The Mekong: Turbulent Past, Uncertain Future
Milton Osborne (Grove Press, 2000)
The Mekong, Turbulent Past, Uncertain Future, by Milton Osborne is a critical introduction to the history, geography, and a slate of current issues facing the Mekong River basin. Despite being written in 1999, the book is a must read for those looking for a primer to the myriad issues challenging the region. Those more familiar with the Mekong region will find interest in the anecdotal observations of locations like Luang Prabang and Phnom Penh by locals and outsiders through the centuries as well as the personal perspectives of the Milton Osborne himself, a seminal authority on the Mekong and Southeast Asia. PLUS, any book that begins with a description of drinking Beer Lao along the Mekong must be a good one.
Weaving the 2000 year history of a river and those living in its watershed into a 300 page narrative is no small task. As a basic approach, Osborne selects contemporary themes prevalent to the region such as violent exploitation by outside groups, biodiversity losses, the protection of local and indigenous cultures, and the establishment of independent state and regionalism. He then searches for the roots of these themes in both the historical record and contemporary experience. The composite product is a rich chronology that begins with the rise and fall of classic empires like Angkor Wat, transitions to the exploits of the European Colonials up the river as they search for a river road to China, and finally pits emerging Mekong states in a battle with a contemporary rising China over the Mekong’s abundant endowment of resources. The book by no means is a local history, but rather one of an outsider looking in, a familiar and recurrent theme utilized by Osborne to connect with his English speaking audience.
Part I of the book begins with the 13th century reflections of Chou Ta-kuan who made the only written documentation of the great Khmer kingdom at Angkor. Chou’s observations, calling the Khmer “a coarse people, ugly and deeply sunburnt,” reveal prejudices of the hegemonic Chinese empire toward lesser and classic rice cultivating states to the south. This reminds the reader at once of similar prejudices European colonials held toward Asians as well as the prevalent chauvinism that modern day Chinese often show toward their southern neighbors. Osborne’s description of the Khmer empire highlights the critical linkage of the seasonal ebb and flow of the Mekong watershed’s Tonle Sap lake to sustaining the life of a historically unprecedented empire. He accurately portrays that this natural phenomena of yearly flooding along the Mekong and its tributaries serves as lifeline to the abundance of fish species that nearly 60 million people rely on for sustenance in contemporary times.
The book excels as a historical narrative as Osborne introduces the steady stream of European influence over the region starting with exploits of the Portuguese and Spanish in the 16th century and then, across a few of the books chapters, giving a detailed account of a 19th century failed French exploratory mission to find a way to navigate the river from its delta at the sea to upstream into China. At the time of the book’s writing in 1999, Chinese engineers were blasting rapids in the upper reaches of the Mekong near the Golden Triangle to open trade river trade between China and Thailand, so the river exploration theme may have seemed more relevant then than now. Yet even today local communities struggle to cope with the costs of foreign investment and imposed development practices. The story of the not-so-successful Lagree-Garnier mission of the late 1850s reveals hubris of the French who discovered, at great cost of human life, that the river could not be used as a trade route to China. Yet their meticulously recorded 15-month expedition produced the region’s first accurate topographic map, and picturesque illustrations by the expeditions’ engraver, Louis DelaPorte detail the dynamic cornucopia of human culture that was found then (and still exists) along the course of the Mekong.
In Part II, Osborne tells of the political and social upheaval of the Mekong region of the 20th century through his own experiences and those of his friends and colleagues, some of whom met a violent end in the decades of Cold War conflicts that plagued Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Arriving in Phnom Penh in 1959 on assignment by the Australian government, Osborn tells how he once (like many Southeast Asian leaders today) was excited about the prospects of the US’s plans to dam the Mekong. Through first-hand, detailed accounts he portrays how the Vietnam War and the Cambodian conflict put an end to American sponsored hydropower cascades on the river. This portion of the book also introduces readers not so familiar with the Vietnam War, the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and the US’s Secret War with Laos to key events, political leaders, and suggests literature for further reading.
The irony of Part III, an exposition on future concerns toward the Mekong, is although it was written 14 years ago, so little has changed of the rhetoric and concern towards the future of the Mekong. Much of this portion is spent discussing the details and impacts of China’s dams on the Mekong on downstream fisheries and communities – a theme that still pervades the current literature on Mekong issues. This suggests little progress has been made on issues that were not only apparent in the mid-1990s, but in retrospect, apparent in the 1950s when the US planned to dam the Mekong. Osborne discusses the lack of political gravitas displayed by the Mekong River Commission, the coordinating body responsible for the river’s maintenance and development made up of the four lower basin member states of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. He introduces salinization of the Mekong Delta and the potential costs that will be burdened by local communities through increases of regional transportation infrastructure such as highways and bridges built across the Mekong for the purpose of trade facilitation. Most Mekong scholars would agree that the circumstances surrounding these key contemporary issues have only worsened since the time of the book’s writing.
The Mekong: Turbulent Past, Troubled Future is a must read and good starting point for all students of the Mekong and its narrative is as significant now as it was in 2000 at the time of its publishing. More importantly, the book leads the reader to more exhaustive texts like the Cambridge History of Southeast Asia and sets the reader to explore a widening pathway of issues developing in the Mekong basin. The book also serves as an excellent travel companion for those backpacking through the region. Travelers will be surprised to see how much the urban spaces, like Phnom Penh, Jinghong, and Dali described in the book by its various characters throughout the centers have changed and enticed by how much cultural cores, like sleepy Luang Prabang, have not.