Yearly Archives: 2014

Regional Roundup: Week of 12.28.2014

In what is normally a festive time of year, this last week has been one of shock, grief and solemn remembrance for many in Southeast Asia. On December 26th, countries around the region marked the ten year anniversary of the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami with memorials, prayers and promises of renewed efforts to strengthen disaster infrastructure.

 Now, however, the region’s focus is on AirAsia flight QZ8501, which has been missing since yesterday morning. The flight, which was flying from Surabaya, Indonesia to Singapore, lost contact not long after taking off and after 30+ hours of search efforts, the worst is now feared. According to the head of Indonesia’s search and rescue agency, QZ5801 is now likely “on the ocean floor.” There were 162 people on the flight, with 155 Indonesian citizens. Despite rumors of wreckage found, there has been no news of any successful recovery efforts as of publishing time. The thoughts and prayers of all of us at ExSE are with the passengers’ loved ones in the wake of this tragedy.

ExSE FOCUS

Indonesia says missing AirAsia plane could be at ‘bottom of sea’ – Reuters A missing AirAsia jet carrying 162 people could be at the bottom of the sea after it was presumed to have crashed off the Indonesian coast, an official said on Monday, as countries around Asia sent ships and planes to help in the search effort.

Related: AirAsia Plane Missing After Takeoff From IndonesiaNPR

Related: Search resumes for missing AirAsia flightUSA Today

Related: Tony Fernandes, the millionaire entrepreneur behind AirAsiaThe Guardian

 Asia remembers devastating 2004 tsunami with tears and prayersReuters Memorials were held in the worst-affected countries – India, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Indonesia – where monks, imams and priests held ceremonies to honor those who perished. Hundreds gathered in Indonesia’s Aceh province, many bursting into tears as poems and songs were heard and a montage was screened showing the devastation from a disaster that killed 126,741 people in Aceh alone.

Laos to Break Ground on Don Sahong Dam in Early 2015RFA Formal construction on the much-criticized Don Sahong Dam in Laos will begin early next year, according to a Lao energy official, despite a host of concerns raised during an open consultation period with stakeholders. The controversial dam is being built by Malaysia’s Mega First Corporation Berhad (Mega First) on Southeast Asia’s key artery the Mekong River, just two kilometers (1.2 miles) north of Cambodia.

The project has sparked widespread concern among neighboring countries and environmentalists who say that it will block migratory fish routes, negatively affecting nutrition and livelihoods across regional boundaries.

Daovieng Phonekeo, deputy director general of the Lao Department of Electricity, told RFA’s Lao Service that full-scale construction of the 260-megawatt dam would begin shortly after the end of a six-month consultation process which began in July. “On Jan. 21, the consultation process will be completed, and after that we will begin construction during this dry season [which runs from January to May], because during the rainy season we can’t carry out the work,” he said. Opposition to dam still intense from Vietnam, Cambodia, int’l community. Highly-touted MRC consultation process doesn’t amount to much. Not really a consultation on whether to build the dam, more like a discussion on the effects. ExSE’s Brian and Will will be in the Siphandone area in the next few weeks. Look for reports in the new year.

 Related: Downstream Communities File Groundbreaking Complaint Over Don Sahong DamInternational Rivers

Related:  Vietnamese committee opposes Laos’ new damThanh Nien News

Related: Don Sahong dam in Laos: Energy at what cost?Mekong Commons

Rescuers struggle to reach flood victims in Malaysia as anger mountsThanh Nien News Rescue teams struggled Saturday to reach inundated areas of northeast Malaysia as victims accused the government of being slow to provide assistance after the country’s worst flooding in decades. Hopefully flooding will end soon, recovery efforts can get underway.2014 not a good year for Malaysia, here’s to hoping for a better 2015.

Related: Malaysia and Thailand flood crisisThanh Nien News

Gmail blocked in ChinaReuters Google Inc’s Gmail was blocked in China after months of disruptions to the world’s biggest email service, with an anti-censorship advocate suggesting the Great Firewall was to blame. Large numbers of Gmail web addresses were cut off in China on Friday, said GreatFire.org, a China-based freedom of speech advocacy group. Users said the service was still down on Monday. Rumors on Twitter that you can’t even send emails to Gmail accounts or company accounts that are hosted by Gmail from within China. If true, Chinese government is cutting off a major route to the outside world. What about Chinese companies communicating with foreign firms that have Gmail-hosted accounts? What about children of elite applying to Western universities with Gmail-hosted emails? Might be a good time to buy stock in Astrill, other VPN companies. 

REGIONAL RELATIONS

Woman Killed While Protesting Chinese Copper Mine in MyanmarNYT Villagers said the 56-year-old was shot by security forces as the police and Chinese employees of the mine erected a fence after land had been seized to expand the project. An unfortunate death and probably not the last. Protests will continue if local communities aren’t included in decisions on large projects like the Latpadaung Mine.

Related: The Latpadaung Mine StoryDVB

Cambodia, Vietnam Vow to Boost Bilateral TiesThe Diplomat Vietnamese president’s state visit sees neighbors advance comprehensive cooperation

Malaysia’s Janakuasa, Vietnam reach deal on 1,200 MW power plantThanh Nien News Vietnam has reached a preliminary agreement with Malaysian company Teknik Janakuasa on a build-operate-transfer contract for a 1,200-megawatt coal-fired power plant, the country’s first such facility to use imported coal, Vietnam’s industry and trade ministry said. Despite all the talk of hydropower among SE Asia watchers, coal still rules the market and makes up more than half of the region’s energy profile.

SUSTAINABILITY & RESOURCE MANAGEMENT

U.N. Disaster Chief Warns of More Natural Catastrophes to ComeNYT Margareta Wahlstrom, the top United Nations official on disasters, said the frequency of global hurricanes, flooding and other natural events would continue to rise. On the anniversary of the 2004 tsunami, Thailand and Malaysia are struggling with the worst flooding in 60 years. Many parts of SE Asia aren’t prepared for natural disasters and will suffer the consequences as climate change effects worsen.

2015 Set to Be a Tough Year for CommoditiesThe Diplomat The region’s miners have had a year to forget. Will 2015 be any better? Much of the region’s economic growth based on resource extraction. Falling commodities prices aren’t a welcome sign in places like Laos, Malaysia, Indonesia.

Water From China’s South-North Transfer Project Flows to BeijingNYT Within days, Beijing’s faucets are expected to begin spewing water that has traveled hundreds of miles to the capital from Hubei Province via one of the world’s most ambitious, and controversial, engineering projects.

Financing Climate SafetyProject Syndicate When the global financial system works properly, savings are channeled into investments that raise living standards; when it malfunctions, savings finance real-estate bubbles and environmentally harmful projects, including those that worsen climate change. Next year will be a turning point in the effort to create a better system.

What happened to The Third Pole’s environment in 2014?The Third Pole The series of natural disasters that battered the Himalayan region and South Asia during 2014 threw in stark relief the region’s vulnerability to climate change as well as poor planning and development policies.

Police Chief, RCAF Official Arrested for LoggingThe Cambodia Daily A commune police chief and a Royal Cambodian Armed Forces border police commander were arrested in Ratanakkiri province on Friday for involvement in “forestry crime,” according to officials, who would not go into detail about what crime the pair had committed.

CHINA

The Elusive Chinese DreamNYT The Communist Party should be more confident than ever. So why is it so anxious?

 China to send 700 combat troops to South SudanThe Guardian Deployment marks shift in Africa policy and will be first Chinese infantry battalion to take part in a UN peacekeeping mission. China is to send 700 combat troops to South Sudan in what analysts describe as a significant shift from its stated policy of non-interference in African conflicts. The first Chinese infantry battalion to take part in a UN peacekeeping mission will be equipped with drones, armoured carriers, antitank missiles, mortars and other weapons, “completely for self-defence purpose”, state media reported.

China Urges Companies to ‘Go Global’The Diplomat Increasing China’s outbound investment is part of Beijing’s long-term economic and political strategy.

Chinese Hit Back Against a Foreign Intrusion: ChristmasNYT As some Chinese enjoy the trappings of Western-style Christmas, and retailers enjoy some of their highest sales in late December, others are calling for bans on any celebrations. Friends in the US – Has Fox News been reporting on this? Would make a great addition to the annual ‘War on Christmas’ story.

China’s Growth SecretProject Syndicate Many people are profoundly pessimistic about the Chinese economy’s growth prospects, owing to the emergence of massive debt, overcapacity, and excessive investment. But China’s flexible approach to institutional reform has imbued its economy with the capacity to overcome such challenges.

SOUTHEAST ASIA

Koh Tao murder trial rescheduledThe Nation Court sets hearing dates from July; Myanmar embassy arranges bail guarantee money for the two suspects who allegedly murdered two British tourists earlier this year.

Landmark City Elections Underway in RangoonThe Irrawaddy Rangoon residents went to the polls on Saturday to elect a portion of their municipal government for the first time in more than 60 years, though initial reports indicated the landmark vote was under attended by an ill-informed electorate. 

Suu Kyi Says Wants West to Spur Reform not Reimpose SanctionsThe Irrawaddy Burma’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Friday called on the West to encourage her country’s government to enter meaningful reform talks but told it not to reintroduce punitive sanctions even though democratic reforms were foundering.

Vietnam economic growth quickens on exports, beating targetThanh Nien News Vietnam’s economic growth accelerated in the fourth quarter as banks increased lending and rising foreign investment boosted exports.

Prem thanks Prayut for staging coupThe Nation Privy Council President Gen Prem Tinsulanonda Monday expressed appreciation to Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and other military leaders, noting that they had done “a great thing” for the country on May 22. This is just Prem patting himself on the back, seeing as the Privy Council was a major driver of the coup in the first place. The military, Privy Council and His Majesty are what many Thais call ‘conservative forces’ and they’re thick as thieves.

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Seismicity & Sediment Flow in the Mekong River Basin

Understanding the geologic history of the upper Mekong basin is increasingly important for examining the effects of dam construction, both in terms of seismicity and sediment trapping.  The sediment regime of the river has been altered by the construction of dams, which have captured large quantities of sediment.  However, the degree to which it has changed the river is uncertain due to the small number of studies done so far.  Additionally, agriculture and development have their own effects on the sediment load of the Mekong, which further complicates sediment analysis.  More alarmingly, a large magnitude earthquake could cause dam damage or failure, which in turn could cause catastrophic damage downstream.  While such an event is unlikely, it is important to properly regulate dam construction as well as encourage the construction of earthquake resistant infrastructure, especially in Yunnan, Northern Thailand, and Laos.  The underlying geologic structure of the Mekong River Basin is highly complicated and should be studied in greater detail so that dams are constructed as safely as possible, both to protect downstream communities and to ensure that the sediment load is not being disturbed at the expense of aquatic ecosystems and downstream agricultural communities.

 

Tectonic setting

The origin of the Mekong River lies 5,000 meters above sea level, high on the Tibetan plateau.  From there the river runs through China’s Qinghai and Yunnan provinces, where it is called the Lancang River.  Its name changes to the Mekong as it flows through the five mainland Southeast Asian nations: Myanmar, Lao PDR, Thailand, Cambodia, and finally Vietnam.  The River runs a total of 4,350 km before it spreads out over the Mekong delta and into the South China Sea.  The Mekong drains an area of 795,000 square kilometers, with an annual discharge of 475 cubic kilometers, making it the longest and largest river by volume in Southeast Asia, and the 12th longest and 8th largest by volume in the world.  At 16,000 cubic meters per second, the Mekong has an average discharge comparable to the Mississippi river, despite the Mekong being over 1,000 miles shorter. (Fig 1)  Its importance in the region as a source of livelihood and culture cannot be understated; it is the connecting tie between the nations of mainland Southeast Asia.  While river ‘capture’, or the seismically induced alteration of river pathways, makes pinpointing the origin of the Mekong River difficult, there is some indication of its modern derivation.  According to one study, which took sediment cores from the South China Sea, “The oldest sediments, which are linked to the modern delta body, accumulated in the early mid-Holocene, at about 8000 calibrated years before present preceding the mid-Holocene sea-level highstand in the South China Sea.” (See figure 1, core MD01-2393)  Primarily because of sea level rise the Mekong River has changed since then into the basin recognizable today.

The Mekong River Basin is situated off the southeastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau, which as an active converging plate boundary has a strong influence on the tectonics of the Mekong basin.  The collision of the Eurasian plate and the Indian Plate are the source of the uplift of the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau, and the Mekong River basin lies between this convergent plate boundary and the Sumatran Subduction Trench further south along the southern coast of Sumatra.  This intraplate zone is a ‘basin and range’ province, much like the Nevada-Utah basin and range of the United States, and is scattered with faults with different slip-rates, especially in the area in and around northern Thailand.  Considering this somewhat unique geologic position which has created different fault zones pulling and pushing in different directions, the basin’s geology is both heterogeneous and, particularly in the northern part, seismically active.  To the north of the Mekong River Basin, the Longmenshan fault zone is highly active; responsible for the devastating earthquake in Chengdu in 2008, which claimed the lives of over 68,000 people.   The upper Mekong basin is not range of the Longmenshan fault zone, but its basin and range typology is strongly influenced by this fault zone.  The most notable fault systems that influence the basin are the “right-lateral, strike-slip Red River and the left-lateral strike-slip Xianshuihe-Xiaojiang fault systems.”  These fault systems as a portion of the typical ‘basin and range’ geological province create series of exactly that: similarly trending valleys and mountains that are a direct result of fault blocks falling and rising with respect to each other.  This allows different geologic layers to be exposed within relative short distances, meaning that as the Mekong River flows downstream, it quickly gathers different types of sediments.

 

Sediment regime

The sediment regime in the Mekong is a result of its drainage pattern and the variety of rock types in the river basin.  The Mekong River basin itself is atypical of continent draining rivers in its drainage pattern is not dendritic.  Rather, the river has a parallel drainage pattern which is much more linear with more direct tributary angles.  This pattern is a combined result of the underlying geologic structure and the slope of the topography.  The upper basin is particularly narrow which indicates strong, or steep, slope control.  Often, underlying structures such as joint systems control the geometry of tributary angles, which are generally narrow.  In these steep and narrow gorges, the rapid flowing water of the Mekong quickly erodes the hillsides, making the river a muddy-silt brown.  Considering the heterogeneity of the underlying structure, the swift moving water gathers many different minerals, creating a rich sediment regime with lots of chemical elements needed for agriculture and aquatic ecosystems.  The upper part of the basin, especially in China, is the primary source for this sediment.  Researchers have suggested that “the existing estimate of the mean annual suspended sediment load of the Mekong reported in the literature is ~160 Mt y^-1, and (Roberts) has estimated that about 50% of this load is contributed by the upper part of the basin in China.”

The northern part of the basin “accounts for about 24% of the total area of the basin and about 18% of its total discharge, and sediment yields in these mountainous headwaters, which have steep, unstable slopes, are clearly substantially higher than those from the remainder of the basin.”  As it flows the Lancang River quickly becomes a muddy-silt brown, reducing the River’s ability to erode the rock further downstream.  Dams allow sediment to settle out, in fact “Kummu and Varis cited estimates that suggest that the Manwan Dam could trap as much as ~50-60 Mt of sediment per year, and this would clearly cause a major reduction in the sediment load of the Lancang River.”  What the overall effect this entrapment will be is not yet known.  What is known is the exiting water, devoid of sediment, will erode rock more quickly than it did before, possibly replacing the sediment lost but at the cost of downstream slope stability.  The increased erosion of stream beds could pose ‘major threats’ to places such as Luang Prabang, Vientiane, and Nongkhai.

Figure 2: Mekong Sediment load, values from 1961 compared with recent years (between 1997 and 2002).

Figure 3: Mekong river discharge, values form 1961 compared with recent years (between 1997 and 2003).

Unfortunately, there have not been a lot of studies done in Southeast Asia on this subject, and research needs to be continued in order to examine how the sediment regime has been and is being altered.  So far, research done has shown that variations in sediment discharge are more closely linked with the total water discharge of the Mekong, rather than the construction of new dams. Figures two and three illustrate this problem as there are hardly enough data points, due to a lack of continuous research, to come to a conclusion about the sediment regime and the way dams have affected it. In this way, it is important that these parameters be monitored annually so that a meaningful conclusion can be drawn as to whether or not dams have a negative impact on sediment transport.

 

Seismicity: Predicting earthquakes in the northern Mekong Basin

Accurately predicting the timing of an earthquake, as seismologists know, is close to impossible. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not worth trying, because properly understanding seismic activity can be effective in protecting human lives.  While exceedingly challenging, seismologists use a variety of techniques to predict the likelihood of earthquakes occurring, and what the magnitude of the earthquake might be.  These techniques generally involve measuring average slip rates and estimating the likelihood within a given period of time of the fault ‘slipping’ which causes earthquakes.  In the Mekong River basin, this is extremely important with regard to the dams that have been built along the river as well as for dams in the planning phases.

Figure 4. Dams along the Mekong River and its tributaries. Courtesy of the WWF

Seismic activity in the Mekong River basin is primarily limited to areas in Yunnan, northern Thailand, and Laos.  Some areas in northern Thailand in recent history have been described as seismically inactive, as despite there being several fault zones there are few historical records of destructive earthquakes.  There is some mention in different literature that northern Thailand is seismically ‘highly stable’, which happens to be true for recent history, but that does not suggest earthquakes cannot or will not happen.  As Fenton says in his 2003 study, “Due to a lack of large, damaging earth-quakes during historical time, Thailand has not been considered to be a seismically active country.  Although there are a number of accounts of historical earthquake damage (Nutalaya et al. 1985), the locations and sizes of most of these events are not well constrained.”  While earthquakes are generally below 6.5 in magnitude, there are notable exceptions.  For example, “[The Red River] fault has produced several earthquakes >M 6.0 including the 4 January 1970, M 7.5 earthquake in Tonghai which killed over 10,000 people.”  While this was further north, there are concerns that earthquakes could cause substantial damage to developing infrastructure.  One USGS study of a magnitude 6.8 earthquake in the Golden Triangle region of Myanmar in March of 2011 highlights that “Overall, the population in this region resides in structures that are highly vulnerable to earthquake shaking, though some resistant structures exist. The predominant building types are wood and unreinforced brick masonry construction.” This suggests that if a larger magnitude earthquake of were to strike, the damage would be enhanced by the collapse of structures which are not equipped to handle such shaking.  These faults are considered capable of generating maximum earthquakes of up to 7.5 in magnitude, which while unlikely on an annual basis, (see figure 6) increase in likelihood over time.

Figure 6. Faults in Northern Thailand.  Note the proximity of faults 3, 11, and 18 to the Mekong and proposed dam site. Note annual probability of fault movement in Fig. 7   Courtesy of the USGS

 

Figure 7. Annual probability of fault movement among studied active faults in northern Thailand. See fig 6. and key for location of faults. Data courtesy of the USGS

The Xayaburi dam in Laos is controversial for several reasons, but fears of damage from earthquakes are rising.  One Thai geologist, Dr Punya of Chulalongkorn University, has estimated there is a “30 per cent chance of a medium-sized earthquake hitting the dam site in the next 30 years, and a 10 per cent chance of a powerful earthquake of up to magnitude 7.” He was reported as saying: “If the fault at the dam site becomes active … there is no chance for seismic engineering to take care of that.”  Dr Punya also stated that construction on the dam should “never have started” at such a site without further research into its seismic risk.   Dr. Punya’s concerns do not seem unwarranted, as there have been substantial earthquakes in recent years.  In 2011, two earthquakes occurred 48 kilometers from the site of the Xayaburi dam, one 5.4 and one 4.6 magnitude.  One month later a magnitude 3.9 earthquake occurred 60 kilometers from the dam site.  In 2007, a 6.3-magnitude quake hit the Xayaburi area.  Further away, in northern Myanmar, a 6.9 magnitude quake on March 24, 2011 killed 151 people.

Apparently, the earthquakes near Xayaburi occurred on what were thought to have been inactive faults, “an unusual development and one that causes additional concern.”  It is possible this may be related to dam-induced seismicity, another substantial concern many geologists bring up with regard to dam construction and seismicity.  This phenomenon has been documented as far back as 1932, and the Sichuan earthquake in 2008 has been suggested as being a result of this effect.  Tectonic movement isn’t a process that changes within the lifetimes of humans, and a trend of increasing seismicity is only likely to continue.  In fact, “some studies suggest that due to the high slip rate on this fault, future large earthquakes arehighly possible.”  While total dam failure is extremely unlikely, earthquakes will nonetheless be able to cause a lot of damage to dams, costing the dam companies millions.  Moving forward, it is imperative that more geologic and seismic studies are done of the northern Mekong basin.  This is especially true for dam construction companies as they construct dams; to do so in as safe and secure a way as possible.

 

Conclusion

Unfortunately, most of the scientific literature on the subjects of seismicity and sediment transport in the Mekong River point to the lack of research done thus far as a limiting factor for their own research.   While there has been a fair amount of research done, it is not sufficient to completely assess whether dams are safe to construct or not.  Based on preliminary findings, it seems that most earth scientists that have studied this region agree that they feel uneasy about the construction of dams and that more research needs to be done.  The construction of dams might ultimately be important for the development of Southeast Asian nations, but proper research needs to be done to ensure they are not irreparably damaging the river.  A worst-case scenario would consist of catastrophic dam failure due to an earthquake, which would in turn likely cause downstream dams to fail, and destroying any communities along the river.  The economic loss, not to mention the loss of life, would be disastrous.  Because of this risk, however small, research and engineering techniques should be paid for ahead of time by dam construction companies rather than afterwards with human lives and livelihoods.

 

References:

Ai, M., and M. Hong. 2011. Earthquake Shaking: 2011.

Clark, M. K., L. M. Schoenbohm, L. H. Royden, K. X. Whipple, B. C. Burchfiel, X. Zhang, W. Tang, E. Wang, and L. Chen. 2004. Surface uplift , tectonics , and erosion of eastern Tibet from large-scale drainage patterns. Tectonics 23:1–21.

Fawthrop, T. 2014, November 19. Experts renew quake fears over Xayaburi dam Mekong River in Laos. South China Morning Post. Xayaburi.

Fenton, C. H., P. Charusiri, and S. H. Wood. 2003. Recent paleoseismic investigations in Northern and Western Thailand 46(October).

Turner, B., J. Jenkins, R. Turner, A. L. Parker, A. Sinclair, S. Davies, G. P. Hayes, A. Villaseñor, R. L. Dart, A. C. Tarr, K. P. Furlong, and H. M. Benz. 2014. Seismicity of the Earth 1900 – 2010 Himalaya and Vicinity PA IN HA NA FA ST ARC 80225(303):80225.

Walling, D. E. 2008. The Changing Sediment Load of the Mekong River. A Journal of the Human Environment 37(3):150–157.

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Regional Roundup: Week of 12.21.2014

The analysis is beginning to roll out from the Mekong River Commission’s Regional Consultation on the Don Sahong Dam in Laos – see below.  International Rivers, vehemently opposed to any damming on the Mekong released a series of op-eds on their blog this week – worth reading.  At the 5th GMS Summit this weekend, Chinese Santa delivered 3bn in development goodies to its Mekong neighbors to the south – at the same time its chief hydropower developer is considering to take over construction of the Don Sahong dam project.  Let’s watch carefully how this money is spent.  Would be interesting to look at the ROR on China’s overseas and cross border investment.  Much more including predictions for 2015….

 

ExSE FOCUS

 Parties polarized after consultations on Laos Don Sahong Dam – VOA Robert Mather, South East Asia head for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), said there are serious questions about whether this evaluation process is worthwhile.”Three main issues – the timing of the process, the lack of clarity about really the limits of what the process is actually about and the lack of any real trans-boundary EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) discussions around, then I really don’t think you can expect the process to really yield anything meaningful,” said Maher.

Unquiet grows the Don – The Economist THE Mekong river, sustaining around 60m people, mostly rural and poor, is the world’s largest and most productive inland fishery. It is hardly surprising, then, that NGOs and downstream governments are fretting about the impact of yet another planned upstream dam. On December 11th the Mekong River Commission (MRC)—an intergovernmental body of the four riverside, or riparian, states (Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam) along the lower Mekong—held a public consultation over Laos’s plan to dam the river two kilometres north of its border with Cambodia.

Along with Vietnam, Laos’s other downstream neighbour, Cambodia is unhappy with the Don Sahong dam project. Environmental NGOs, such as the WWF and International Rivers (IR), worry about the damage it could cause to communities and fisheries—particularly the Mekong giant catfish and the rare Irrawaddy dolphin. So Nam, who heads the MRC’s fisheries programme, said that there was still too little data on how the Don Sahong would affect Mekong fisheries. He also said that the engineers’ proposals to mitigate damage—diverting water away from the channel across which the Don Sahong will be built, and making two other channels wider and deeper—would fail to attract migrating fish.

The Vietnamese delegation to the MRC insists it will take five to ten years of study to know how the dam will affect fish migrating through the region. Other concerns raised include the Don Sahong’s blockage of sediment, used as fertiliser by downstream farming communities, and its effects on Si Phan Don, the tranquil archipelago in which it will be built. A lack of transboundary studies has impelled several regional NGOs to call for Laos to cancel the project.//great analysis from an old friend of the blog.  Correction: Laos currently has 23 dams on the Mekong tributary system and zero operating on the main stem.  The Xayaburi dam is about 30% complete but has not fully blocked the flow of the river..yet.

 Laos Dam Risks Damaging Mekong River, Igniting Tensions With Vietnam – The Diplomat Consultations on Don Sahong dam fail to bridge gap between Laos and neighboring states

 Opening Speech by CEO of MRC Secretariat – Regional public consultation on Don Sahong Hydropower Project – ADB

Fish migration, potential environmental impacts and transboundary effects took centre stage at MRC’s regional public consultation on Don Sahong hydropower project – ADB About 100 members of various stakeholder groups from the Lower Mekong Basin gathered in Pakse, Lao PDR for the Mekong River Commission’s (MRC) regional public consultation

 Is the Mekong at a Tipping Point? – International Rivers For thousands of years the mighty Mekong River Basin has served as a life-sustaining force, supporting the livelihoods and food security of more than 40 million people in the region. The river’s rich mosaic of ecosystems supports the world’s largest inland fisheries and exceptional riverine biodiversity that is only surpassed by the Amazon River. The Mekong provides ecosystem services on a scale so vast that it’s often called the mother of all rivers.

Dams and the Politicization of Science International Rivers For almost two years, the sensational water conflict brewing in Southeast Asia was a hot topic, drawing the attention of global leaders and major newspapers. Laos was planning to build the enormous Xayaburi Dam across the Mekong River, angering downstream countries that depend on the river for food security. Prominent global politicians, including Hillary Clinton, urged Laos to act in an environmentally responsible manner. Regional leaders, especially from Vietnam and Cambodia, called for a delay in the project. I was working for International Rivers at the time, and we were constantly responding to requests from journalists who wanted to gauge how far the conflict would go.

Is the world’s biggest dam builder willing to change? International Rivers Dam-builder Sinohydro has an opportunity to prove that it values its reputation and its role as an ambassador of the Chinese state more than the short-term profits of a destructive contract, says International Rivers policy director Peter Bosshard. Since the turn of the century, Sinohydro has become the world’s dominant dam builder. The company is engaged in an ongoing dialogue with International Rivers, and prepared a strong environmental policy framework in 2011. Yet Sinohydro now considers building of the Don Sahong Dam, which would threaten a vital fish migration path on the Mekong, and other highly destructive dam projects.

 China offers $3bn in aid and loans to neighbours Reuters China has offered more than $3 billion in loans and aid to neighbours Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand and Laos to improve infrastructure and production, and to fight poverty, state media reported on Saturday.

China plans to lead by example at GMS summit WantChinaTimes China will continue to play a leading role in pursuing inclusive and sustainable development of the Greater Mekong Subregion.

 China Is Handing Out Money To Its NeighborsBusiness Insider

Spotlight: GMS eyes better connectivity, China’s bigger role Xinhua

 Mekong countries plan $30bn links Bangkok Post

Thailand – China sign two MOUs ahead of 5th GMS Summit Thailand National News Bureau.

China, Thailand boost ties with deals for rail and riceReuters

 Other countries welcome to invest in three other rail routes: Prajin – The Nation Japan, South Korea and European countries still have an opportunity to invest in Thailand’s railway systems – despite the pending 867-kilometre double-track project being allocated to China, Transport Minister Prajin Juntong said yesterday.

 ADB President Calls on Greater Mekong Subregion to Build on Achievements ADB  The President of the Asian Development Bank (ADB), Takehiko Nakao, completed a two-day visit to Bangkok today, where he participated in the 5th Leaders’ Summit of the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) and met top officials of the host country to discuss ADB’s deepening partnership with Thailand.

 New Year’s Predictions for Southeast Asia – CFR Asia Unbound It’s that time of year again. Since I will be away between Christmas and the end of the year, this is the week for boldly making predictions about 2015 in Southeast Asia. At the end of 2015, just like this year, we can look back and see how many of my fearless predictions were right, and how many missed the mark.

 

REGIONAL RELATIONS

China’s Charm Offensive: A Temporary, Tactical Change The Diplomat China is playing nice for now, but there are cracks in its friendly smile.//Xi has done much to improve China’s soft power image in the last 12 months. He’d get receive even more global laurels if he showed up in a Santa suit for the Christmas day press conference in Beijing.

Can China’s Gwadar Port Dream Survive Local Ire? The Diplomat China wants the Gwadar port, but impoverished locals have no interest in foreign meddling.//next project, public opinion polls at all of China’s new trading/naval ports around the world. 

Thailand-Burma in border trade talks BANGKOK POST Thailand and Burma plan to have a joint trade committee meeting next month in an attempt to boost two-way trade and investment. The move is part of the countries’ strategy to drive overall border trade volume to reach 1.5 trillion baht (US$4.5 billion) next year. The first meeting will be chaired by Thai Commerce Minister Chatchai Sarikulya and his Burmese counterpart.

Burma Last in Asean to Join Regional Infrastructure Fund  The Irrawaddy  Burma has become a full member of the Asean Infrastructure Fund, the last country of the regional grouping to gain shareholder status, the fund announced on Thursday. “It [Burma] will be able to access funding from AIF for infrastructure projects, that will be how Myanmar benefits,” said Jin W. Cyhn, the principal economist of the Southeast Asia department of the Asian Development Bank (ADB), which administers the fund.//Then again Burma was last to join every ASEAN institution. Perhaps the better headline is “Burma finally joins…”

Maritime Southeast Asia: A Game of Go? The Diplomat How much does the ancient game of Go, or weiqi, reveal about Chinese military strategy?

and A.: Bill Hayton on Growing Rivalries in the South China Sea NYT The BBC journalist’s latest work, “The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia,” addresses the history, politics and energy resources of the sea that has become central to China’s foreign policy.

Navy to sink two more illegal fishing boats – Jakarta Post Despite complaints from neighboring countries, Indonesia is set to continue sinking foreign ships caught fishing illegally in its territorial waters. The Indonesian Navy was scheduled to sink two more ships on Sunday at Laha, Teluk Ambon, Maluku, Navy spokesman Commodore Manahan Simorangkir said.

 Indonesia: Playing With Fire in the South China Sea – The Diplomat Indonesia’s new president could jeopardize bilateral relations and ASEAN unity with his maritime “shock therapy.”

 ASEAN Should Confront Laos On Rights Abuses: NGOs – The Diplomat Call issued on anniversary of disappearance of Lao civil society leader Sombath Somphone. //The whole world should confront Laos on this atrocity. Google the writings of Sombath Somphone to see how generous, creative, and inspiring he is. 

Crimson tide Southeast Asia Globe After being destroyed by the 2004 tsunami, Banda Aceh’s Lampulo fish market was rebuilt and remains a hotbed of shark fin trading. Local fishermen trawl the seas, hauling in hundreds of thousands of the creatures each year to meet the demand for shark fin soup that flows out of China and Vietnam.

 Multi-country tourist visas stalled over security worries – The Nation The idea of tourists getting one visa for six destinations in the Mekong region is tough to achieve because nations are concerned about security, Tourism and Sports Minister Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul said yesterday.//This is a reflection of general anxiety regarding the AEC 2015.  Thailand has yet to sign the Cross Border Trade Agreement which will increase flows of regional goods – reasons same, Thailand is concerned about security.

Will we see an ASEAN Economic Community by 2015? ADB Launched as a political bloc and security pact in the aftermath of the Viet Nam War, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has evolved to embrace an ambitious economic agenda. Its latest project is to establish the ASEAN Economic Community by 31 December 2015. But is this likely?

Suu Kyi still negotiating China visit DVB Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is still discussing an itinerary for her planned visit to China this month. Suu Kyi’s spokesperson Phyo Zayar Thaw, himself an MP for the National League for Democracy (NLD), said: “Arrangements are still being discussed with Chinese officials. She won’t be leaving anytime soon.”

 Burmese soldiers reportedly killed near Chinese border – GoKunming  Seven soldiers were killed in an ambush near the Myanmar-China frontier last week, according to Burmese state media reports. The target of the attack was an army outpost inKunlong, a small town in the north of Shan State, located only 30 kilometers away from the border with Yunnan’s western Lincang Prefecture.

 US Congress in the Driver’s Seat on US–Burma Military Cooperation – Irrawaddy  Burma When it comes to foreign policy, among the most powerful words in any Congressman’s vocabulary are “none of the funds appropriated by this Act…” Congress used them, or a variation thereof, twice this week (Dec. 8-13) in connection with Burma policy.

Unlocking ASEAN’s Potential – Project Syndicate For decades, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has been asking whether ten countries with different cultures, political systems, and levels of economic development can act in concert to expand their collective potential. Judging by their leaders’ ambitious vision for cooperation, the answer may be yes.

Thailand Turns to China – The Diplomat With a post-coup cooling of relations with the West, Bangkok is looking to its largest trading partner.//China also turns to Thailand with the prospects of big changes in the year to come.  China always saw Thai democracy as a big obstacle to bilateral relations. 

 

SUSTAINABILITY & RESOURCE MANAGEMENT

Asia’s fragile caves face growing development risks The Guardian The limestone caves of Southeast Asia and southwest China are home to scores of plants and animals, many of them rare. But a rise in tourism, mining, and other human activities is placing these biodiverse environments at risk, reports Environment360

Hainan gibbon ‘clinging on’ with 25 left in China The Guardian Scientists say a disease outbreak or typhoon could push world’s rarest ape species towards extinction. Scientists are racing to save a critically endangered ape species that lives only in the rainforests of southern China’s Hainan island. With 25 known individuals remaining, a disease outbreak or a strong typhoon could “massively impact” the species’s chances of survival, the scientists say.

Hu tieu, a Vietnamese dish spiced with prosperity and climate change – The Guardian The rice noodle soup, a specialty of the Mekong Delta, tells the tale of the changing economy and environment in the region. Is Vietnam becoming a victim of our appetites? On a visit last month to the town of My Tho, the capital of the Tien Giang province in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, I found a riverside restaurant that served the local specialty, a dish called hu tieu. It’s a delicious soup, dense with stretchy rice noodles and topped with succulent locally farmed shrimp.//The quickest way to understand climate change goes through the stomach. 

China’s farmers face major challenges adapting to climate change – ChinaDialogue China’s mainly small-scale agricultural sector, where the average farm is less than a hectare, needs significant investment and capacity building to adapt to climate change. In an interview with chinadialogue, Xu Yinlong, who is a member of the Scientific Steering Committee leading UNEP’s ‘Programme of Research on Climate Change Vulnerability, Impacts and Adaptation‘, explains the government’s strategy.

Using local knowledge to recover fisheries in the Mekong Delta, Vietnam – Mekong Commons  Vam Nao village is located on the riverbank of Vam Nao River in the Mekong River Delta, Vietnam. The river plays a very important role in local community life, both for fisheries and agriculture. In the Mekong Delta, the Mekong River branches in to nine major rivers, and the Vam Nao River balances the water flows between two of these, namely the Tien River and the Hau River.

Greed and Resistance in Sarawak’s Rainforest – International Rivers Will dams flood out Sarawak’s indigenous cultures? Sarawak, the Malaysian province on the island of Borneo, has long been one of the six world regions with the highest biodiversity. An average hectare of Sarawak rainforest contains more tree species than all of Europe. The local Penan communities have names for more than 1300 of the plants they live with. The forest is also home to orang utans and tree leopards, hundreds of bird species, and frogs that can glide up to 20 meters through the air.

 Laos foots the bill for power-hungry Bangkok – Mekong Commons Seven months ago, in May, Bangkok’s latest shopping mall, Central Embassy, celebrated its opening with aplomb, attracting several thousand Bangkok celebrities to this glitzy affair. The 144 000 square-meter luxurious and futuristic-looking mall was described by Travel & Leisure magazine as a ‘monster of a shopping complex’. During the same month, theWorldwide Wildlife Fund warned that the construction of the Don Sahang dam in southern Laos would endanger the survival of freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins, and called for a suspension of the project.

The Oil Price Opportunity – Project Syndicate Though lower oil prices may boost overall global growth, with the oil-importing advanced economies gaining the most, the impact on efforts to combat climate change could be devastating. But this decline in oil prices could also provide a rare political opportunity to introduce an explicit carbon price.

 Why Are Commodity Prices Falling? – Project Syndicate Most dollar commodity prices have fallen since the first half of the year. Though a host of sector-specific factors are at work, the fact that the downswing is so broad – as is often the case with large price movements – suggests that macroeconomic factors are at work.

 

CHINA

Story Map: What is the impact of China’s mega water diversion scheme? – Third Pole China’s South-North Water Transfer Project – the world’s largest engineering project –  will eventually pump 45 billion cubic metres of water each year from the Yangtze to the Yellow River to feed the cities and coal fields of northern and western China, which are running out of water. The amount of water diverted every year will be equivalent to a second Yellow River.//great work from Beth Walker

Housing: Why grumble? The Economist JUST how bad is China’s housing bubble? One important measure—the most important for those trying to get a foot on the property ladder—is affordability. Many believe that Chinese housing prices have soared well beyond the reach of ordinary people. There is some truth to that. But a closer look at the data reveals a more complex picture. The Economist Intelligence Unit, our sister company, created a city-level index to track the relation between housing prices and incomes across China. Two points stand out.

China’s Housing Resists Efforts to Spur Market – NYT Property developers in China are struggling to unload unsold units as potential buyers try to decide if prices will continue to fall.

Tourists Behaving Badly: China’s Image Problem – The Diplomat There is a disconnect between China’s growing national power and the international image of the Chinese people.//I’m writing this on an AirAsia flight from Kunming to Bangkok – so far so good.  Even though Chinese tourists’ action often should stand alone along with the actions of businessmen and govt officials behaving badly we have to admit there’s a growing disconnect between how the West looks out for China and the international capabilities of China’s growing power. 

 

SOUTHEAST ASIA

 Cambodia investigates suspected mass HIV infection Agence France-Presse Unlicensed doctor suspected of spreading virus through contaminated needles, leaving 106 people thought to be infected. Cambodia’s prime minister, Hun Sen, has ordered an inquiry into an apparent mass HIV infection believed to have been spread by contaminated needles, as the number of suspected cases passed 100.

Thai murders: Foreign Office blocking fair trial for Burmese migrants – lawyers The Guardian Lawyers representing men accused of murdering two British tourists in Koh Tao say information about case is being withheld. Lawyers representing Burmese migrant workers accused of killing two young British tourists in Thailand have accused the Foreign Office of being complicit in ensuring the men will not receive a fair trial after officials in London refused to share any information about the prosecution case.//Coup plus murdered tourists do not bode well for tourism to Thailand which accounts for a significant portion of GDP

Thai NGOs Call for Improved Social Benefits for Migrant Workers – Irrawaddy  Burmese migrants and NGOs supporting migrants in Thailand have called on the Thai government to reform its social security system so that legally registered Burmese, Laotian and Cambodia workers in the country can gain long-term benefits from the system. Brahm Press, the director of the MAP Foundation for the Health and Knowledge of Ethnic Labor, said the group, along with half a dozen other community-based organizations, had sent an open letter to the Thai Ministry of Interior’s office at Chiang Mai City Hall and to the Thailand’s Legal Reform Committee.

The Harsh Life of Thailand’s Migrant Workers – The Diplomat Two recent cases underscore just how difficult life is for migrant workers in Thailand.

Thailand’s Twelve Turbulent Months – The Diplomat Democracy in Thailand took about 12 steps backwards in 2014.//this fall at the annual Thai Studies Conference at UWisconsin, Thongchai Winichakul proclaimed the military coup set Thailand back 2-3 generations.

Samsung could double-down on Vietnam by 2017 – Thanh Nien News Samsung has offered to raise its investment in Vietnam to US$20 billion in 2017 if their existing business here goes smoothly, according to a new government report.//Interesting that Samsung’s largest cell phone factory is in Hanoi rather than the more productive HCMC – because lower wages or need to keep close to the state?

Faced with Russian tourist drop, Vietnam resort towns cut prices – Thanh Nien News Hotels, resorts and travel agencies in Binh Thuan Province, famous for its Mui Ne beach, have agreed to cut prices to fight a dramatic decline in Russian tourists’ bookings due to the ruble’s fall.//Tourism is likely down from Hainan all the way to Phuket this holiday season.

Vietnam’s rising debt a serious concern, economists warn – Thanh Nien News After Vietnam’s public debt hit US$70 billion in late 2013, economists began to express concerns about the country’s financial future.

Power-Grid Study to Tackle Supply Problems Cambodia Daily U.S. conglomerate General Electric on Thursday inked a $1 million deal with Cambodia’s state-owned Electricite du Cambodge (EdC) to conduct a six-month study to identify weaknesses in Cambodia’s electrical grid with the aim of enhancing the reliability of the power supply.//cost of electricity in Cambodia is among the most expensive in the world – a new grid is necessary.  Investors line up.

ADB, Cambodia Sign Loans to Boost Water Supply, Tourism and Financial Sectors ADB  Cambodia’s Minister of Economy and Finance H.E. Aun Pornmoniroth and ADB today signed loan agreements totaling $67 million for three support operations to improve water supply, tourism and financial sectors.

China to Build New National Police Headquarters – Cambodia Daily The Interior Ministry on Wednesday confirmed that China will construct a new head office for the National Police in Phnom Penh at no cost in order to accommodate the expanding duties of Cambodia’s domestic security operations.// yet another eyesore to mar the skyline of Phnom Penh.

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Filed under Current Events, NEWS DIGEST, SLIDER

Mass Disappearance of Vietnamese Brides in China’s North

Cover shot of a 2010 Southern Weekly magazine featuring the trend of Chinese men are marrying Vietnamese brides

Cover shot of a 2010 Southern Weekly magazine with a feature on how Chinese men are marrying Vietnamese brides

Police are investigating how a hundred people came to be missing last month in Handan County, Hebei.  The disappeared aren’t protesters or dissidents, they aren’t journalists, they aren’t teachers; they haven’t been victim to a mud slide, a coal mine collapse or a flood.  They are a hundred young Vietnamese women, brokered into marriage to Chinese men across the border mere months ago, and now gone.

Public, verifiable facts on the case are scarce; even on the barest nature of the crime.  Are the disappeared women victims or co-conspirators with their traffickers?  Did they move on willingly, clandestinely, or were they forcibly kidnapped?  How could a hundred people remove themselves from their new husbands without a trace left behind?

One local official says it looks like the men were scammed by a marriage broker who had lived in the county for twenty years before disappearing with the women.

Wu Meiyu was herself a Vietnamese bride, moving to the county and raising a family there with her new Chinese husband.  Wu is alleged to have travelled widely this year in search of lonely male bachelors to sell Vietnamese brides to.  She successfully administrated one hundred illegal marriages to these men, importing each bride individually through associates in Vietnam for a hefty fee.

On the evening of November 20 all one hundred of these women disappeared en masse.  They apparently told their husbands they were attending a dinner party, but none returned at evening’s end.  Except, possibly,for one.

It has been reported that one of the brides returned to her hometown and filed a police report.  The report claimed that upon arriving for a dinner party she was told by an unspecified person that a new husband was going to be found for her.  At some point she fell unconscious and after awakening managed to make her way back to her adopted village.

This incredibly vague, frustrating anecdote raises more questions than it answers, but if true, appears to imply that the women have been trafficked against their will.  On the other hand, this is the only piece of evidence pointing to the forced nature of the disappearance, and if untrue the likelihood of the women being scammers themselves increases.

Whether these women are victims or co-conspirators, the scale of the movement of people involved highlights the robust, entrenched criminal networks involved in human trafficking in the region – and the suffering trafficking incurs for all involved.

Human trafficking in China is a huge, murky issue.  Although absolutely illegal in PRC law, it occurs constantly; domestically – with victims being abducted and transported thousands of kilometers across the huge country, to unfamiliar surrounds – and internationally, with thousands of people being smuggled in from neighboring countries such as Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos and nations further afield.  In some parts of China openly marrying brokered, foreign brides has become local tradition.

Chinese police forces are enacting a notional attempt to stem the tide of trafficking crime, with most attention being paid to child trafficking, sexual slavery and prostitution.  However, given China’s skewed sex ratio and its growing demand for trafficked children and wives (the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences estimates there could be up to 24 million more men than women of marriageable age in China by 2020) it remains to be seen if police can make any real inroads into the problem.

This particular police investigation into the hundred missing women is worth tracking for its unusual scale.  Every day young vulnerable Vietnamese women are abducted from their homes by friends, family and strangers and sold into China.  These damaged women rarely manage to return and are mostly voiceless if they do.

Local and regional policing efforts need to work effectively to achieve a solid outcome in this potentially high-profile case so that more attention can be drawn to the crimes of slavery and human trafficking in Asia.Source countries must also do their bit, but as a significant destination country China has a huge responsibility –and debt – to the many victims who wake up there daily in the dark: far from home, scared and stripped of their rights.

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Filed under China, Current Events, Human trafficking, Regional Relations, SLIDER, Vietnam

Zen & the Chinese Art of Motorcycle Driving

Photo courtesy of GoKunming.com

Photo courtesy of GoKunming.com

One cloudless August day in 1998, I rented a bicycle and rode straight through the heart of central Beijing. It was the kind of day China’s capital never sees anymore — expansive blue skies, crisp, clean morning air and virtually empty city roads.

I cruised alongside hundreds of other riders crowded into bike lanes nearly as wide as the adjacent avenues. Bicycles dominated the city, outnumbering vehicles ten to one, with most being one variation or another of the classic Flying Pigeon. The riders all moved together in improbable synchronicity, like a shimmering shoal of fish. The lanes were extremely crowded but it felt as if the shoal carried me along and I effortlessly kept pace with everyone else, propelled by the exhilaration of facing my first day in China.

Fast forward to now, after more than 16 years in the country, and I struggle to find ways to keep that exhilaration alive. These days I ride my off-road motorcycle through the streets of Kunming trying my hardest not to flip the bird at every driver that gets in my way. This year, after a decade and a half of self-control, I finally let it fly. I took my right hand off the throttle, thrust my upraised fist toward the offending driver and extended my middle finger to the sky.

I was full of rage and hoped to provoke the same rage in the driver. I wanted to ruin his drive as he had ruined mine. Instead, the driver lifted his index finger, pointed at me and smiled. I could see him mouth two words to his friend in the passenger seat. “Kan! Laowai!” — Look! Foreigner!

I bought my first motorcycle in 2002 when I lived in Dali. I had never even ridden one before, but I planned a solo road trip north along the borders of Myanmar and Tibet. I didn’t have any idea what to expect, even strapping a machete to the side of my saddle just in case a band of ruffians threatened trouble. I never needed the weapon.

The countryside roads weren’t without their dangers. Tractors tore out from side roads without warning. Dogs, chickens and even children seemed to appear out of nowhere. But obstacles aside, I fell in love with China’s countryside and my mind raced with ideas of where to ride to next. With one twist of the throttle I was off to new adventures, making up songs and singing them as loud as I could over the roar of the engine.

But now, after more than a decade of driving in Kunming, I have been transformed. In place of gleeful songs, only obscenities broadcast from my helmet. I tear through the city as if I’m the Road Warrior on the run from murderous bandits. I honk my horn at every intersection as a warning to anyone who dares cross my path. Traffic rules mean little and courtesy even less. At times I feel like the Hulk — usually I’m the mild-mannered Bruce Banner, but with a spark of the ignition, the beast is unleashed.

In the past, I always obeyed traffic rules. I never got a ticket, made sure to yield the right of way and rarely honked my horn. More importantly I never lost my cool. Why then am I now so tempted to throttle so many that cross my path on the city roads? Or perhaps a more intriguing question is: Why am I becoming more and more like the very drivers I detest?

With a traffic culture that favors the aggressive and impatient, it is easy to blame everyone else for turning me into this creature. It is actually more dangerous being a law-abiding driver than an aggressive and selfish one. If you go too slow or stop for a crossing pedestrian, you might end up getting rammed from behind. And on a motorcycle, the safest place to be is out in front of all the traffic. Speeding or running a red light is sometimes the best way to stay out of harm’s way. On China’s roads, it seems that only the strong survive. Unfortunately, this is an attitude that derails any prospect of efficient traffic.

There are very few parts of the world outside of China that have ever seen such an immediate growth in urban traffic. Over the last decade, the number of cars on the roads in cities like Kunming has increased more than tenfold. Urban planners and law enforcement have struggled to adjust. The roads have widened and the laws continually change, but cities need more than just the stroke of a pen to adapt. Efficient traffic systems can’t just be instituted. They are cultural and evolve over time.

The safety of everyone on the road is best guarded when cars yield to motorcycles, motorcycles to bicycles, and bicycles to pedestrians. But the pecking order has been lost and so too has any proper ‘right-of-way’ mentality. Instead, roads in China are often plagued by many who cling to a sense of entitlement. Motorists feel as if they have earned the right of way just by the very purchase of an automobile. And those who can afford even more expensive cars feel that much more entitled. They drive brand new black BMWs, flashing their brights and honking their horns warning everyone ahead – ‘VIP coming through!’

Every time I mount my motorcycle, I do so knowing exactly what to expect. I know that someone will cut me off. I know that an electric scooter will dangerously tear through a red light right as I cross an intersection. I know that some fancy car behind me will honk its horn, urging me to acknowledge his self-importance. So why should I let it surprise me or stir my fury when I know exactly what is likely to happen? Expecting the worst is the best way to avoid the worst. And it should be a lot harder to get angry when I know what is coming.

China has changed at a rate never seen before at any point in time anywhere else on the planet. Everyone is racing to find their place in society, making sure that they don’t get left behind. Traffic culture is only one manifestation of this, and it is constantly evolving. Today’s traffic might be closer to a frenzy of sharks than a shoal of fish, but I’ll be better off passively following the current than angrily fighting against it.

After the middle finger incident earlier this year, I decided that before expecting change from any of the others sharing the road with me, I needed to at least be more responsible for myself. I’ve stopped expecting everything to fix itself all at once, and I try my best to be a part of the evolution by incorporating a little more common courtesy into my daily drives. I am increasingly amazed by how much I receive in return.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t still curse motorists that cross me from time to time, and it certainly doesn’t mean that I am now a perfectly patient driver. But the next time I let the middle finger fly free, I’ll at least try to do it with a smile.

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Filed under China, SLIDER, Yunnan Province

South Thailand’s Muslim Insurgency is not Global Jihad

solider guarding Muslims

A Thai soldier guards a group of Muslims during prayer. Photo courtesy of The Nation.

Introduction

In the early morning of January 4, 2004, a group of armed men raided an army depot at the Rajanakarin Camp in the southern Thai province of Narathiwat. They walked away with hundreds of military-grade weapons, and left four Thai soldiers dead in their wake. Around the same time, arsonists set alight 20 provincial schools and two unmanned police posts. A series of similar incidents followed in neighboring Yala and Pattani provinces, prompting then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to declare martial law in volatile areas within Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat—on top of his already high-handed brutality in the region.

Further angered and suppressed, belligerents in this area escalated violence to new intensities. At the core of this conflict is a separatist movement active among the Thai Malay Muslim community since the 1960s. While the term “Malay” refers only to an Austronesian ethnic group, ethnic Malay identity cannot be divorced from Malay traditions, Malay language, or adherence to Islam. This has pitted Malay identity in direct competition with the Thai identity cultivated under King Bhumibol Adulyadej. This conflict of identity and consequent alienation from the Thai community has prompted violence to erupt in Thailand’s majority Muslim southern provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat, collectively referred to as Patani.

Since a renewed surge of violence in 2004, the South Thailand Insurgency, as it is know, has incurred over 6,000 fatalities and over 11,000 injuries and has significantly impeded development in the region. The Thai state, meanwhile, refuses to acknowledge the ethno-national and ethno-political grievances at the heart of the conflict, hindering an effective solution to the violence and prompting international organizations—including the Malaysian government and the United Nations Development Programme—to become increasingly involved in the problem-solving effort. Effective dialogue between belligerents and the Thai state is the only way to resolve the South Thailand Insurgency, but this will remain out of the realm of possibilities if Thailand continues to deny the identity issues fueling this conflict.

Patani map

Map of Patani region. Source: http://books.sipri.org/files/PP/SIPRIPP20.pdf

Patani Region

Patani is a historical region located on the northern part of the Malay peninsula. In the modern day, this region is transnational: Patani includes the southern Thai provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat, and parts of Songkhla, as well as the Malaysian state of Kelantan.

Patani was an independent Muslim city-state until the sixteenth century when it became a vassal state of Siam, and came under increasingly direct Siamese rule during the Sukhothai and Ayuthaya periods. Following resistance and a series of rebellions in response to this shift, Patani fractured into seven separate regions. These seven regions existed until the Bangkok Treaty of 1909, in which the British (who at that time controlled Malaysia and were creeping northwards) acknowledged Thailand’s sovereignty over the seven regions of Patani. In return, Thailand relinquished the southern territory of Kelantan to British control. By 1933, Thailand had consolidated the seven Patani regions and renamed them Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat. Today, the Patani region is home to roughly 1.8 million Thai citizens, 80 percent of whom are Muslim. The remaining 20 percent are almost all Thai or Sino-Thai Buddhists.

 

Rise of “Nation, Religion, King”

In the post-colonial, increasingly globalized world, the Thai monarchy saw the need to reinvent itself for the modern era. In the process of reinventing the monarchy, King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s relationship with the monastic community of ordained Buddhist monks—the sangha—became intertwined with the prosperity of the nation. Thus, the role of the sangha was given a national component, and became integral to a healthy state of internal affairs. In later years, King Bhumibol was emboldened to transform the sangha. Guiding Bhumibol in this process was Vajiravudh (Rama VI)’s three pillars of nation, religion, and king. These pillars linked King Bhumibol inextricably to the nation through religion, and served to strengthen the king’s intertwinement with the sangha. In practice, the pillars meant that Buddhism was to facilitate the deification of King Bhumibol. Accordingly, a variety of rituals and holy days were presided over by the king, and royally endorsed public works projects were under taken in the countryside. Rural temples, controlled by the sangha and hence the king, became a link between the village and the national consciousness, thus providing the Thai people with a common experience with king, and laying the framework for a common Thai identity.

 

“Thainess” vs. “Otherness”

A standardized practice of Theravada Buddhism, in other words, has historically been employed as the ideological underpinning for the civilization and unification of all Thais. It was not just the practice of Buddhism that was standardized, but also the ethnic composition of its adherents. Promotion of the Thai language, too, was used to standardize Buddhist practices. This standardization provided a specific group of people within Thailand’s borders with a collective goal and a common sense of duty towards the advancement of the nation. The goal was to “make them realize [that they belong to] the same nation, religion and king, pledging loyalty to the king and the nation as their refuge and worship Buddhism.” A Thai identity based in these precepts resulted. This is known as “Thainess.”

It is the standardization of the sangha that has facilitated the construction of otherness. Confronted with globalization and modernity, Western notions of nationhood and rigid borders began to change the Thai attitude on who is entitled to benefit from the state. In order to determine this, an identity binary developed: “Thainess” arose situated opposite to “otherness.” Thainess is defined by a collective duty to Vajiravudh’s three pillars as previously discussed, and holds little in common with Western notions of individualized national identity. This group alone is allowed to benefit from the Thai state.

“Otherness,” by contrast, encompasses everything Thainess is not. Because the three pillars define the Thai conception of nationhood, any deviation from these three pillars disqualifies an individual or group from integrating to and benefiting from Thai society. The South Thailand Insurgency is one particularly aggressive response to this identity binary. In southern Thailand, Malay Muslims cannot integrate because they do not practice Buddhism; those who do not practice Buddhism are not viewed as Thai. Simply put, to be a part of Thailand is to be quintessentially Buddhist. Standardization has changed meaning of religion from one of personal choice to that of identity signifier.

A Thai soldier guards a Buddhist monk as he collects alms. Photo courtesy of USA Today.

A Thai soldier guards a Buddhist monk as he collects alms. Photo courtesy of USA Today.

The effects of otherness extend beyond the inability to integrate into Thai society: otherness is often viewed as a threat to national stability. King Bhumibol has cultivated a sense of fear and animosity towards those who do not identify with the three pillars, and has convinced each individual Thai that his or her fate is tied up with the state, and that the state’s fate is tied to the monarchy. If the monarchy falls, Thai prosperity will falter. This common understanding has provided the monarchy with masses directly aligned with its ideology, thus protecting the monarchy from threats of otherness. The South Thailand Insurgency attests to the lengths to which many Thais are willing to go to protect their monarchy—the foundation of their identity—and to prevent the fracture of the state. This conflict is also a testament to the difficulty of building a national identity in Thailand—the process is hindered by porous borders, multiple ethnic minorities and religions, and a complicated citizenship process. This means that language spoken, religion practices, and ethnicity do not line up as the Thai state insists they do.

 

Conflict Overview

Many consider the current violence in the “Deep South” to be a renewed version of the older liberation struggle of the 1960s and 1970s, which itself was a reaction to Thai state control. Lack of state legitimacy due to rigid ethnic identifiers then as well as now is at the core of the conflict. King Bhumibol’s continued standardization policies and centralization of the Thai state have alienated those who do not subscribe to the “nation, religion, king” trifecta, resulting in a “legitimacy deficit” of the Thai government in minority regions. In Patani, Bhumibol’s policies have transformed Patani’s political and Islamic educational and legal structures into a “quintessentially Thai” system. Because Malay Muslims in this region cannot identify themselves within this structure, grievances and resistance movements have materialized to address the government’s failure to provide Malay Muslims with a niche in Thai society.

Grievances are brought to the attention of the Thai state by a number of Patani liberation movements, with most fighting carried out by small groups of fighters consisting of young men aged 17 to 25. Violence occurs in open areas during the day, and takes the form of drive-by shootings or bombings, and sometimes larger, organized attacks. This has meant that most casualties are civilians. The most active groups are the BRN-C (BarisanRevolusiNasional-Koordinasi), its alleged armed wing the RKK (Runda Kumpulan Kecil), the GMIP (Gerakan Mujahidin Islam Patani), the BBMP (BarisanBersatu Mujahidin Patani), and the PULO (Patani United Liberation Organization). As opposed to the conflict of the ‘60s and ‘70s in which insurgent groups were sharply divided, today’s insurgent groups share a common Islamist agenda, ideology, and goals. Above all, the liberations movements demand the creation of a Malay Muslim state separate from the rest of Thailand. This united front has made the modern iteration of the conflict more difficult to fracture and quell than the last.

 Destruction in Patani. Photo courtesy of The Christian Science Monitor

Destruction in Patani. Photo courtesy of The Christian Science Monitor

Following the 2004 raid on the Rajanakarin Camp depot, violence in the three southernmost provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat has increased dramatically. The 2004 Krue Se and TakBai incidents have become synonymous with the recent resurgence in violence, and have fueled grievances among liberation groups in recent years. Then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s unapologetic response to the incidents served to heighten violence towards Thai forces on the part of the liberation groups. Since then, violence has escalated steadily. Because the conflict is ongoing, it is difficult to accurately assess the number of injured and killed. In a July 2014 report, Deep South Watch released the most up-to-date information on number of killed and injured by religious affiliation. Some sources speculate that death tolls have climbed to 8,000 or more.

 

Insurgency, Not Global Jihad

This conflict cannot simply be described as Buddhism versus Islam, religion versus religion. At this core of this conflict is an issue of identity that happens to have a religious component. The main reason the South Thailand Insurgency cannot be considered part of the global jihad is because the conflict is more strongly contextualized as one of Thai vs. other. And while the conflict undeniably has a religious component, that religious component is only one piece of a larger identity issue. To date, there has been no evidence of external involvement in the bombings and killings in the Patani region. The South Thailand Insurgency is ethno-political and ethno-national at heart, and centers on a local historical claim to the Patani territory. As Islam garners more and more negative press around the world, we must be careful to assume that all conflicts that involve Islam are fundamentally jihadist in nature.

Fatalities and Injuries 2004-2014

Source: http://www.deepsouthwatch.org/node/5904

 

Human Development Indicators

Poor development is both a cause and effect of the South Thailand Insurgency. Development in the area has been particularly hindered since heightened violence emerged in 2004. A comparison of the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Indicators (UNDP HDI) from the years 2003, 2007, 2009, and 2014 reveals that the three southernmost provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat have consistently failed to match the national development average. HDI ratings experienced a marked decreased following the violence of 2004. Education, income, family and community life, and participation in political and community activities are areas of particular concern.

HDI Yala

Source: http://www.deepsouthwatch.org/node/5904

HDI Pattani

Source: http://www.deepsouthwatch.org/node/5904

HDI Narathiwat

Source: http://www.deepsouthwatch.org/node/5904

It has been suggested that poor development is heightening regional grievances and exacerbating the conflict; development is then further hindered, fueling further dissent. But while development averages in Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat remain below the national average, UNDP HDI data reveals improving development indicators in 2014. This could be due to the increased involvement of international organizations in the region, discussed in the section below.

 

Solutions

A number of solutions have been implemented to facilitate resolution to the South Thailand Insurgency. Thailand, however, has taken a back-seat role in the problem-solving effort. The two most comprehensive peace processes, the Southern Thailand Empowerment and Participation (STEP) Project and the Ramadan Peace Initiative, were organized by the United Nations Development Programme and the Malaysian government, respectively. The STEP Project, implemented in March 2010, seeks to address grassroots development issues in Patani as a way to increase interaction with the local government and pave the way for national-level advocacy. STEP has progressed to its second and final phase, and is slated to be completed by December 2017. The Ramadan Peace Initiative, meanwhile, provided a neutral forum for talks between Thailand’s National Security Council (NSC) and the BRN-C. The talks were held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and ended in the signing of the General Consensus on Peace Dialogue Process on February 28, 2013. The two parties met again in March, April, and May 2013, vowing to keep the dialogue channels open and actively work towards peace in the region. But since Thailand’s coup in May 2014, the domestic political situation has not been conducive to furthering the peace process.

Violent Attacks in Patani Jan13-April14

On November 3, 2014, Thailand’s military government vowed again to end the violence in the three southernmost provinces, this time within one year. Questions have arisen around the feasibility of this plan considering the lack of confidence in Thailand’s new government, and the fact that peace talks started during the Ramadan Peace Initiative have stalled. And despite the violence plaguing the region and the reorganization of government, Narathiwat is still slated to be become a Special Economic Zone in 2016. The Thai government’s hope is that by developing the economy, security issues will be resolved and the violence will be quelled as the economy grows. But because this solution still does not address the fundamental issue of the conflict—identity—it holds a high potential for failure.

According to International Crisis Group, “a highly centralized administrative structure, the persistence of rigid conceptions of national identity and an old-fashioned bureaucratic outlook” inhibit resolution to the South Thailand Insurgency. Furthermore, according to the International Crisis Group these influence analyses of the problem as well as policy formation and implementation, thus making it difficult for Thai leaders to acknowledge the political dimension of the conflict. To do so would call into question state legitimacy based on the three pillars or nation, religion, and king. These misguided priorities have seriously inhibited the peace process in southern Thailand. Government spending in the region reveals that the focus remains on counterinsurgency and military capabilities rather than community and infrastructure development: as the violence escalates, so does counterinsurgency spending. Since 2005, counterinsurgency spending in the Patani region alone has fluctuated between 9.9 and 17.5 percent of total military spending. Some reports indicate that average per-capita military spending in Patani is around twice as much as average per-capita military spending nationwide.

 

Source:  http://www.deepsouthwatch.org/node/5904

Source: http://www.deepsouthwatch.org/node/5904

Looking to the Future

The nature of the solutions proposed by the Thai state suggests that Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and his government (as well as prime ministers who came before him, and particularly Thaksin Shinawatra) refuse to acknowledge the ethno-political and ethno-national components to South Thailand Insurgency. In other words, there are no signs that Thailand is adjusting its adherence to the mantra “nation, religion, king” in order to accommodate minority groups. Some speculate that if the Thai government did adjust its definition of Thai identity or even allowed Patani to secede, other suppressed groups—both domestic and regional—would follow with their own liberation movements. This is unlikely for a number of reasons. First, the trifecta championed by the Thai state provides a direct contrast to minority identity that does not exist in other countries. Other minorities (like Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority group) may find it difficult to similarly contextualize their conflict as one of “state identity” vs. “other” because this rigid framework does not exist. Secondly, Malay Muslims constitute the second largest minority in Thailand (the first being ethnic Chinese) and are concentrated in a region on Thailand’s fringes. This has allowed the Malay Muslim community to over time create a united front against the Thai state. Other minorities in Thailand lack the same ability to unite due to their smaller and geographically fractured populations.

Although the South Thailand Insurgency is unlikely to threaten the existence of the Thai state, the conflict presents a severe humanitarian and national security issue and therefore deserves to be dealt with promptly and effectively. Dialogue is the most effective problem-solving tool in this situation, but there are few indications that the new Thai government is willing to cooperate in this way. In mid-November, 2014 a program to arm villagers against insurgents went into effect in southern Thailand, highlighting once again the government’s focus on weapon-based counterinsurgency. Thai authorities distributed approximately 2,700 military grade weapons—reportedly HK-33 assault rifles—to civilians in Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat. Scholars as well as sources on the ground with knowledge of local opinion believe that the plan is bound to backfire and increase violence in the region, not quell it. This kind of “problem solving” must end. The Thai government instead must demonstrate flexibility and inclusion by supporting Muslim representatives in government and easing its assimilationist policies in the south. Only when a political space for discussion and the airing of grievances is created and maintained can the violence plaguing the Patani region end.

 

Further reading: 

Abuza, Zachary. “A Breakdown of Southern Thailand’s Insurgent Groups.” The Jamestown Foundation. 8 Sept. 2006. Web.

Advancing Human Development Through the ASEAN Community: Thailand Human Development Report 2014. Bangkok: United Nations Development Programme, 2014.

Bean, James. “Thailand’s Little-Known Peace Process.” The Diplomat. 31 July 2013

BTI 2014 – Thailand Country Report. BTI. Bertelsmann Stiftung, 2014.

Boontanondha, Thep. King Vajiravudh and the Making of his Military Image. 2013. Web

 Decludt, Florian. “The Cause of Unrest in Thailand: ThaksinShinawatra.” International Affairs Review. The Elliot School of International Affairs at George Washington University, 20 Jan. 2014. Web 

Handley, Paul M. The King Never Smiles: A Biography of Thailand’s BhumibolAdulyadej. New Haven: Yale UP, 2006. Print.

 How Can the Peace Process Be Taken Forward?Deep South Watch. 28 Feb. 2014.

 Human Security, Today and Tomorrow: Thailand Human Development Report 2009. Bangkok: United Nations Development Programme, 2010.

Jerryson, Michael K. Buddhist Fury: Religion and Violence in Southern Thailand. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011.

 Jitpiromsri, Srisompob. An Inconvenient Truth about the Deep South Violent Conflict: A Decade of Chaotic, Constrained Realities and Uncertain Resolution. Deep South Watch. 2 July 2014.

Jitpiromsri, Srisompob, and PanyasakSobhonvasu. “Unpacking Thailand’s southern conflict: The poverty of structural explanations.” Critical Asian Studies 38.1 (2006): 95-117.

Karaman, Bahar. “Thailand promises peace ‘within a year’ in Muslim south.” Thailand Business News. 4 Nov. 2014.

Lefevre, Amy Sawitta. “Thailand promises peace ‘within a year’ in insurgency-hit south.” Reuters. 3 Nov. 2014. Web

National Security Council of Malaysia. “General Consensus on Peace Dialogue Process.” Agreement between Lt Gen ParadornPattanatabut and Ustaz Hassan Taib. 28 Feb. 2013.

“Massacre of Thai Muslims remembered.”Al-Jazeera. 25 Oct. 2012.

Mateus, Sofia Diogo. “More guns to increase ‘tit-for-tat violence’ in southern Thailand.” DW. Deutsche Welle, 11 May 2014.

McCargo, Duncan. Situation Report: Thailand. Tony Blair Faith Foundation.Tony Blair Faith Foundation, n.d. Web.

Melvin, Neil J. Conflict in Southern Thailand: Islamism, Violence and the State in the Patani Insurgency. Stockholm: Stockholm .

“Rohingya: Stateless and Unwanted.” Al-Jazeera. 2014..

Shadbolt, Peter. “Explainer: Thailand’s deadly southern insurgency.” CNN. 19 Feb. 2013.

Southern Thailand Empowerment and Participation (STEP) Project: 2010-2012. 2010.

“Southern Thailand Empowerment and Participation (STEP) Project.” United Nations Development Programme. Web.

“Thailand begins peace talks with southern rebel group.” BBC. 28 March 2013.

Thailand Human Development Report 2007. Bangkok: United Nations Development Programme, 2007.

Thailand Human Development Report 2003. Bangkok: United Nations Development Programme, 2003.

“Thailand Islamic Insurgency.” Global Security. 22 June 2014.

“Thailand/Malay Muslims (1948-present).” University of Central Arkansas.

Thailand: The Evolving Conflict in the South. International Crisis Group. International Crisis Group, 11 Dec. 2012.

“Thailand military seizes power in coup.” BBC. 22 May 2014.

“Thai mosque killings criticised.” BBC. 28 July 2004.

United States Bureau of Intelligence and Research. International Boundary Study. Rept. no. 7 1965. The Florida State University. Web.

 

 

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Filed under Current Events, ethnic policy, Regional Relations, SLIDER, Thailand

Regional Roundup for Week of 12.14.14

Will & Brian, ExSE founders, recently returned from an 18 day field trip to Thailand and Laos with many new stories to tell and much analysis to deliver to the readership.  By far the biggest topic heard far and wide while on the river was the run-up to last Friday’s regional consultation put on by the Mekong River Commission regarding the controversial 250MW Don Sahong dam on the Mekong in southern Laos. By most accounts the regional consultation is a step in the right direction, but it’s affect will likely be minimal and hosting the event after initial construction has already begun is out of step with the MRC’s mandate and obviously too late to have a meaningful impact.  What we did confirm on our trip to Laos was that the dam builder, Malaysia’s Megafirst, has subcontracted most of the dam’s work to Sinohydro, both China’s and the world’s largest hydropower developer – perhaps a good move for Megafirst, a firm that has never built a dam, but not a good move for China in terms of its regional image and soft power projection.  No major press releases were released on Friday’s findings, so keep your eyes posted to relevant news outlets like ones listed below as well as to ExSE for analysis on this controversial project by the end of the week.

EXSE FOCUS

Stop gambling with our future: Cancel the Don Sahong dam – The Nation Today, the Mekong River Commission (MRC) is holding its first regional public consultation on the Don Sahong Dam in Pakse. We believe the Don Sahong Dam poses an unacceptable risk to regional fisheries, food security and the future of the Mekong and, as such, should be immediately cancelled.

 Related WWF to Boycott Don Sahong Dam Meeting in Laos – Cambodia Daily The World Wildlife Fund on Thursday said it would boycott a regional public consultation today over Laos’ controversial Don Sahong hydropower dam, accusing those behind the project of ignoring the potentially devastating impact it could have on Cambodia’s communities, fisheries and endangered Irrawaddy dolphins.

 Related MRC will hold regional public consultation on Don Sahong Hydropower Project – MRC 12-Dec consultation and online feedback submission are among channels for stakeholders to participate in the project’s prior consultation.

 Wife of Missing Lao Civil Society Leader Vows to Keep Pushing For Answers – RFA  The wife of a missing prominent civil society leader in Laos vowed to continue pushing the authorities for answers over the disappearance of her husband, who vanished under mysterious circumstances in the capital Vientiane two years ago.//Sombath disappeared two years ago today.  Those who knew Sombath are celebrating his life and works this week on the Laofab gmail group.  For more information write laofab@gmail.com 

 Related Authorities look the other way as activists disappear in Asia – The Nation The wife of missing Laotian activist Sombath Somphone says his abductors still enjoy impunity two years after his disappearance – an ugly reality across a region where powerful business interests and murky state actors stand accused of routinely “disappearing” opponents.

 

Thai Princess, Queen-to-Be, Gives Up Title – NYT Princess Srirasm, mother of a presumed heir to the Thai throne, lost her title after the recent arrests of her relatives and amid King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s health problems.

Analysis What the Turmoil in Thailand’s Palace Means for Thai Politics (Perhaps) – CFR Asia Unbound As I noted last week, Thailand has been consumed by recent news that Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn appears to be on the verge of divorcing his third wife, Srirasmi, and erasing all remnants of her and her family from his life and from the royal palace. Of course, no Thai media are openly reporting this news, since saying almost anything at all about the crown prince or any other leading member of the royal family (or even about royal events that allegedly took place hundreds of years ago) can get one slapped with harsh lèse-majesté charges.//Josh Kurlantzick with interesting analysis gleaned from his SEA network as well as his reading of Andrew McGregor Marshall’s new book on the Thai royal family Kingdom in Crisis.  Essentially the crown prince’s divorcing of this third wife is a ploy to distance himself from the Red Shirt Thaksin clique (which by the way is not going anywhere anytime soon folks), and make good with the military and the  military led government.  Elite politics is on a continual slide to the conservative side in Thailand

The Year of Sustainable Development – Project Syndicate Next year represents this generation’s greatest opportunity to progress toward sustainable development. Three summits in the latter half of 2015 can reshape the global development agenda, and give an important push to vital changes in the functioning of the world economy.//by Jeffrey Sachs

 Global economy – a year of divergence looms – The Guardian The major players in the world economy all have the potential to grow at different speeds while taking divergent paths – policymakers should take note of the risks. In the coming year, “divergence” will be a major global economic theme, applying to economic trends, policies, and performance. As the year progresses, these divergences will become increasingly difficult to reconcile, leaving policymakers with a choice: overcome the obstacles that have so far impeded effective action, or risk allowing their economies to be destabilised.

 

REGIONAL RELATIONS

The Silk Railway: freight train from China pulls up in Madrid – The Guardian Madrid mayor welcomes first cargo train from China after epic 8,111-mile rail trip inaugurates the longest rail link in the world. The longest rail link in the world and the first direct link between China and Spain is up and running after a train from Yiwu in coastal China completed its maiden journey of 8,111 miles to Madrid.//Impressive, but how much did it cost?  Certainly the costs will be dropping into the future as long as the Sino-Russian relationship holds up.

World set for climate disaster, say activists, as Lima talks falter – The Guardian Proposals too weak to keep global warming to the agreed limit of two degrees above pre-industrial levels. Frustrated climate campaigners have claimed that the world was on course for an unsustainable four-degree rise in temperatures, as two weeks of negotiations for a climate change agreement headed for an unsatisfying conclusion.

Related Strange Climate Event: Warmth Toward U.S. – NYT

Related At Climate Meeting, China Balks at Verifying Cuts in Carbon Emissions – NYT

Related China pledges US$20 million a year to its new South-South Cooperation Fund – The Third Pole

 

Chinese tourists who scalded Thai stewardess with hot water, noodles to be punished – SCMP Chinese authorities vowed to severely punish Chinese travellers who threw hot water and noodles on a Thai flight attendant and threatened to bomb the plane.//Waiting for a US late night pundit to start a “Chinese people behaving badly” segment.  All jokes aside, what legal grounds does the Chinese government have to charge Chinese citizens with crimes and misdemeanors occurring over Thai airspace and on Malaysia’s property (AirAsia being Malaysian owned?)

Ancient Trade Route Delivers New Opportunities to Greater Mekong Subregion – ADB A modern highway and bridge connecting three countries in the Greater Mekong Subregion are reviving an ancient trade route and bringing new life to local communities

UN report: Golden Triangle opium trade still expanding –GoKunming  A report released this week by the United Nations shows opium production in Southeast Asia continues to rise despite eradication efforts in several countries. Demand for the drug and its derivatives, specifically heroin, remains highest in China and the vast majority arrives via Yunnan province.//Ancient trade route delivers ancient products – counter to headline above.  Blame the faltering peace process in Myanmar and big Yunnan agrobusiness for this – at least for resumed opium production in Laos.  Obviously the Chinese central government doesn’t want drugs flowing in from the Golden Triangle, but provincial Yunnanese agrofirms are buying huge tracts of land in northern Laos for rubber and banana plantation and driving small farmers off their land and into opium production.  5 years ago, opium production in northern Laos was negligible, but now is beginning to thrive again.   

Kunming to Vietnam border by rail soon to be reality – GoKunming  Yunnan’s newest railroad opened this week to test traffic, indicating work is all but finished following more than five years of slow and steady construction. Although more of an extension than a dedicated line, the Mengzi-Hekou Railway Line (蒙河铁路) will soon allow freight and passenger traffic from Kunming to travel uninterrupted to an international border.//this is a big deal.  It means that you can jump on a train in Kunming at noon and arrive in Hanoi by train at 5am the following morning. 100 years ago a rail line opened parallel to this one joining Vietnam’s Haiphong port to Kunming – that ride took nearly 5 days.  The old passenger line went out of commission 14 years ago. 

Searching for Burmese Jade, and Finding Misery – The Guardian A New York Times documentary and article look at mine workers in Myanmar struggling with poverty and drug addiction even as the country’s jade industry is booming because of demand from China.//this too slows the peace process in Myanmar.

Related: The Life and Times of an Addict in Myanmar – The Guardian

Related: An Addict on the Jade Trail to China – The Guardian

 Malaysian police detain 15 Burmese over series of gruesome murders – AFP Officials suspect killing of at least 18 Burmese nationals in Penang may be result of revenge attacks over violence at home. Malaysian police have detained 15 people from Burma over a series of gruesome murders in a popular tourist destination, and believe the killings are linked to ethnic unrest in their home country, reports say.

 India and China Slug It Out in South Asia – The Diplomat India-China competition in South Asia is as hot as ever, but India could be losing out to China in important ways.

Vietnam dismisses China’s position paper on East Sea claims Thanh Nien News Vietnam’s foreign ministry condemned Thursday a position paper China has used to outline its arguments against the jurisdiction of an international arbitration case which the Philippines has been seeking to challenge Beijing’s expansive maritime claims.

Related China’s Maritime Machinations: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly – The Diplomat

 

SUSTAINABILITY & RESOURCE MANAGEMENT

European Union agrees to investigate Cambodian sugar industry – The Guardian Booming industry faces allegations of human rights abuses such as land grabs, forced displacement and child labour. The European Union has agreed to investigate forced displacement claims in relation to Cambodia’s troubled sugar industry. The move could see thousands of villagers compensated for illegally confiscated land and loss of earnings.

Traders welcome ‘Rubber Fund’ as good step to push up prices – The Nation Rubber traders yesterday welcomed the planned Bt420-million “Rubber Fund” as a good start to ensure a brighter outlook for their industry, hoping that it could help shore up prices of the commodity.//entire mountainsides of rubber production will go online in 2015-16 as trees reach maturity in southern Yunnan and northern Laos.  Look for a spike from the fund and then another dip when those trees go online.  The falling price of oil also further promotes the production of synthetic rubber.  

 

CHINA

Hong Kong Protesters Lose a Last Bastion, but Vow to Go On – NYT Even in their defeat, the protesters, mostly college students, left with a new sense of political identity and a willingness to challenge the power holders in Beijing.

Related: The Guardian view on the final dispersal of the Hong Kong protests | Editorial – The Guardian

 Liu Xiaobo sends message to the world: pay attention to other Chinese activists – AP Jailed Nobel peace prize winner tells friend he is doing well, has been reading and thinking and is convinced he has no enemies. The jailed Chinese Nobel peace prize laureate Liu Xiaobo has told an overseas friend that he is relatively healthy but wants the world to pay more attention to other Chinese activists

Allen Grane: Combating the African Wildlife Trade in China – CFR Asia Unbound Recently, the Animal Planet aired a documentary entitled “Saving Africa’s Giants with Yao Ming.” The show, developed in conjunction with the environmental non-governmental organization WildAid, depicts Yao meeting with wildlife conservationists to discuss the future of African elephants and rhinoceroses.

China’s water diversion project starts to flow to Beijing – The Guardian  £48bn scheme may provide relief to the parched north, but at what cost to the drought-ridden south and its displaced farmers? On Friday afternoon, China quietly inaugurated one of the biggest engineering projects of all time: the South-North Water Diversion, a £48bn, 2,400km network of canals and tunnels, designed to divert 44.8bn cubic metres of water annually from China’s humid south to its parched, industrialised north.

Chinese Health Care Draws Investors NYT Despite the system’s challenges, the sector is becoming one of the most popular for those seeking the next great untapped market.

A Top Target of China’s Graft Purge Gets Life in Prison NYT Liu Tienan was one of the first and most visible targets of the push by President Xi Jinping to take down both “tigers” and “flies” — powerful and minor officials.

China Announces Record Trade Surplus, Helped by Weak Oil Price – NYT The Shanghai stock market rose sharply after the data was released and has now climbed 26 percent since a rate cut on Nov. 21.

China Sets Economic Reform Targets for 2015 Diplomat The Central Economic Work Conference gave an overview of China’s economic goals for 2015. Topping the agenda: reform.

 

SOUTHEAST ASIA

How can ‘carpocalypse’ be avoided in Hanoi? The Guardian Vehicle ownership is status symbol in Vietnam, but congested streets are making the city unliveable. What will turn the tide?  The everyday commute in Hanoi is a test of endurance; it requires perseverance and concentration, and involves pollution, bizarre noises, and mysterious aromas. Traffic lights act more like loose guidelines for the flow of traffic, and with busy crowded streets, public buses are the most feared among bicyclists for their accelerator-happy feet.//We’ll be posting a similar article on Kunming’s traffic problems later this week.

Vietnamese blogger arrested for ‘anti-state articles’ The Guardian Press freedom group says charges are bogus. A blogger was detained in Vietnam on Saturday on anti-state charges for postings deemed critical of the government, reports the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

World’s largest cave in Vietnam threatened by cable car – The Guardian Vietnamese are protesting plans to build a cable car through remote Phong Nha-Ke Bang national park that could carry 1,000 visitors an hour to Son Doong cave.  Plans for a cable car in Vietnam’s Unesco-listed Phong Nha-Ke Bang national park would open up the world’s largest cave to mass tourism. But Vietnamese are protesting the project, and experts warn the environmental impact could be devastating.

US Sends Mixed Message to Burma Military –  DVB  Human rights advocates and some lawmakers say the United States is sending the wrong signal by opening the door for broader engagement with Burma’s widely criticized military just weeks after President Barack Obama assured opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi that closer ties weren’t going to happen soon.

 Survey Finds Waning Confidence In Direction Country Is Headed – The Cambodia Daily Just 32 percent of Cambodians believe the country is headed in the right direction, down from 81 percent a decade ago, according to a report released on Wednesday by the U.S.-based Asia Foundation.

Cross-Border Energy Trade Powers Development in Cambodia – ADB A Greater Mekong Subregion project helps builds a transmission line from Viet Nam to Cambodia to provide a steady supply of electricity to communities and industries in the southern part of the country.

Through the eyes of a killer – SEA Globe The Look of Silence is Joshua Oppenheimer’s second film about Indonesia’s communist purges of the 1960s. The first film, the Oscar-nominated The Act of Killing, was centred on the murderers; this time the focus is shifted to the victims, who have been afraid to raise the matter for half a century.//If you haven’t seen The Act of Killing yet, do so soon.  Netflix carries it.  

Fighting fire with fire – SEA Globe One of the region’s longest-running and most intractable conflicts continues to smoulder in Thailand’s deep south. The new military government has promised peace, but one of its first moves was handing out military-grade weapons to locals

Education in Indonesia: School’s in – The Economist WITH roughly 55m students, 3m teachers and more than 236,000 schools in 500 districts, Indonesia has the world’s fourth-largest education system. But the system does not work nearly as well as it should. The country’s new president, Joko Widodo, generally known as Jokowi, hopes to change that with help from his new education secretary, Anies Baswedan, a former university president and creator of a programme that sends graduates to teach in remote areas.Like so much else in the sprawling archipelago, nothing is simple.

Malaysia Airlines appoints Aer Lingus boss as first foreign chief executive – SCMP Malaysia’s government has picked Christoph Mueller, the chief executive of Ireland’s Aer Lingus, as the new head of its beleaguered flag carrier, Malaysia Airlines.

Tourist Influx Helps Rural Lao PDR Thrive – ADB  Completion of the last overland link in the North-South Economic Corridor brings prosperity to poor provinces in the Lao PDR, a landlocked country that lies at the heart of the Greater Mekong Subregion.

 

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How’s it Going, Thailand?

In the late afternoon of May 22, 2014–about the time when many people were leaving their offices–many TV screens turned frozen. The tunes behind put many in reminiscence: patriotic songs that once were ubiquitous in Thailand 50 years ago came alive. The screen was dominated by the color of blue with “National Council for Peace and Order” appeared under five logos of the military.

A few hours passed, the screen remained the same but a different song was playing. Every channel was painted with the same six words. Occasionally, for another day or two, a young man in uniform–possibly in his forties–sat behind a table and started to read word by word from the sheet of white A4 paper in front of him. As he read along, the screen scrolled down simultaneously to show what was typed on the letter.

They were orders. More than a dozen orders were issued to Thailand with immediate effect. The head of the military, General Prayuth Chan-Ocha, assumed the head of Thailand’s government. A curfew between 10pm to 5am was set nation-wide. Media was seized and controlled. All to maintain “peace and order.”

The next day, the young man was accompanied by a young woman, each had a few sheets of white paper in front of them. They switched to read over a hundred plus names of high position leaders who were summoned by the new Thai leader. These people were demanded to report within 24 hours.

At this time, no domestic news was reporting what was happening to Thailand. Much of the updates were acquired via social media and foreign news agencies. Videos of uniformed soldiers’ invasion into many media offices were recorded and posted online. People were furious at what was happening. But they were only those who were following the coup’s movement at every step. Others whose main–and possibly the only–channel of news was the television, remained sheltered with messages by the NCPO.

The violence has not broken up yet. Some wanted their voices to be heard so they gathered by Bangkok’s core to claim their stance. Bangkok Arts and Culture Center became the first occupy, followed by the Victory of Monument, and a famous conspicuous shopping street the following days. The “No-Coup” crowd had their signs written and their mouths taped black. A few hours later, the military came to disperse the crowd and instead claimed the territory theirs with their arms. For the next couple days, Bangkok continued to be surprised by more crowds in various spots around the city yelling “No Coup!” Other provinces started to see crowds gathering in the city centers. “No Coup” movement became contagious.

Human rights groups issued their statements condemning the coup and demanding summoned individuals to be released or returned. But their voices never made it to the television. Other Thais–whose source of news wasn’t only the television–reprimanded these protestors as “destroyer of peace.”

The nation is still divided and fragmented.

A week–and months–after the coup’s entrance, every local channel still had NCPO’s logo audaciously pressed at the top right corner. Media was mostly reporting financial news and showing nightly soap operas. Updates on the coup were briefed on May 28, 2014 to foreign media with a strong confirmation that Thailand was too unstable for an election. The last coup last two and a half years before an election of recycled familiar faces.

Hidden in the midst of the coup’s dominating scene over Thailand, rural folks and environmentalists are facing another layer of turmoil overpowering their livelihoods. The new authority is pushing Thailand’s newest Power Development Plan and forest/land kleptocratic programs to the decision-maker’s plate while Nature-dependent communities are squeezed off the cliff. Deals are being made behind closed doors and those who dare to say different risk being detained by the armed force.

We will keep our promises. Give us some more time. And our beautiful country will return…” This new song, composed by the coup leaders, has become Thailand’s most played song on TVs, radios, public media. Mornings, recess, mid-days, afternoons, late afternoons, nights, midnights, twilights, dusks, dawns.

Six months is how long the coup has taken over. The clock is still ticking.

Thailand no longer has a constitution. If you want to hold an event commenting or expressing your different views on the nation’s policy, either ask for a permission in advance or risk being arrested. Or might as well, just self-censor your existence.

But some university students can no longer remain patient. 5 students, each wearing a black t-shirt with a word on it jumped between a crowd of khaki uniforms and the stage where Prayuth Chan-Ocha was orchestrating about “drought and water management plan for E-san.” Five persons to challenge the military’s order which prohibits an assembly of 4+ persons group. An index, a middle finger, a ring finger to symbolize your support for the “No Coup” wave. A combination of these components will conceal your freedom in the police and the military’s territory.

This is Thailand’s time to test its people. No one knows when fear will stop pressing our faces to the ground. No one knows when curiosity will trigger someone to start questioning reality. Indeed, no one knows if most people will just forget and move on, leaving the minority screaming–in mute.

The author of this essay is a concerned Thai citizen choosing to publish anonymously.  

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Filed under GMS, Governance, Regional Relations, SLIDER, Thailand, water

The Illicit Drug Industry & Counter-Narcotics in Southeast Asia

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Drug enforcement officials in Burma. Image: The Irrawaddy

On 5 October 2011, when Thai river police investigated reported gunshots on the middle reaches of the Mekong River, they discovered two cargo vessels and their 12 Chinese crew members, all of whom had been executed and their bodies dumped in the river. The ships were determined to have been hijacked to transport illicit cargo, and they contained over 920,000 amphetamine tablets, locally referred to as yaba, which were subsequently confiscated by Thai authorities.

Over the past 70 years stories like this have become commonplace in the notorious Golden Triangle, a delta area at the confluence of the Mekong and Ruak Rivers that takes up approximately 150,000 square kilometers of land in the tri-state Thai, Lao and Burmese (Myanmar) border region. Drug production and trafficking has brought this locality to international infamy, and it remains the world’s second largest cultivator of opium poppy, second only to Afghanistan. Faced with rising heroin and amphetamine-type stimulant (ATS) addiction levels, drug-related violence, and an expanding HIV epidemic, Southeast Asian governments have recently begun to intensify their efforts to combat this endemic problem. Using bilateral agreements and the frameworks of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS), and the Asian Regional Forum (ARF), actions by these governments have met varying levels of success.

 

Colonial Roots of the Southeast Asian Drug Trade

Opium poppy is native to the lush and remote Yunnan and Sichuan Provinces of China’s southwest. For hundreds of years small-scale cultivation by hill tribes in the region met the modest needs of Chinese opium-smokers, but in the early 19th century a powerful competitor arrived in Southeast Asia: the British Empire and its waves of merchants and imperialists, all trying to find new markets for seemingly unlimited supplies of India-grown opium. At the humiliating conclusion of the 1842 Opium War the British forced the Chinese emperor to accept opium imports, thereby unleashing one of the most devastating drug epidemics in history: a mere thirty years later, British opium imports were supplying an estimated 15 million Chinese opium addicts.

Social upheaval in China during the 19th and 20th century caused massive emigration of Chinese refugees to all parts of the world, and where they went, their opium habits followed. The large Chinese immigrant populations in Thailand, Burma, and Vietnam provided lucrative opportunities for the opium industry, and despite the protests of indigenous rulers, one by one state-mandated opium franchises were forced into being by British and French imperialists. It was also in this time that fleeing Chinese merchants and hill tribe people arrived in the Golden Triangle area and introduced poppy cultivation to the local populations.

In British Burma, the imperialist government lacked the ability to administer the western Shan States and so instead provided them with autonomy in exchange for loyalty. This autonomy provided a foundation for a thriving opium economy and a fiercely independent political consciousness, both of which would have strong legacies long after the British withdrawal. In French Indochina, the government-run Opium Monopoly worked industriously to incorporate Laotian poppy-growing hill tribes, and helped to sponsor the Yunnan-Tonkin railway, which provided a valuable link to the well-established opium cultivators of southwest China.

 

Colonial Events Timeline

In the years following World War II, almost all of the world’s major opium producers, the largest being Turkey, Iran, and India, brought an end to their legal opium exports to Southeast Asia, which created an enormous vacuum in the opium industry. Newly Communist China, independent Burma, and restored French Indochina all cracked down on local production, further choking supply. Eradication of the drug industry was not achieved however, primarily thanks to the actions of Chinese Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) remnants in northern Burma, the corrupt Thai National Police Force, and the French and American covert intelligence agencies.

About 1,500 battered KMT troops entered Burma in 1949, fleeing the advance of the People’s Liberation Army into Yunnan Province. This weak force was nearly crushed by the Burmese army, but in 1950 they began receiving airdrops of weapons from the CIA, which was frantic to arm groups on the southern borders of the People’s Republic of China in case Mao Zedong had expansionist ambitions. Reinforced by additional troops flown in from Taiwan, the empowered KMT army executed several failed invasions to retake Yunnan, but afterward decided to remain in northern Burma and hold the line against the Communist threat. This well-armed army proceeded to force the local tribes-people into opium cultivation, and with the help of the corrupt Thai police force, created one of the most robust drug production and trafficking systems in history.

Opium produced in northern and eastern Burma was transported across the Thai border and down to Bangkok, where it was exported out of the rest of Southeast Asia. In 1961, provoked by aggressive expansionism on the part of the KMT, the Burmese Army and the PLA jointly ousted the Nationalists from Burma and forced them into Thailand and Laos, where their communities remain today. Although the KMT forces no longer directly controlled the opium cultivation, the system was in place and ethnic Chinese, then later various Burmese insurgent traffickers, maintained the lucrative trafficking network into Thailand.

 

Drug enforcement officials in Burma. Image: Business Week

Drug enforcement officials in Burma. Image: Business Week

In French Indochina, the under-financed French intelligence community covertly took over management of the formally illegal opium trade in order to continue their efforts in suppressing Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh. The Laotian opium industry that they nourished would later find its greatest successes during the American GI heroin epidemic of the Second Indochina Conflict, and following that, in its international spread into the continental US and Europe.

Currently, the vast majority of Southeast Asian illicit narcotics are produced in the semi-autonomous, rebel-administered eastern states of Burma, while smaller amounts also come from the remote areas of western Laos and northern Thailand. It is trafficked in two main routes: the southern route goes through Thailand to Bangkok for distribution, and the northern route enters China’s Yunnan Province, headed for Kunming and then all of East Asia. Recently, Golden Triangle supply has been unable to keep up with skyrocketing Asian demand for heroin and ATS, and approximately one third of East and Southeast Asia’s narcotics now originate in Afghanistan.

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Source: UNODC Southeast Asia Opium Survey 2013: Lao PDR, Myanmar

 

Temporarily successful eradication programs and sustained crackdowns brought Southeast Asian drug production to a historical low in 2006, but since then there has been a consistent increase in cultivation, production, trafficking, and consumption, with levels returning to those of the 1970s and 1980s. This steady expansion of the drug trade is occurring despite a 2005 self-imposed opium cultivating ban in the territories of the United Wa State Army (UWSA) in Burma, a rebel group that previously accounted for the lion’s share of Burma’s opium production. This worrying trend has many consequences for Southeast Asian society.

 

Threats Posed by the Illicit Drug Industry

The streaming supply of narcotics from the Golden Triangle into China and Thailand has negative impacts on myriad areas of Southeast Asian life. Mass drug addiction and drug trafficking causes the breakup of families and increases in crime rates, spreads diseases like HIV, burdens the economy through lost productivity, imposes financial costs on the state, spreads law enforcement thin, overwhelms justice systems, encourages corruption, and funds violent groups. As production continues to increase, these problems are becoming more pronounced and demand strong preventative action.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that an average of 13% of injected-drug users are HIV positive, and more than half have hepatitis C. Coupled with China’s annually growing number of registered opioid users (official figures reported 1.3 million users in 2012, with actual rates likely almost double that), this situation makes the threat of a massive HIV epidemic in the world’s largest country ever more likely. Recent trends in China suggest that methamphetamine use is slowly overtaking heroin use as China’s most problematic drug, and just in China 228 meth labs were dismantled in 2012. Widespread amphetamine use continues to be a regional dilemma, as more than 8,980,000 people in East and Southeast Asian used ATS tablets in 2013. The Greater Mekong Subregion has the highest rate of crystal meth use in the world, and this drug use is exacting large tolls on society, as addiction-fueled crime expands and as families and communities spend time and resources helping addicts.

Number of Heroin Users 2010

Source: UNODC Transnational Organized Crime in East Asia and the Pacific: a Threat Assessment, April 2013

The criminals and insurgents that operate the drug trade are making enormous windfalls from their work: the value of all consumed East and Southeast Asian heroin was estimated at $16.3 billion USD in 2011, with methamphetamine and amphetamine consumption valued at an additional $15 billion USD. The traffickers and their associates encompass a wide variety of individuals: ethnic Chinese syndicates, Nigerian and Iranian criminal groups, high-ranking Southeast Asian officials and military personnel, and Burmese insurgent and paramilitary forces. Although on average 50,000 people are arrested each year for trafficking illicit narcotics in Southeast Asia, the high profits of the drug trade continue to lure thousands more into the business. In the case of Burmese fighters, drug earnings are usually spent on weapons, helping to intensify violence in those areas.

drug market value

Source: UNODC Transnational Organized Crime in East Asia and the Pacific: a Threat Assessment, April 2013

Some of the drug trade’s worst victims are the poverty-stricken opium cultivators in the Golden Triangle. Lacking other economic opportunities and desperate for income, many rural farmers are forced into dealings with violent traffickers and become trapped in a cycle of drug cultivation, slowly becoming more and more dependent on poppy income. They are prevented from growing crops that can benefit society, and oftentimes their communities are hit hard by addiction. Unfortunately, these rural villagers only make up a small portion of the people whose lives are destroyed by the drug trade.

 

International Cooperation and Efforts to Eliminate the Drug Industry

The governments of Southeast Asia have been working to combat the narcotics trade ever since their post-colonial independence, but unfortunately the vast majority of these efforts have been restricted to unilateral measures. Law enforcement is usually by definition national in character, but the drug trade is a transnational and regional problem, and increased cooperation on the part of Southeast Asian governments is critical for its sustainable reduction.

Thanks in large part to the prodding of the US government, which had recently declared its own War on Drugs, the 1976 ASEAN Bali Summit saw the adoption of the “ASEAN Declaration of Principles to Combat the Abuses of Narcotics Drugs.” Although mainly filled with rhetoric and containing few concrete measures, this declaration showed consensus among the ASEAN governments and kicked off the modern wave of counter-narcotics policies in Southeast Asia.

Thailand can be considered one of the more successful cases of sustainable reduction in illicit cultivation. Starting in 1984, the Thai government embarked on a 30-year intensive program of crop replacement, which has resulted in bringing opium cultivation in northern Thailand to negligible levels.

In contrast, the efforts of Burma’s Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control have been snared in the frequently contradicting objectives of the government’s anti-insurgent policy. Despite the ambitious 1999 declaration by the ruling regime to eliminate all illicit drug production by 2014, the Burmese government often turns a blind eye towards the narcotics industry in its efforts to co-opt various rebel groups. In the 1980s and 1990s the weak central government began signing ceasefire agreements with the numerous insurgent armies that control the Burmese borderlands, and many of those autonomy-granting agreements contained clauses permitting (and even encouraging) drug cultivation and production by the groups in exchange for their loyalty to the regime. Subsequently, drug enforcement policy became a tool of the state, and it was used both as a carrot and a stick to bring insurgent groups into the legal fold. When a United States grand jury indicted several leaders of the United Wa State Army, which had signed a ceasefire agreement and was the largest Burmese opium producer in the early 2000s, the government refused to arrest them or crack down on their illegal businesses. This lack of enforcement can be seen as a way of repayment for loyalty, and is in direct contrast to the government’s actions towards the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA). The MNDAA, another major opium producer, had refused to make peace with the government, and when the government attacked them in 2009, drug enforcement was the justification given. These two examples show how the central regime manipulates drug policy to its advantage in its state-building efforts, and explains the lack of sustained progress in eliminating the narcotics industry.

 

ASEAN response timeline            In addition to the unilateral efforts of individual states, regional organizations and agreements have been crucial to the evolution of drug enforcement in the Golden Triangle. In the late 1990s, ASEAN began examining anti-narcotics and other issues such as human trafficking and smuggling in the context of transnational crime, and started putting greater emphasis on regional cooperation. The expansion of ASEAN in 1997 to include the Lao People’s Democratic Republic and the Union of Myanmar allowed the other ASEAN governments to exert more diplomatic pressure on the newcomers to clean up their drug exporting regions, demonstrated in the ASEAN Declaration on Transnational Crime. Although the declaration contained no binding measures, it set up several communication and monitoring bodies, including the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on Transnational Crime (AMMTC), the ASEAN Chiefs of National Police (ASEANAPOL) and the ASEAN Senior Officials on Drug Matters (ASOD). These bodies mainly monitor the progress of the 2000 Bangkok Political Declaration in Pursuit of a Drug-Free ASEAN 2015, but they also work to encourage development of bilateral extradition treaties, international criminal justice institutions, and cooperative border control, legal assistance, and data sharing.

 

The Future: Regional Integration and the Effectiveness of Anti-Narcotics Policy

2015 is marked to be the year in which the ASEAN Economic Community is brought into being, and many hope that it will bring with it great advances in regional trade, infrastructure, and cooperation. Already projects such as the North-South Economic Corridor, running from Kunming to Bangkok, and the building of ports and bridges along the Mekong River are generating enormous economic benefits. However, advances in regional integration also provide opportunities for those who would exploit them for illegal purposes. The increasing ease of transporting illicit narcotics and the improving communication technologies of criminal groups present a strong challenge to the national law enforcement agencies of ASEAN countries. Equally innovative and efficient use of new capabilities and technologies, as well as increased intelligence sharing and coordination must be implemented for Southeast Asian governments to effectively meet these new threats.

In November 2011, just a month after the “Mekong Massacre,” China, Laos, Burma, and Thailand agreed to cooperate on river patrols and law enforcement along the Mekong River. Their Joint Statement detailed numerous confidence building measures between the various national police forces, but mainly focused on the responsibility of each individual nation to properly patrol its own sovereign waters. This aspect reveals the major weakness of all ASEAN counter-narcotics efforts to date: ASEAN nations are caught in a paradoxical situation where despite the damaging effects of the drug industry and transnational crime on national sovereignty, the only way to effectively counter those threats is by each nation giving up some measure of their treasured sovereignty. Sovereignty and non-intervention are the two defining pillars of the “ASEAN Way,” and yet those two concepts desperately need to be reevaluated if transnational crime is to be confronted.

Confidence building measures and increased regional communication is a critical first step, but in order to make real progress in fighting the rising threat of transnational crime ASEAN nations need to accept the reduction of their sovereignty. A hopeful example is provided by the official conclusion of the Mekong Massacre: Naw Kham, the Burmese drug lord who supposedly masterminded the murders, was captured by Burmese counter-narcotics forces and extradited to China, where he and three of his subordinates were tried and executed in March 2013. Extradition treaties like these form the basis of effective cooperation, and similarly collaborative measures must be actively pursued by ASEAN governments if they are to successfully tackle the deeply-entrenched and continually evolving menace of the drug industry in Southeast Asia.

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Filed under China, Cold War, Current Events, Economic development, ethnic policy, GMS, Governance, Laos, Mekong River, Myanmar/Burma, Regional Relations, SLIDER, Thailand, USA, Vietnam, Yunnan Province

China’s Maritime Silk Road is all about Africa

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Rice bound for Africa is loaded onto a cargo ship in Bangkok, Thailand

A recently signed agreement between China and Thailand sheds light on the dynamics of the Maritime Silk Road.

Amid all the fanfare and media buzz about China’s re-envisioning of its two Silk Road projects, the New Silk Road and the Maritime Silk Road, admittedly little is known about the details, the mechanics, and the functions of the new routes.  For example, this interactive graphic published by Xinhua suggests the Maritime Silk Road’s prime focus is to facilitate trade between Asia and Europe when in actuality the focus of the Maritime Silk Road is to support and facilitate booming trade growth between Asia and Africa.  To put this into perspective, from 2011 to 2013, trade between China and the EU showed no increase, keeping steady at around USD 530bn.  This was outpaced by trade growth between China and Africa which expanded at an average of 10% per year over the same period of time and is projected to increase 15-20% per year over the next five years.  In 2013 total trade between China and Africa reached USD 210bn – five years ago China’s total trade with Africa was less than half of what it is now. Continue reading

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Filed under ASEAN, China, Current Events, Foreign policy, GMS, Regional Relations, SLIDER, Thailand, Trade, Yunnan Province