.
Exclusive economic zones usually extend out to 200 nautical miles, Vice-Admiral Pratheep said. Because the two countries claim conflicting territorial boundaries, their claimed economic zones in the Gulf overlap by about 20,000 sq km.
Besides marine resources, those problematic zones also house huge petroleum deposits, which both countries thirst for, he said.
So, if the French-drawn maps were accepted, much of the area containing oil and gas deposits would go to Cambodia, Vice-Admiral Pratheep said.
''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 problem comes from the same root, which is mapping based on unequal treatment by powerful countries in the past,'' he said.
Over the past few weeks, Vice-Admiral Pratheep has teamed up with other senior officers, including Gen Pathompong Kesornsuk, to awaken the public to the implications that the loss of the 4.6 sq km of overlapping land near Preah Vihear would have on the overlapping sea territory.
Gen Pathompong, who is a chief adviser to the Supreme Command, previously raised his concerns about the ramifications of the French maps, writing letters to high-ranking military officials, as well as Privy Council president Gen Prem Tinsulanonda.
The general cited the lack of continuity and integration of work by Thai officials, from policymakers to officials at implementation levels.
Thailand and Cambodia formed the Joint Technical Committee in 2001 to work on the matter, but little information has been released, triggering suspicions of conflicts of interest by the politicians involved.
According to Vice-Admiral Pratheep and reports from Cambodia, the Cambodian government has already granted permission to some US oil companies to explore petroleum resources in the disputed waters.
In November 8 last year, Cambodia's Deputy Prime Minister Sok An, who is chairman of the Cambodian National Petroleum Authority (CNPA), declared a ''breakthrough'' regarding the petroleum exploration by Chevron Overseas Petroleum (Cambodia) Ltd, which obtained permission from Cambodia to explore petroleum resources in 2002.
The speech delivered by Mr Sok An that day noted that Chevron had drilled up to 15 wells in Block A, which covers about 6,200 sq km and is around 200km off the coast of Cambodia.
The company has found some evidence of oil deposits.
The CNPA now has other petroleum agreements signed with various companies for six offshore blocks.
Mr Sok An's speech further noted, ''We remain committed to resolving the matter of the Overlapping Claims Area in the Gulf of Thailand with the Royal Government of Thailand.
'The overlapping area covers around 27,000 sq km that is thought to be highly prospective for petroleum accumulations.''