Politics and the occasional border clash between the neighbours have for years got in the way of solving a lingering dispute about overlapping claims to undersea oil and natural gas fields in the Gulf of Thailand.
But ties between the two countries have improved significantly in recent months, sparking fresh hopes that a deal can be reached that will finally allow both countries to tap into the potentially rich reserves.
Cambodia estimates that it is sitting on hundreds of millions of barrels of crude and three times as much natural gas, although observers say it remains unclear how much could be recovered and what the revenues would be.
“As both countries need income from oil and gas, we should reach an agreement very soon,” Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong said after meeting his Thai counterpart in Phnom Penh on December 29 to discuss re-starting the talks.
Thai Energy Minister Pichai Naripthaphan said after meeting Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister Sok An, who heads the National Petroleum Authority, “We hope that in the future we’re able to work on the overlapping claims area.”
Once “some processes” were finalised, he told reporters, “the oil and gas will come out in eight to 10 years, not now”.
Cambodia and Thailand first opened negotiations to jointly develop the disputed area in 1995, but they hit problems when ex-Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted in a military coup in 2006.
Angered by Phnom Penh’s decision to appoint Thaksin as an economic adviser to the Cambodian Government, and amid a festering border dispute near the ancient Khao Phra Viharn temple on the border, Bangkok in 2009 decided to cancel a 2001 memorandum of understanding.
Tensions have eased markedly since Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, came to power in August.
Impoverished Cambodia said it hopes to begin pumping oil in December this year from offshore fields outside the contested zone, with exploration agreements with US energy giant Chevron and French oil company Total already in place.
Cambodia was feted as Southeast Asia’s next petro-state after oil was discovered there by Chevron in 2005, but progress stalled apparently because of wrangling between the government and Chevron over revenue sharing.