Author Archives: Tom Fawthrop

The Myth of Sustainable Hydropower

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Explorers, travelers and traders have long been enchanted by the magical vistas and extraordinary biodiversity of the Mekong flowing through six countries, from the mountains of Tibet to the delta in Vietnam.

However the voracious demands of an energy-hungry region have led to a headlong rush into hydropower and a simmering conflict over the vitally important water resources of this great international river.

The current plans for a cascade of 11 dams on the main stream of the Lower Mekong is a recipe for killing the turbulent spirit of the mighty Mekong, taming its waters and the wonders of nature in the obsessive pursuit of energy at all costs.

The supporters of large dams argue hydropower is an allegedly ‘clean efficient source for of energy.’ They further claim that dams stimulate economic growth and promote development.

However the opposition to all dam projects on the mainstream Mekong, starts with the rural communities along the Mekong and its river basin supporting a 60 million population. The dam developers and government technocrats have failed to examine and study the hidden costs of hydropower, and the irreversible destruction of a unique ecosystem.

A wide-spectrum of critics points to well-documented list of negative impacts: the reduction of water flow and sediment, the huge loss of fisheries, the reduction of food security, and the increasing salinization-intrusion of sea water in the delta, to name but a few serious impacts which run counter to any narrative that dams automatically bring economic progress and “development.”

2016 will be a decisive year for hydropower projects on the mainstream Mekong. The first dam on the Lower Mekong –the Xayaburi Dam is now 60% built. The Don Sahong dam in southern Lao has just been launched, in January this year and a third dam the Pak Beng is being prepared.

Can hydropower on a mainstream river be sustainable?

The unilateral launch of the Xayaburi dam in 2012 and now the Don Sahong dam – second dam on the mainstream of the Mekong, is turning the river away from the historical vision of an international river of cooperation and friendship between Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam, and into another conflict zone over the sharing of water resources.

However the government of Laos is not under any pressure from any of the bodies that ought to be grievously concerned: UN agencies like UNEP and FAO .The World Bank, WLE (Water, Land and Ecosystems, a CGIAR consultancy group); the USAID-sponsored Mekong Partnership for the Environment (MPE); nor other bodies that adhere to the mantra of ‘sustainable hydropower’ and environmental protection.

This term identifies a discourse that argues a well-mitigated ‘nice dam’ does not inflict too much damage on the ecosystem. It is a position that offers great comfort and solace to dam developers, investors and banks under fire from environmentalists and scientists.

Within this cluster of concern about water governance and claims to protect the environment of the 4,880 kilometres long Mekong, there is a grand silence by the donor nations and international bodies that greets the decline of the region’s longest river and the launch of yet another dam.

A regional coordinator for the WLE program has argued the case for ‘sustainable hydropower’ and trade-offs.

“We all enjoy the benefits that come with electric lighting, household appliances”, says Kim Geheb, WLE. “But how do we do this without affecting food production and the health of the environment? How do we ensure that rapid, large-scale dam development is fair and equitable? Answers to these questions are at the heart of what constitutes a ‘good’ dam.”

Xayaburi dam construction site. Photo: Stimson Center

Xayaburi dam construction site. Photo: Stimson Center

The two dams launched so far on the Lower Mekong in Laos surely do not appear to fulfill any obvious criteria for the sustainability principle of what constitutes a ‘good dam. ‘The Xayaburi and the Don Sahong dams along the Mekong are neither fair nor equitable, for the overwhelming majority of poor farming communities living downstream from these dams. These two dams both lack credible environmental impact assessments (EIAs), have failed to provide any trans-boundary studies, and have been launched in defiance of wide-ranging protest and riparian objections.

Scientific consultants to WWF (The World –Wide Fund for Nature) have issued a number of reports exposing massive flaws in these two projects and the lack of credibility of their assurances of effective fish mitigation.

Latest data published by Catch and Culture MRC’s fisheries publication shows that threat posed to the Mekong is based on hidden economic costs that will occur the Mekong is dammed.

The Mekong is a very special river hosting the world’s largest inland fisheries valued at $11 billion ($11 billion for wild capture but that total figure is $17 billion if fish farms along the Mekong are included.) It ranks with the Amazon for the extraordinary diversity of fish species at around 1000 and scientists are still counting.

Fisherman checks his nets on Cambodia's Tonle Sap

Fisherman checks his nets on Cambodia’s Tonle Sap

Estimated fisheries contributed $2.8 billion to Cambodia’s economy in 2015. That’s a big chunk of Cambodia’s $16.71 billion GDP. These catches for wild-capture fisheries are directly under threat from hydro-electric dams.

Studies have shown that the projected loss of fisheries, crops and biodiversity caused by dams will result in a staggeringly high deficit, compared to the modest benefits from increased energy and electricity. The 2015 study calculates the Mekong net loss at minus $2.4 billion (for 6 dams) and up to minus $21.8 billion if all eleven dams are built on the mainstream according to a study published by Chiang Rai University

The science shows that it does not even make good economic sense to build more large dams, in a river blessed by such amazing ecological wealth.

The mitigation game fools no one

Sustainable hydropower and its concern to minimize harm to the environment relies heavily on mitigation technology, including such devices as fish passage, fish ladders and even so-called ‘fish-friendly’ turbines.

Christy Owen, party leader of the MPE (The US-Aid backed Mekong Partnership for Environment) explained at a recent forum: “This work can help ensure that new development projects meet the needs of business, while minimizing harm to local communities and the environment.”

Her statement assumes that no matter the high stakes, and the calamitous effects of ‘bad dams’, dams are somehow “destined to go ahead” after a measure of mitigation and refinement

Fish mitigation technology has mostly been applied and tested in northern climes – the rivers of North America, and parts of northern Europe. Importing this technology to the Mekong and other tropical rivers teeming with a vastly greater variety of fish species than in the rivers of colder countries, is seen by most fisheries experts as highly risky at best.

What may work in the rivers of North America and Norway cannot be mechanically transferred to the vastly more diverse fish species and ecology of the Amazon and the Mekong.

Hydropower consultant working with WWF Dr. Jian-Hua Meng views the mitigation carried out by Swiss consultants on the Xayaburi dam as a huge gamble with the river’s natural resources. “They are playing roulette with the livelihoods of over 60 million people. It would not be acceptable in Europe, so why is it different in Asia?” [1]

The mitigation team employed by Mega-First, the Malaysian developer of the Don Sahong dam, has been engineering fish diversion channels so that fish will change their centuries- old route along the Sahong channel which will be totally blocked by the building of the Don Sahong Dam.

NGO mobilization in Thailand against the Don Sahong Dam.

NGO mobilization in Thailand against the Don Sahong Dam.

However the MRC panel of experts found no evidence that this engineering project would guarantee the protection of large quantities of migratory fish of many different species by offering an untested alternative migration route to bypass the traditional channel according to MRC fisheries expert Dr So Nam (Pakse MRC technical review of experts December 2014).

Mekong specialist Dr. Philip Hirsch, based at University of Sydney shared with this correspondent “After 30 years of studying dam impacts, I have yet to come across one [dam], whose impacts have been well-mitigated. Let’s start with dams that are already there, before using ‘anticipated mitigation’ as a pretext for going ahead with new projects.”

The evidence is clear: there is nothing sustainable about large dams

A widely cited Oxford University study, published in the journal Energy Policy in March 2014, reviewed data from 245 large dams in 65 different countries, and concluded that large dams in general are not sustainable.

As the authors wrote in a statement attached to the study: “The evidence is conclusive: Large dams in a vast majority of cases are not economically viable. Instead of obtaining hoped-for riches, emerging economies risk drowning their fragile economies in debt, owing to ill-advised construction of large dams.”

The global governance debate has clearly shifted business towards paying more attention to environmental protection issues, but all too often this is more a concern to improve their corporate image and improving their public relations, rather than a genuine will rethink their on-going strategy for damming the Mekong.

From his decades of research in the Mekong region Dr Philip Hirsch concludes: “The impacts of some dams are just too great to mitigate.”

WWF warns that hydropower does not mitigate of climate change. But with the Mekong under threat from an annual decline in water flow from the melting glaciers in Tibet, it can on the contrary exacerbate and drive climate change.

The evidence is steadily mounting that if we allow the Mekong to be comprehensively dammed, climate change will grow worse with increasing droughts and salinization from the ocean. The region will then be saddled with a ruined Mekong and the riparian peoples will be damned into around 20 years time to the tragic and irreversible legacy of unsustainable hydropower.

The only way to save the Mekong is by pushing for the political will of regional countries to understand the ecological wealth and the real economic value of great rivers like the Amazon and the Mekong.

 

References:

Strategic Environmental Assessment of Mainstream Dams …

www.mrcmekong.org › … › Initiative on Sustainable Hydropower The SEA presents trans-boundary impacts of the proposed mainstream … As with any commissioned study, the SEA report is not an official MRC approved document.

2) Mekong communities seek injunction on Xayaburi Dam deal …

www.nationmultimedia.com › national

Oct 16, 2014 – … River yesterday lodged a petition with the Administrative Court in Bangkok, … Court on June 24 to accept the network’s right to bring a lawsuit

Catch & Culture Vol. 21, No. 3 » Mekong River Commission

www.mrcmekong.org › News & Events › Newsletters

Jan 5, 2016 – Lower Mekong fisheries estimated to be worth around $17 billion a year … Catch and Culture is published three times a year by the office of the Mekong River … are available through the MRC website, www.mrcmekong.org

The 2015 study calculates the Mekong net loss at minus $2.4 billion ( for 6 dams) and up to -21.8 $billion ( for 11 dams)

Energy Policy

Volume 69, June 2014, Pages 43–56  Oxford Univesity study on the impacts of large dams .The study is based on data from 245 large dams in 65 different countries.

Should we build more large dams? The actual costs of hydropower megaproject development

http://www.bsg.ox.ac.uk/news/should-we-build-more-large-dams

Latest research pubished in 2015 by Chiang Rai University Mekong research group http://www.mfu.ac.th/nremc/content_detail.php?id=298

Contact the author :

Tom Fawthrop

director of THE GREAT GAMBLE ON THE MEKONG  EUREKA FILMS 2015

eurekacuba@gmail.com

[1] (Interview with the author and film-maker Tom Fawthrop who directed the film The Great Gamble on the Mekong’ Eureka Films 2015).

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The Salween River is Not for Sale

TAUNGGYI, Shan state, Myanmar

It is billed to become the biggest dam in SE Asia. The Mong Ton dam project on the Salween River will flood a vast area, with a reservoir extending 380 km upstream over an area home to thousands of Shan and other ethnic groups in a region of important biodiversity.

It could well become Myanmar’s most controversial dam project since the Myitsone on the Irrawaddy. (This dam was suspended by President Thein Sein in 2010).

Sinohydro, The Three Gorges and Southern Power grid form a Chinese consortium with a 40 % stake in partnership with EGAT Thailand’s Electricity Authority (40%) and local partners IGE.

Kunhing villagers protest against Mong Ton Dam, April 30, 2015.

Kunhing villagers protest against Mong Ton Dam, April 30, 2015.

Thousands of villagers supported by civil society in the Shan state are angry that their Salween –the last undammed river of size and importance in the region- is being dragged into the nexus of ever expanding hydro-power and big business.

The strength of anti-dam sentiments took the EIA consultants by surprise at a recent public meetings in Shan state conducted by SMEC (The Snowy Mountain Engineering Corporation from Australia).

The Australian consultants have been engaged by the developers to conduct EIA and SIA – Environmental and Social Impact Assessments.

They received a hostile reception from hundreds of Shan people crammed into a small hall many of them sporting “No Dam “bandalas and placards.

The Smec consultants were told the assessment period was too short.The villagers have been told very little by the government and these corporations.

The recent protest against the gigantic Mong Ton dam project on Salween River is only one part of a growing anti- dam movement struggling to protect the culture and livelihoods of millions stretched across three ethnic states in Myanmar -Shan, Karen, and Kayah comprising diverse minority peoples.

Hundreds of kilometers to the south, Kesan – (the Karen Environmental Network) organized a Salween day to mark the global protection of rivers day March 14th 2015, to celebrate the river’s beauty and vital importance to ethnic peoples.

Up north the Mong Ton dam would flood pristine teak forests; the planned Hatgyi dam in Karen state would flood two wildlife north sanctuaries. Cultural and religious heritage sites will be inundated.

Banners defiantly proclaimed on the Thanlwin River/Salween in Myanmar: NO DAMS! THE SALWEEN IS NOT FOR SALE! On International Rivers Day of Protest celebrated on rivers around the world from the Amazon to the Mekong.

Ms Hsa Moo, a Kesan media coordinator addressed a crowd of several hundred Karen villagers. “When the government in Nay Pyidaw looks at the Salween River and other rivers in Burma, they don’t see its beauty: they only see Thai Baht, Chinese Yuan, US dollars and Indian Rupees. For them, the rivers flowing through the lands of our ethnic communities are nothing more than a potential source of revenue. Not revenue for local people, but for the central government:

They want to dam our rivers, sell most of the energy they generate to neighboring countries, and keep the money for themselves.’ She concluded “Our rivers are not for sale.”

Statements from the Naypidaw parliament indicate the government‘s prime concern is not with the potentially disastrous impacts, but with the country’s energy shortages.

In February 2013 the Deputy Minister of Power Myint Zaw told parliament that six hydropower dams had been approved for the Salween River, one of the region’s longest flowing for 2800 kms from the snow-capped mountains of Tibet, through China and Myanmar.

The projects in Shan State include the Kunlon, with a capacity of 1400 megawatts, Naungpha (1000MW), Mann Thaung (200MW) and Mong Ton(aka Tasang dam)   (7110MW). Other dams include Ywarthit (4000MW) in Kayah State and Hatgyi (1360MW) in Karen State.

Professor Maung Maung Aye chief advisor to the MEI –Myanmar Environment Institute speaking in a panel discussion in Yangon commented; “today damming the rivers is the government’s first principle for developing more energy, instead of being the last option for the nation.”.

The NGO Renewable Energy Association of Myanmar (REAM) also strongly criticized the government’s failure to adopt an energy policy that would include investment in solar power, wind power and other clean and green energy solutions that have recently dropped in price, and become far more affordable..

Upstream from Myanmar the Salween( Nujiang) in China had been the target for 13 dams in 2004. However in a dramatic reversal for Chinese hydropower, former premier Wen Jiabao declared a moratorium on dam construction on the River Nujang in response to a strong environmental campaign led by Green Watershed, supported by several Chinese geologists.

The Mong Ton (aka Tasang) dam will be by far the largest on the Salween River in Burma, producing 7,100 megawatts of electricity, 90 percent of which will be exported to China and Thailand.

The massive reservoir will stretch across almost the entire length of Shan State flooding huge areas and deluging hugely important areas of biodiversity and forest. Villagers who attended the recent SMEC –run consultation in early April, held up anti-dam placards and handed out a statement to the Australian staff, raising concerns about how the dam would threaten their livelihoods and trigger renewed armed conflict.

HYDRO- DAMS FUELLING CONFLICT

Nang Wah Nu, a representative from Shan State in Parliament reported last year that preparation work has already begun on monster Mong Ton dam designed to deliver 7000 mw of power, but only 15% for the Myanmar.

The Shan parliamentarian lamented “no information had been provided to residents who fear their homes, rice fields and pagodas will be flooded”. She warned   “Fighting could break out if the government does not discuss the project.”

Indeed fighting has broken out in the proximity of dam projects with more than 50 clashes recorded between armed ethnic groups and the army during the current period of peace talks according to the Burma Rivers Network coalition.

Fresh fighting has erupted in southern Shan State in March 2013, after the army launched an offensive against the Shan State Army-North to force its troops out of bases along the Thanlwin (Salween) located near dam sites in Nona Pha and Mong Tong. This forced the displacement of 2000 villagers in Tangyan township.

A spokesperson for Karen Rivers Watch reported that the army’s border guard force attacked the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army in May in an attempt to drive them away from the Hatgyi dam site. The villagers fled to refugee camps on the Thai border.”

Sai Khur Hseng, director of Sapwawa a Shan environmental network declared: “These conflicts have broken out despite the ceasefires. It is very clear that the Thanlwin (Salween) dams are fuelling war. If President U Thein Sein really wants peace, he should stop the dams immediately,”

The Myanmar government plans to sell electricity produced from the hydropower projects on the basis of agreements with five Chinese companies, one Thai company and three Myanmar companies. The ministry says Myanmar will get 15 percent of the electricity from the projects and the right to buy a further 25%.

These very serious and well- documented allegations have been raised in peace talks with the government.

Karen people protest against the Hat Gyi Dam and other dams on the Salween.

Karen people protest against the Hat Gyi Dam and other dams on the Salween.

THE HYDROPOWER DEBATE: The World Bank versus the World Commission on Dams and the Oxford Study.

In January 2015 the World Bank and its financial arm the IFC-International Finance Corporation organised a conference in Yangon to promote hydropower as an engine for economic growth, and as a solution for dealing with the nation’s energy problems held in Naypidaw.

The event was clearly aimed at tapping the huge influx of foreign investor’s rich eager to grab a stake in exploiting the nation’s rich natural resources.

Although heavily outnumbered by businessmen and bankers, a few ngos were allowed to raise serious challenges to the overwhelming pro-dam spirit of the conference. John Saw Bright a representative of Kesan –(the Karen environmental & social action network )made it clear to the conference , mega-dam projects like the controversial Myitsone dam have given dams a bad reputation in Myanmar.

A representative from Myanmar Peace Support similalrly observed “dams and hydropower do not have a beautiful name in Burma…”

THE WORLD BANK AND HYDROWER

At the Naypidaw conference in January 2015, the World Bank Group tried to counter the negative image of large-scale dams, with the simple mantra of “sustainable hydropower ““a slogan that has come to permeate all international discourse on dams.

Kate Lazarus from the IFC the financial arm of the World Bank commented, “a sustainable hydropower sector will help mitigate environmental and social risks, while realizing Myanmar’s huge energy potential, contributing to economic growth and shared prosperity.”(The Nation newspaper in Thailand)

Karin Finkelston, IFC’s vice president for global partnerships argued that “electricity is fundamental to reducing poverty and improving living standards for Myanmar’s people and hydropower is an important part of Myanmar’s energy future – but it has to be done in an environmentally and socially sustainable way.”

But all this begs the question of what is sustainable and does mitigation work? The World Bank and the IFC neglect to define the limits of sustainability. The test of unsustainability and the grounds for rejecting a dam-project cannot be found anywhere in their literature. It has also never been clarified by the Mekong River Commission.

Rhetoric and assurances do not guarantee that millions of people living on Burma’s great rivers, and their fisheries, farm crops, and their livelihoods, can be adequately protected from destruction, which normally follows in the wake of mega-dam operations.

In fact here the work of fisheries experts and scientists clearly demonstrates that World Bank policy runs counter to the conclusions of recent scientific reports including the World Commission on Dams and subsequent studies.

The most comprehensive study of hydropower dam impacts around the world concluded that most mega-projects had unleashed many problems and that the losses suffered usually outweighed the benefits.

The World Commission on Dams (2000) concluded ´Decentralised, small-scale options (micro hydro, home-scale solar electric systems, and wind and biomass system) based on local renewable sources offer an important near-term, and possibly long-term, potential particularly in rural areas far away from centralised supply networks.”

Renewable Energy Association of Myanmar (REAM), a civil society group, pointed out that most of the population in Burma lives in remote and off-grid areas. If the government and the World Bank Group genuinely aim to bring electricity to the local population, decentralized off-grid solutions are the best option, not large-scale hydropower dams for export.

International Rivers ngo view sustainable hydropower as a formula not for examining all energy options and defining criteria for stopping  a deeply flawed dam from being built, but rather a recipe for building ” better nicer dams” based on unproved technologies of mitigation.

Pai Deetes of International Rivers blogged “It is clear that the myth of “sustainable hydropower”, as it is being sold by the World Bank will simply not be accepted in Burma.

Just recently an Oxford University research study corroborated these conclusions. “The evidence is conclusive: Large dams in a vast majority of cases are not economically viable. Instead of obtaining hoped-for riches, emerging economies risk drowning their fragile economies in debt owing to ill-advised construction of large dams,” they said in a statement attached to the study, which was published on March 10: 2014 in the Energy Policy journal.

“The World Bank‘s claim that hydropower is “clean affordable, and reliable” is clearly contradicted by this study.

Bent Flyvbjerg, principal investigator for the Oxford University dam study, says dams “are not carbon neutral, and they’re not greenhouse neutral”. The vast quantities of concrete required to construct leave an enormous carbon footprint, he says.

Furthermore flooded vegetation under the reservoirs produces methane, a greenhouse gas roughly 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide, he says.

Co-author Bent Flyvbjerg, the founding chair of Major Programme Management at the school, said the findings against mega dams were so conclusive that only “fools” or “liars” would advocate for them.

Kunhing villagers protest against Mong Ton Dam. April 2015.

Kunhing villagers protest against Mong Ton Dam. April 2015.

CONCLUSION

Before the government and civil society consider following the World Bank neo-liberal model of development they should also heed the latest revelations from a global media investigation.

“Dams, power plants and other projects sponsored by the World Bank have pushed millions of people out of their homes or off their lands or threatened their livelihoods” the investigation found

The UK Guardian, the Huffington Post and other media, are currently    publishing a series of these investigation reports from the ICIJ (International Centre of Investigative journalism).

The ICIJ report concluded “The World Bank regularly fails to enforce its own rules protecting people in the path of the projects it bankrolls, with devastating consequences for some of the poorest and most vulnerable people on the planet.”

Many of the poorest and most vulnerable people constantly subject to military harassment, and enforced resettlement are the ethnic peoples of the Salween River.

If the Myanmar government is serious about bringing peace to the ethnic regions and ending civil war in the country, they have to think again about imposing mega-projects on the ethnic states without providing them any benefits or compensation.

Building or not building dams is about far more than foreign investment, selling energy to neighbouring countries and protecting the environment. It is intimately connected with a more equitable sharing of political power and natural resources between the central government and its impoverished ethnic regions.

This article was originally published in the May 14th issue of MIZZIMA Weekly. It is reprinted here, in its entirety, with full permission from its author.

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Review: Hun Sen’s Cambodia

hun-sen-cambodia-review-722x481

It is now 36 years since the end of the Khmer Rouge regime that all but destroyed the Cambodian nation, decimated its most educated people, and reduced the country to year zero.

Amazingly, the young foreign minister who emerged from the debris in 1979 is still in power.

Hun Sen, then a gaunt-looking 27-year-old, was drafted from the obscurity of a Vietnamese camp for Cambodian dissidents and defectors to serve in the newly installed Heng Samrin government. His parents were poor rice farmers. He entered politics without any diplomas or degrees. From the world’s youngest foreign minister in 1979, he currently ranks as the region’s longest-serving prime minister.

Two years after the defeat of the Khmer Rouge regime,world's youngest foreign minister emerges from the genocidal darkness of the oppressive regime. Photo copyright: Tom Fawthrop

Two years after the defeat of the Khmer Rouge regime,world’s youngest foreign minister emerges from the genocidal darkness of the oppressive regime. Photo copyright: Tom Fawthrop

 

Hun Sen’s Cambodia by Sebastian Strangio, a former journalist with the Phnom Penh Post, helps to fill a number of historical gaps in charting the rise of Hun Sen through the 1980s to the 2013 elections. The young foreign minister was a fast learner. Appointed prime minister in 1985, Hun Sen soon boldly charted an end to the civil war. In 1989 he gave the country a new name — the State of Cambodia — as well as a new flag and constitution, and shrewdly paved the way for an eventual peace settlement in Paris.

Unfortunately, Strangio’s attempt to record recent Cambodian history is marred by an obsessive desire to view every topic through same prism: the legacy of UNTAC — the UN peacekeeping mission (1991-93). Also pervasive is the author’s conviction that in every field Cambodia’s achievements are nothing more than a “mirage.”

A confident Hun Sen already the prime minister ,dares to swim in a Kampot river in spite of Khmer Rouge insurgents still active less than  25km away.

A confident Hun Sen already the prime minister ,dares to swim in a Kampot river in spite of Khmer Rouge insurgents still active less than 25km away. Photo copyright: Tom Fawthrop

Cambodian Reform

Cambodia has clearly made great progress in the last 30 years.

The nation was reborn in the 1980s. Peace returned in 1999. Cambodia long ago lost its regular place on TV news as one of the world’s most dangerous war zones. The magic of the ancient temples of Angkor and the nation’s cultural revival now once again captivate visitors. Both tourism and the garments industry have fueled economic growth.

Moreover, Cambodia is less repressive than many ASEAN governments, including Thailand and its cycle of military coups. Yet, according to Strangio, multiparty elections offer only a “mirage of democracy.”

In Cambodia’s last election, Hun Sen’s ruling party suffered a stunning loss of 22 seats, with the united opposition coming in a strong second with 55 seats in a national parliament of 123 members.

It’s too soon to dub this a “Phnom Penh Spring,” but Cambodia’s political diversity is more than just a mirage, particularly in comparison to the long-serving prime ministerial reigns ofMahathir Mohamad in Malaysia (22 years) and Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew (31 years). Malaysia and Singapore have never tolerated the strikes, protest rallies, and vociferous opposition that are all welcome features of Cambodian political life.

Cambodia, according to Strangio, was the nation where the UN and Western aid lavished billions of dollars on peacekeeping, implanting liberal democracy and human rights. The author assumes that Cambodia could make a smooth and rapid transition from the genocide and cruel deprivation of the 1980s to a shining beacon of democracy today. Of course that fantasy has not happened. The author concludes that the ruthless intransigence of Hun Sen and his ruling party, abetted by a traditional Cambodian resilience to foreign mentors of all ideologies, thwarted the allegedly benign, well-meaning Western efforts since the end of the Cold War to create a democratic success story.

In so doing, the author fails to detect a “mirage” of a different nature that did not come from any Cambodian failures, but can be squarely laid at the door of Western nations sitting in the UN Security Council.

Flaws of Peacekeeping

The UNTAC peacekeeping operation has been widely hailed as a great success story that ended the Cambodia conflict and ushered in a putative new democracy.

The UN-run election in 1993 did help implant democracy in Cambodia. However, the author glosses over the failure of UN peacekeeping and Western nations to get rid of the Khmer Rouge bases sustained and supported by the Royal Thai Army in blatant violation of the 1991 Paris Peace treaty.

From 1993-1998, the Pol Pot nightmare continued to haunt the fragile new state. The Khmer Rouge still controlled the gem-rich border province of Pailin and Anlong Veng to the north. They still planted landmines and burned down remote villages that defied them.

The war continued because the United States, France, and the UK all gave a much higher priority to preserving their deep military and trading ties with Thailand than putting pressure on this important ally and its military to sever the supply lines to the outlawed Khmer Rouge.

It was an elected Cambodian government led by Hun Sen — and not the UN — that finally eliminated the Khmer Rouge insurgency. On this point the book accepts that many voters in the 2003 election felt relief the war was finally over and rewarded the government with a strong mandate. Having secured the peace where the UN had failed, Hun Sen reached the zenith of his popularity at home.

In 2003, I wrote that if Hun Sen had retired around this time, his achievements and his legacy would have outweighed his dark side. But since peace and stability returned to Cambodia, corruption and looting of natural resources have boomed, with the prime minister’s close associates as the main beneficiaries.

The book rightly points out that 20 years of Western aid has only spawned an aid-addicted dependency. But Hun Sen hardly invented crony capitalism, corrupt patronage, or the skimming off of foreign aid.

The World Bank’s neoliberal development model of sweeping privatization and starving the public sector of any significant aid has also encouraged or tolerated cronyism in the scramble over newly privatized assets and the mass eviction of the urban poor. The opposition has failed to offer a real alternative to Hun Sen’s adoption of the neoliberal model of development designed by the World Bank. Neither side has come up with policies that could narrow the yawning gap between rich and poor.

Hun Sen must take a lot of responsibility for the ugly side of Cambodian development. But the book’s depiction of Western government aid as always benign and benevolent suffers from a lack of critical questioning.

Transitional Justice

Strangio dismisses the landmark trial of a few surviving leaders from the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime — Asia’s first case of international justice — as just another deception.

But the complex UN-backed tribunal brought together local and international lawyers and judges based on a UN partnership with the Cambodian authorities. Many cynics predicted that the trial would never take place. Whatever the shortcomings of this legal process, millions of Cambodians belatedly experienced a very real justice. They finally saw Pol Pot’s chief accomplices held to account, given a fair trial, and convicted of crimes against humanity.

According to UN legal expert Lars Olsen, Cambodian participation in the process exceeded that for all previous international justice courts. In addition to the 500 Cambodians who filled the public gallery day after day, they also participated as victims and litigants known as “civil parties.” Most victims have expressed some satisfaction that the tribunal brought a sense of accountability, closure, and justice.

That Cambodia was brave enough to face its tragic history should alone command international respect. Indonesia is still afraid to document and investigate the skulls in its own cupboard: the massive bloodbath in 1965-66, with an estimated 900,000 dead, and the subsequent atrocities in East Timor.

If the United States and its allies had not helped the Khmer Rouge hang on to Cambodia’s seat in the UN General Assembly and blocked the credentials of the Heng Samrin government, this genocide tribunal could have taken place more than 25 years ago, as Hun Sen proposed in 1986. As it is, the ongoing tribunal is a case of far better late than never.

Why has Hun Sen, a leader from such humble origins, subsequently turned his back on the poor majority of Cambodians and their cry for land and justice? What kind of egomania has driven him to want to remain prime minister until the age of 72?

Strangio should have put these questions to Hun Sen in an interview.

Yet despite five years of commendable research, Strangio’s book doesn’t rely on any interviews with his prime subject. So we never get any of the answers that might have truly illuminated Hun Sen’s character, or any deeper insights in why he has chosen the path of electorally sanctioned authoritarianism and feudal-style patronage — a hallmark of the 1960s under the rule of Prince Norodom Sihanouk.

Tom Fawthrop is a frequent contributor to ExSE.  He directed a Cambodian film Dreams and Nightmares broadcast on UK Channel 4 in 1989 and has interviewed Hun Sen on three occasions. He is also co-author of the book ‘ Getting away with Genocide?”  Pluto Books 2004.

This review was originally posted here on the FPIF website on February 15, 2015 and is reposted with the permission of the author.  

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Monsters in the Mekong

Construction of the Xayaburi Dam in Laos

Construction of the Xayaburi Dam in Laos

It will be a giant, stretching across the mighty Mekong River. Standing 32.6 metres tall and 820m wide, the $3.8 billion Xayaburi dam in Laos could supply electricity to more than three quarters of a million homes in Thailand. And when it’s completed in 2019, it will be the most controversial power project in the region.

Since the plan was released in 2010 to construct the hydroelectric plant, geologists and environmentalists have voiced concerns about safety and the effects the mega-dam will have on neighbours Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand. They have highlighted the risks of seismic activity in the area and the threat to the fishing industry on the 3,100-mile long (4,900 kilometres) Mekong River, which flows from the Tibetan steppes into southern China on its way to Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Continue reading

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In Cambodia Racist Rhetoric Brings Death Threats to Human Rights Activist

Opposition protesters from Cambodia's National Rescue Party gather in downtown Phnom Penh, December 2013.  Image: Vicky Han

Opposition protesters from Cambodia’s National Rescue Party gather in downtown Phnom Penh, December 2013. Image: Vicky Han

PHNOM PENH – Cambodia, a nation once traumatised by the ‘Killing Fields’ of the Pol Pot regime in the 1970s, has come a long way since then in rebuilding  the nation from year zero including the holding of elections, and the  creation of a multi-party system.

But the recent flood of hate-mail and death-threats sent to Mr Ou Virak, the president of CCHR (The Cambodian Centre for Human Rights) in the capital Phnom Penh, points to a society still dangerously divided over ethnic and racial issues.

 Attacks on human rights activists in Cambodia and around the world mostly come from the agents and the guardians of the status quo – the police, army, militias, and from private security companies deployed by major corporations seeking to block workers rights. Continue reading

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The Godfather of the Golden Triangle: Lo Hsing Han, Obituary

Most crime bosses and drug barons never reach old age, unless they end up behind bars serving a life sentence. More often than not they are eliminated in a hail of bullets fired by either a police sharp-shooters or from a rival gang.

But  Lo Hsing Han ,the former ‘King of the Golden Triangle’ heroin trade  who survived several decades of opium wars in the Shan state and became one of the world’s ‘Most Wanted Men’, amazingly defied the odds to become an octogenarian. He died in Yangon on July 6th 2013 aged 80.

Nor did this legendary drug-trafficker die in lonely obscurity shunned by society. His lavish funeral was a VIP affair attended by former generals, two cabinet ministers, and hundreds of well-wishers from Burmese high society.

They paid tribute to his rare metamorphosis from a notorious drug-kingpin to a respected business tycoon, the founder of the Asia World Group that has become a dominating pillar of the Myanmar economy. He is also credited with being the key player in establishing the nation’s economic dependence on narco-profits in the 1990s.

Lo was born around 1935 into a poor ethnic Chinese family in the Kokang district of the Shan state northern Myanmar.

His career in the opium trade began in the 1960s not as an outlaw, but as the leader of a Yangon–sanctioned militia, the KKY, under the auspices of General Ne Win’s dictatorship.

The militias were supposed to fight Shan rebel armies and the Burmese communist guerrillas but expended most of their energy on taxing and protecting mule convoys carrying huge sacks of opium. Thanks to a complex chess-board of   nationalist rebels, opium warlords, the Burmese army and communist guerrillas backed by China, anarchy reigned supreme in the Shan state.

After the 1967 Opium War, Lo Hsing Han emerged as the big winner and consolidated much of the opium trade under his command, still enjoying the blessings of the Ne Win regime.

But the regime came to realise that their home guard KKY militias were a failure and started to disband them in 1973, prompting Lo to abruptly change sides and team up with his former enemies the SSA rebels –the Shan State Army.

During the next 20 years the Lo Hsing Han real–life story was packed with more intrigues, changing allegiances and betrayals, than a John Le Carre novel.

British film-maker Adrian Cowell filmed his classic ‘Opium Warlords’ (‘screened on ITV in 1974), after spending more than nine months trapped in the Shan jungles. It featured for the first time an interview with Lo, the legendary warlord.

Lo, the drug trafficker warlord, unexpectedly offered a diplomatic deal to end the narcotics trade in Burma, by offering to sell the whole opium harvest to the US government in exchange for a mere $12 million. It was taken seriously in Washington by a US congressional committee.

DEA agents based in Thailand arranged for Thai Police to pick him up inside Burma with a message that high-ranking US officials had agreed to talks in Chiangmai.  However after the Thai helicopter collected him from inside Burma, he was stunned to be immediately arrested upon arrival in Thailand July 1973.

US law enforcement plans were confounded by the sudden deportation of the prize catch to Yangon. Some Thai officials clearly wanted to stop Lo Hsing Han from talking. Many high-ranking Thai police and military officials were on Lo’s extensive payroll, which helped to grease the smooth transportation of narcotics delivery by road from the Shan state to Thai ports, without being intercepted by police checkpoints.

The Ne Win regime promptly indicted him for treason and he was sentenced to death. In another twist to the saga, the verdict was soon set aside in favour of an 8 years jail term, much of it served comfortably under house arrest. Then in 1980 amnesty was granted and he returned to Lashio in Shan state.

The military junta’s intelligence chief General Khin Nyunt had spotted an opportunity to recycle the resourceful man from Kokang, who had contacts with everybody in the ethnic mosaic of the Shan state, to work for the regime in a new capacity.

A 1989 mutiny inside the communist BCP proved to be a major game-changer, which allowed Lo Hsing Han to play his newly assigned role as a broker of ceasefires.

His contacts with all the Shan, Kokang and Wa rebel armies helped General Khin Nyunt to conclude a series of ceasefire agreements, and in return the military junta happily re-licensed Lo to resume the opium and heroin trade in opposition to rival drug warlord Khun Sa, who was still fighting the government under the banner of Shan nationalism.

In 1992 Asia World Corporation was set up in Yangon as a family partnership between Lo Hsing Han the chairman and his son US- educated Steven Law, the managing director.

The company’s portfolio included: import-export business, bus transport, property development and Rangoon’s port development.

But it was Singapore ‘s decision to get into bed with the Lo family’s Asia world conglomerate with a stake in two new luxury hotel through the government’s investment arm GIS, that garnered most international attention.

According to research based on all the available date of Myanmar’s trade investment and revenue in the fiscal year 1995-6, no less than US$600 million income in the state treasury could not be accounted for.

This conspicuous gap in Myanmar’s bookkeeping at a time when their official economy was on the rocks, points to only one plausible explanation–a generous infusion of narco-dollars from the Golden Triangle coming from Lo. One of the country’s most successful entrepreneurs had come to the rescue of a faltering economy in dire straits.

The grand wedding of  Steven Law to Singaporean business partner Cecilia Ng in 1996  clearly helped to cement the growing ties between the military junta, Asia World, and Singapore investors..

The Lo family’s guest of honour was Hotels and Tourism Minister Lieut. General Kyaw Ba, accompanied by four more cabinet ministers, and two planeloads of wedding guests from Singapore. The special charter flights not only carried the bride’s relatives, but also investors from representing one of Asia’s most important financial hubs.

US officials claimed that half of Singapore’s investments in Myanmar have been tied to Lo’s family.

It was far more than a grand wedding bash. It symbolised Lo Hsing Han’s metamorphosis from a drug baron to a corporate respectability, and his acceptance by investors from a key member of the Asean business community.

Asia World established three subsidiaries in Singapore jointly run by Steven Law and his wife Cecilia Ng (Ng Sor Hong) she allegedly also runs an underground banking system facilitating money-laundering and safe tax havens for narco-dollars.

Although Singapore is proud of its mandatory death penalty for small-time narcotics couriers and heroin addicts, both father and son travelled freely in and out of the island city state.

Steven Law and his father had become VIPs in Burma, and welcome business partners in Singapore, but they were forbidden to enter the United States since 1996 on “suspicion of involvement in narcotics trafficking.”

Under new US sanctions imposed in 2008 Asia World and six of its subsidiaries were blacklisted and similar sanctions were applied by the UK.

But these sanctions have done little to hinder Asia World‘s dynamic expansion. The company built on the illicit black economy has thrived,  and currently  partners major companies from mainland China in several mega-projects including an oil and gas pipeline, a deep sea port at Kyaukpyu, and the controversial Myitsone dam project.

Another irony is that Lo was closely connected to Taiwan’s military intelligence for 30 years, and deployed his Shan and Kokang soldiers to fight against Beijing-backed Burmese communist party.

Asia World has its financial foundations built on the law of the Burmese jungle and the 3 Gs :Guns, Gold and Goons. But  Lo’ s legacy will casts a long shadow over the aspirations of many groups to move the economy out of the hands of the cronies, and towards a respect for environment, human rights and the development of a democracy.

This account of the Life and Times of Lo Hsin Han provided the basis for the obituary published in The Economist in July, 2013.

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Is there state complicity in the attacks on Myanmar Muslims communities?

The government of Myanmar’s President Thein Sein, so active in its efforts to assure Western audiences that the new Myanmar will never return to the dark days of the previous ruling military junta, has so far failed to display any commitment to ending the brutal spiral of attacks on Muslim communities, carried out in town after town by suspiciously well-organized Buddhist gangs.

Thein Sein’s periodic appeals for ”an end to communal violence” are less than convincing given the absence of any government measures or plan to stem the flood anti-Muslim propaganda being freely disseminated under the noses of the authorities.

Leaflets and magazines denigrating Muslims are being churned out every day across the country.

The monk Wirathu has spread a perniciously xenophobic version of Theravada Buddhism through inflammatory sermons directed against a Muslim minority that comprises only 5% of the population in this predominantly Buddhist nation of 60 million

Extremist Buddhist monks led by the publicity hungry U Wirathu, are preaching a brand of pure Buddhist nation-state and hatred of Islam, that cause consternation and disgust  among the true devotees of peace non-violence and the path of the Lord Buddha.
Muslim shops and homes in Lashio in Shan state were the most recent victims of a Buddhist motorbike gang in June. Shan researcher Sai Latt commented  “the government and the police are not doing anything at all to clamp down on extremist hate propaganda against Muslims.” Continue reading

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Where have all the fish gone? Killing the Mekong dam by dam

The Mekong, a river of wildly majestic fast-flowing currents flowing through six countries, has long enchanted explorers with its rich biodiversity second only to the Amazon.

It is home to the Giant Catfish, and at least 877 fish species sustaining food security for around 65 million people which make the Mekong the world’s most important centre of freshwater fisheries.

“For the people born on the Mekong, the river is like their blood—the principle of life,” says Dorn Bouttasing, a Lao environmental researcher.

Surely it is unthinkable that man would want to endanger or destroy the basis of such extraordinary natural wealth? Such invaluable natural resources, their infinite value defies any attempt to measure with a crude price tag.

My documentary Where Have All the Fish Gone? (Eureka Films) looks at the four Chinese hydropower dams that have been already built on the Lancang (The Chinese name for the upper Mekong), but its main focus is on the Lower Mekong basin shared by Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

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