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Not a Repeat, but an Echo: ASEAN’s Retracted Statement and the Specter of the 2012 Joint Communique Failure

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and ASEAN foreign ministers at special foreign ministers' meeting in Kunming / AFP PHOTO

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and ASEAN foreign ministers at the special China-ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting in Kunming / AFP PHOTO

The South China Sea was anticipated to be one major topic of discussion during the Special ASEAN-China Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Kunming on June 14, but the outcome—the retraction of an ASEAN statement only three hours after being sent to the media—has made divisions over the South China Sea the only talking point emerging from the meeting on broader ASEAN-China bilateral relations. The statement was stronger than most previous commentary from ASEAN, including specific references to land reclamation and an implied reference to the Philippines’ ongoing legal case at the Permanent Court of Arbitration. The statement also notably confirmed that the issue is relevant to ASEAN-China bilateral relations, countering the long-time stance of China that South China Sea disputes are a bilateral issue between claimants. Since the retraction, there have been a plethora of contradictory statements and no revised statement has been released.

While divisions over the South China Sea are not new to ASEAN, the lack of a coordinated response raises serious questions about ASEAN’s ability to effectively respond as tensions over the South China Sea continue to rise. The emergence of numerous reports that consensus on the statement was withdrawn after-the-fact due to China pressuring Laos appears to many observers a repeat of ASEAN’s failure in 2012 to reach consensus on a joint statement during the ASEAN Summit in Cambodia.

Cambodia’s failure to cajole consensus from the group in 2012 was also due to disagreement over how to handle the South China Sea disputes, the first time that such a thing happened in ASEAN’s then 45-year history. The failure was blamed squarely on Cambodia’s for allowing its close relationship with China to challenge ASEAN centrality and interfere with ASEAN policy decisions. The question moving forward is whether this will be a repeat of 2012’s failed joint communique or whether Laos as ASEAN Chair for 2016 will be able to successfully coordinate a joint statement from this year’s ASEAN Summit.

The differences in China and ASEAN’s characterizations of the meeting are stark. Where China’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi noted in his public remarks that “this [the South China Sea dispute] isn’t an issue between China and ASEAN” and emphasized that there had been few disagreements, the ASEAN statement was clear that “[ASEAN] also cannot ignore what is happening in the South China Sea as it is an important issue in the relations and cooperation between ASEAN and China.” Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, who co-chaired the meeting in Kunming, failed to appear alongside Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at a planned press release in Kunming and instead echoed the retracted statement’s language in a separate press release in Singapore. On June 16, spokespeople for Indonesia and Vietnam stated that there had been consensus over the contents, though Indonesia noted that the statement was intended to be a media guidance statement rather than an official joint statement. The Philippines seconded that there had been consensus among ASEAN foreign ministers when their meeting ended and that Malaysia’s release of the statement had not been in error.

Like Cambodia and Myanmar, Laos is a least-developed country and is considered one of the region’s most vulnerable to Chinese pressures over the South China Sea given its non-claimant status and relative economic dependence on Chinese investment, trade, and loans. And unlike Myanmar, Laos has not recently received an influx of economic assistance from other countries that provide it with development alternatives if China’s assistance were taken away due to political disagreements.

At first glance, it seems that China has “won” by once again disrupting a unified ASEAN statement on the South China Sea. Prashanth Parameswaran’s excellent Diplomat piece on the fiasco correctly questions this conclusion, pointing out that the statement’s release and the following media frenzy show that China successfully blocked an official statement but failed to establish its preferred narrative framework for debate on the issue. Blocking a unified ASEAN statement is not as ideal for China as preventing ASEAN from forming a consensus in the first place, but it may be good enough to prevent action on the issue for the rest of Laos’ ASEAN Chairmanship.

After all, China’s activities in the South China Sea are only partly about changing the short-term narrative; the more central goal is to slowly alter the status-quo in China’s favor. This is visible in China’s establishment of military bases on created islands and regular presence of its Coast Guard vessels in the region, which change the on-the-ground calculus and make it increasingly hard for other claimants to push back against Chinese intrusions.

This episode has shown us two things: first, that China’s aggressive behavior has in fact pushed countries in the region that previously preferred to stay away from conflict, such as Singapore and Indonesia, to take a stronger stance against disruptive behavior and in favor of international law. Second, that China is still fully capable and willing to use its role as a regional financier, trading partner, and neighboring behemoth to ensure that the ASEAN bloc cannot effectively act against its interests even in the face of growing regional discomfort over China’s behavior.

The most important question moving forward is not which side has “won” or “lost” in this round of discussion over the South China Sea, but what will happen during the latter half of Laos’ ASEAN Chairmanship in 2016.

Prior to this incident, indications were that Laos would follow the steps of Malaysia (Chair in 2015) and Myanmar (Chair in 2014) in balancing between meeting Chinese pressures to avoid the issue and meeting pressures inside ASEAN from other claimant states to address it. Laos Prime Minister Thammavong indicated to US Secretary John Kerry in January 2016 that he sought a unified ASEAN stance and would seek to counter Chinese militarization and assertiveness on the South China Sea issues.

Earlier ASEAN statements expressed concerns over recent developments on the South China Sea issues without being overly specific. The outcome of the US-ASEAN Sunnylands Summit—while failing to specify concerns over China’s activities—hinted at China’s role by highlighting the principle of ASEAN centrality and the need for countries to respect diplomatic processes in the peaceful resolution of maritime disputes. China’s announcement in April 2016 that it had reached consensus with Laos, Cambodia, and Brunei, while criticized due to Laos’ role as ASEAN Chair, was ultimately not a great departure from Laos’ previous statements on the issue.

Laos has many motivations to balance between ASEAN and China: for one, Laos’ recent leadership transition led to the ouster of leaders viewed as particularly pro-China, likely linked to numerous investment deals with China that are now recognized as having few benefits for the country as a whole. The installation of Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong, who is considered to be relatively pro-Vietnam, opens the door to a foreign policy that will better balance China’s influence. Second, there is significant pressure from other ASEAN claimants to avoid giving China’s position too much deference. Cambodia’s failure in 2012 reinforced outside views of the organization as a talk-shop unable to stand up to pressure from China and raised serious questions about the region’s real commitment to ASEAN Centrality.

Despite being (by most measures) less developed than Laos and having only recently emerged from being a regional pariah, Myanmar was fairly successful at maintaining the balance during in its 2015 Chairmanship. For Lao elites’ who are seeking to graduate beyond the label of a least-developed country and who are eager to avoid being viewed as less capable than their neighbors, Myanmar’s success poses an additional motivation for Laos to avoid a similar failure.

Based on the ire poured on Cambodia after its 2012 failure to get a joint communique, it is likely that the emerging debate over the retracted media guidance statement will only add to the pressure on Laos to ensure that there is a joint communique from the ASEAN Summit later this year. By flexing its muscles to force a retraction after the Special Meeting and raising the specter of its influence over individual ASEAN states, China may well have primed other ASEAN members to spend more time and diplomatic capital fighting for the inclusion of something similar in the ASEAN joint statement later this year.

The recent statement fiasco raises questions about how effectively Laos can stand up to pressure from China, but the leadership transition means that greater engagement from Vietnam and other ASEAN countries on controversial issues ahead of time may be welcome. China may have attained its goal to dissuade a joint ASEAN statement critical of China’s behavior emerging from a meeting hosted on its own ground, but in doing so it may have reminded ASEAN countries of their need to stick together in the face of powerful neighbors and made it harder to win future battles on the subject.

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An alternate past/future for Mekong River dams under the UN Watercourses Convention: Part 1

This article is the first in a three part series looking at dams in the Mekong. 

Damming the Mekong: Unprecedented threats to the river and its people

The lifeblood of the region, the Mekong River (known as the Lancang in China) and its many tributaries flow through six countries: China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Its resources affect the lives of over 70 million people who rely on it daily for food and/or work, but these livelihoods are facing growing threats.1,2,3 Today, the mighty Mekong is at an unprecedented juncture in its ongoing survival, particularly from hydropower dam development.

Much of the focus of the Mekong is divided between the upper Mekong, which includes China and Myanmar, and the Lower Mekong, encompassing the remaining four states. Eleven dams are being planned or built on the Lower Mekong Basin’s mainstream with many more anticipated along its extensive tributaries.4,5 Most of these dams come with significant social and environmental impacts.

Source: WWF

Most dams trap fluvial sediment, creating erosion and reducing nutrients in the river, directly affecting agricultural production, so each additional dam means less rich soil downstream.11 Agricultural outputs from Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, particularly rice, have already been severely impacted via China’s Lancang dams scheme.12 The situation has become so critical that Vietnam recently went to the extent of asking China to discharge water from the Jinghong Dam on the Lancang in Yunnan Province to help alleviate conditions in the Delta and seems intent on requesting other upstream states to do similarly regarding river flows.13,14 Thailand’s need for water during the current drought has led it to set up temporary pumping stations to divert 47 million cubic metres of water from the Mekong, causing concern for other downstream countries.26 Additional Mekong dams, compounded by ongoing drought and rising sea levels due to climate change, will only exacerbate these issues.11,15

While some riverine communities may be displaced as their fishing or farming lifestyles become unsustainable, other communities, often indigenous peoples with a strong cultural connection to their ancestral land, are being relocated to make way for dam reservoirs.16,17

Thus, it is no wonder that disputes have emerged between various Mekong basin states as to the domestic, transboundary, environmental, and social impacts of certain dams. Part 1 of this three-part article examines the existing legal framework for regulating dam development in the Mekong and how its legal gaps and ambiguities have led to ongoing disputes, specifically regarding the Xayaburi Dam under construction in Laos.

1995 Mekong Agreement and MRC

Entering into force on 5 April 1995, the Agreement on the Cooperation for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong River (Mekong Agreement) for the Lower Mekong Basin states of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam was the celebrated river basin treaty of its time and a major legal milestone.

Divided into six chapters, the Mekong Agreement’s provisions broadly set out the roles and responsibilities of riparian – being ‘of the river’ – states in governing the seasonal flows and major uses of the Lower Mekong Basin. It is accompanied by the Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement (PNPCA), which sets out key timeframes, standards, and processes for states regulating dam development. It contains separate procedures for projects on Mekong tributaries, plus intra-basin uses on the mainstream (proposing states are only required to notify fellow riparians of planned projects) versus inter-basin and other mainstream developments (proposing states must submit the project for prior consultation with MRC member states with the aim of reaching an agreement on any contested aspects). The PNPCA Guidelines elaborate further on implementing these processes. Both the PNPCA and Guidelines are not ‘international treaties’ in the strict legal sense as they are supplementary to, and thus sit outside of, the Mekong Agreement ratified by MRC member states.18,19

The Mekong river. Photo: Remy Kinna

The Mekong river. Photo: Remy Kinna

As Bearden (2010)18 aptly suggests, the Mekong Agreement and the MRC have successfully epitomised what a transboundary watercourse agreement and river basin commission should be in many respects, especially given the ever-changing geo-political and environmental contexts of the basin and its member states. However, twenty years later, the Mekong Agreement and PNPCA have collectively shown identifiable legal weaknesses.The Agreement also established the MRC as an inter-governmental institution with the aim to foster cooperation between basin states to effectively manage river usage. Having not yet decided to join, China and Myanmar hold official observer status as MRC ‘Dialogue Partners’.

Legal gaps and limitations for governing dams

The following critical legal gaps in the Mekong Agreement and the PNPCA have led to varying interpretations on its basic standards, timeframes, and processes for dam construction thus fostering subsequent disagreements among MRC states:

  • Lack of clear specifics for key processes under the Agreement and PNPCA’s standards, timeframes, and procedures thus leading to inconsistency in their practical application;
  • Exclusion of tributary dams from ‘prior consultation’ regulations under the PNPCA; and
  • PNPCA and Guidelines being widely perceived as not legally binding on states.2,18,19,20,21

Another significant limitation of the Mekong Agreement and the MRC is its circular mechanism for dispute resolution. As it stands, the Agreement requires states to peacefully resolve disputes or, when necessary, to refer the dispute to the MRC for further negotiation. However, the MRC refers unresolved matters back to states to use diplomatic means unless, as a last resort, they chose to invite third party involvement. Eventually, if no resolution is reached, states can essentially ‘agree to disagree’ as has occurred with the Xayaburi Dam and its PNPCA process (explored in Parts 2 and 3 of this article). Such stalemates often leave the disputing parties dissatisfied and can breed distrust for future processes.

Frustrated at the perceived inability to efficiently resolve disputes and clarify processes for dam developments, including the PNPCA, bilateral ‘Development Partners’ have considerably reduced their funding to the MRC for the 2016-2020 budget.22,23 Large-scale restructuring is scheduled and relocation of the Secretariat headquarters from Laos has even been suggested as a possibility.22,24 After years of calls for greater transparency and improved efficiency, the MRC is currently undergoing such significant changes that its ability to effectively govern the river’s resources long-term is at stake.24,25

Mekong in 2016: A basin under threat, agreement under scrutiny, institution undergoing change

As dam construction on the Mekong rapidly accelerates, states’ legal obligations under the Mekong Agreement and PNPCA, as well as the mandate of the MRC to help guide and resolve disputed procedural matters, need clarifying and strengthening to evolve and cope with these challenges.

Given the issues outlined above, Part 2 of this three-part article will next investigate the practical implementation of the Mekong Agreement and PNPCA via the Xayaburi Dam ‘prior consultation’ process, examining the specific contested procedural and legal elements. The potential benefits of the 1997 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses (UNWC) – the most authoritative global treaty concerning management of international rivers – being applied to the Lower Mekong Basin are subsequently explored.

References:

  1. Vidal, J. (2015, November 26). Mekong: a river rising. The Guardian. Available from:http://www.theguardian.com/environment/ng-interactive/2015/nov/26/the-mekong-river-stories-from-the-heart-of-the-climate-crisis-interactive
  2. Hirsch, P. (1999). Nature beyond the nation state symposium: beyond the nation state – natural resource conflict and “national interest” in Mekong hydropower development. Golden Gate Law Review, 29, 399
  3. Osborne, M. (2004). River at risk: The Mekong and the water politics of China and Southeast Asia. Lowy Institute for International Policy Paper 02. Longueville Media, New South Wales, Australia
  4. Goichot, M. (2016, January 14). UN convention could help solve Mekong pact’s weaknesses. Phnom Penh Post. Available from: http://www.phnompenhpost.com/analysis-and-op-ed/un-convention-could-help-solve-mekong-pacts-weaknesses
  5. International Rivers (2015, November 15). Guest Blog – Dams: Don’t Risk What You Can’t Afford To Lose. Available from: http://www.internationalrivers.org/blogs/263/guest-blog-dams-don-t-risk-what-you-can-t-afford-to-lose
  6. Than, K. (2011). New Mekong Dam a Go, and a Blow to Megafishes? National Geographic. Available from:http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2011/03/110324-mekong-river-endangered-megafish-xayaburi-dam/
  7. Gaworecki, M. (2016, January 12). Scientists sound alarm over hydropower’s impacts on tropical fish biodiversity.Mongabay. Available from: http://news.mongabay.com/2016/01/scientists-sound-alarm-over-hydropowers-impacts-on-tropical-fish-biodiversity/
  8. Turton, S. (2015, October 22). Mekong dams will wipe out fisheries, study says. The Phnom Penh Post. Available from: http://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/mekong-dams-will-wipe-out-fisheries-study-says
  9. WWF (2012, August 27). Mekong dams could rob millions of their primary protein source. Available from:http://cambodia.panda.org/news_cambodia/press_releases/?uNewsID=206032
  10. Henderson, S. (2013, December 3). Mekong Dams a Long-Term Risk to Food Security. Cambodia Daily. Available from: https://www.cambodiadaily.com/archives/mekong-dams-a-long-term%E2%80%88risk-to-food-security-48415/
  11. Khadka, N.S. (2015, October 20). Climate Change: Mekong Delta heads for troubled waters. BBC News. Available from: http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-34407061
  12. Gillet, K. (2011, August 21). Vietnam’s rice bowl threatened by rising seas. The Guardian. Available from:http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2011/aug/21/vietnam-rice-bowl-threatened-rising-seas
  13. Tiezzi, S. (2016, March 16). Facing Mekong Drought, China to Release Water From Yunnan Dam. The Diplomat. Available from: http://thediplomat.com/2016/03/facing-mekong-drought-china-to-release-water-from-yunnan-dam/
  14. Viet, D. (2016, March 16). Vietnam takes urgent action to rescue Mekong River Delta. VietNamNet Bridge. Available from: http://english.vietnamnet.vn/fms/environment/152461/vietnam-takes-urgent-action-to-rescue-mekong-river-delta.html
  15. Choonhavan, K. (2014, April 30). Vietnam screams for halt to Mekong dams as delta salts up. The Nation. Available from: http://www.nationmultimedia.com/opinion/Vietnam-screams-for-halt-to-Mekong-dams-as-delta-s-30232520.html
  16. IRIN. (2011, July 29). LAOS: Villagers brace for relocation as dam project moves forward. IRIN. Available from:http://www.irinnews.org/report/93355/laos-villagers-brace-for-relocation-as-dam-project-moves-forward
  17. Titthara, M. (2016, January 7). Trapped between two dams. Mekong Eye. Available from:http://www.mekongeye.com/2016/01/26/trapped-between-two-dams/
  18. Bearden, B.L. (2010). The legal regime of the Mekong River: a look back and some proposals for the way ahead.Water Policy. 12, 798
  19. Rieu-Clarke, A. (2015). Notification and consultation procedures under the Mekong Agreement: insights from the Xayaburi controversy. Asian Journal of International Law. 5(1), 143
  20. IUCN. (2016). A window of opportunity for the Mekong Basin: The UN Watercourses Convention as a basis for cooperation (A legal analysis of how the UN Watercourses Convention complements the Mekong Agreement): IUCN. 27pp. Available from: http://www.3sbasin.org/publication/download-documents.html?download=99:a-window-of-opportunity-for-the-mekong-basin-the-un-watercourses-convention-as-a-basis-for-cooperation
  21. Kinna, R. (2015, November 24). UN Watercourses Convention: Can it revitalise the Mekong Agreement 20 years on?. Mekong Commons. Available from: http://www.mekongcommons.org/un-watercourses-convention-can-it-revitalise-mekong-agreement-20-years-on/
  22. Cox, J. (2016, January 13). Forecast Stormy for Mekong, Commission Says. Khmer Times. Available from:http://www.khmertimeskh.com/news/19880/forecast-stormy-for-mekong–commission-says/
  23. Turton, S. (2015, June 25). Mekong body risks losing funds: donors. The Phnom Penh Post. Available from:www.phnompenhpost.com/national/mekong-body-risks-losing-funds-donors
  24. Hunt, L. (2016). Mekong River Commission Faces Radical Change. The Diplomat. (22 January, 2016). Available at: http://thediplomat.com/2016/01/mekong-river-commission-faces-radical-change/
  25. International Rivers (2008, March 27). MRC’s crisis of legitimacy and relevancy challenges new CEO: Regional Groups. Available from: https://www.internationalrivers.org/resources/mrc-s-crisis-of-legitimacy-and-relevancy-challenges-new-ceo-regional-groups-3177
  26. Lee, G. & Scurrah, N. (2009). Power and responsibility – The Mekong River Commission and Lower Mekong mainstream dams. A joint report of the Australian Mekong Resource Centre, Sydney University and Oxfam Australia. Available from: http://sydney.edu.au/mekong/documents/power_and_responsibility_fullreport_2009.pdf
  27. Cochrane, Liam. (2016, March 17) Mekong River diverted into Thailand’s waterways, worrying drought-stricken neighbours like Vietnam ABC News. Available from: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-03-18/mekong-river-thailand-diverts-worries-neighbours/7256678

This article was first published here on the website of the Global Water Forum. It is reprinted with permission of the author and Global Water Forum. 

Rémy Kinna is an Australian international water law, policy and governance specialist and Principal Consultant with Transboundary Water Law (TWL) Global Consulting (www.transboundarywaterlaw.com) currently based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. He is an Honorary Research Associate with the Institute of Marine and Environmental Law at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and an Expert – International Water Law and Policy with the London Centre of International Law Practice’s Centre for International Water Law and Security. Rémy can be contacted via email (remy@transboundarywaterlaw) or found on TwitterAll views and errors remain those of the author and do not represent those of the states, organisations and individuals mentioned in this piece.

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What’s Old is New Again: Predictions for Southeast Asia 2016

Will there be more skirmishes in the South China Sea in 2016? Photo: Getty Images

Will there be more skirmishes in the South China Sea in 2016? Photo: Getty Images

Much can change in a year’s time. In January 2015, Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew was still alive, Aung San Suu Kyi’s future as leader of Myanmar was quite uncertain and East by Southeast was not making any predictions about international affairs in Southeast Asia. But again, much can change in a year’s time.

2016 will be a critical period for geopolitics in the region, as new strategic relationships are formed and existing ones strengthened. Many experts talk of a growing polarization of the region as countries position themselves between the US and China, a trend due in large part to rising tensions in the South China Sea. The conflict will take center stage in 2016. Look for the the Netherlands-based Permanent Court of Arbitration to publish its initial findings on the Philippines’ case against China in the first half of 2016. Despite not ruling on sovereignty issues, the outcome of this case will likely anger China and lead to a more aggressive stance towards the Philippines and other claimants. As the Philippines and Vietnam rely more heavily on the US for security guarantees in the South China Sea, more US flyovers and naval patrols in the contested waters are to be expected. Look for the US Navy to begin to use Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay for “maintenance” purposes and to park its ships on a somewhat permanent basis  in the Philippines’ Subic Bay after joint military exercises finish in April 2016.

Conversely, look for the emerging Sino-Thai regional axis to be solidified in 2016. This relationship, despite not bringing much to the languishing Thai economy, will tighten the ruling junta’s grip on power. Thailand’s long drift towards authoritarianism will add further strains on ties with the US, its long-term external security power. Of course, the permanent white elephant in the room in Thailand is the king’s health. With his majesty in poor health, lese majeste cases will continue to multiply as the junta’s concern grows.  His death and the subsequent succession struggle would likely send the country into chaos, even with the army in control. Such a collapse of the Thai political structure would have major repercussions for the region’s stability.

Laos is also in for a tough year ahead. Its chairing of ASEAN will do more to highlight its shortcomings than celebrate its successes. With the opening of Xayaburi Dam, Don Sahong Dam scheduled to break ground in 2016 and preliminary studies beginning on a third Mekong dam at Pak Beng, there will be renewed calls from the international community for Laos to reconsider its hydropower plans for the Mekong River. The landlocked country’s lack of finesse in dealing with the South China Sea conflict will also draw criticism, all punctuated by continuing questions about the kidnapping of Lao activist Sombath Somphone.

In Cambodia, the political impasse between the ruling Cambodia People’s Party and the Cambodia National Rescue Party will continue through the first half of 2016. Expect strongman Hun Sen to find an 11th hour solution paving the way for opposition leader Sam Rainsy to return from self-imposed exile to begin preparing for the 2017 parliamentary elections.

Barring another major fracture in Thai politics, Vietnam’s National Party Congress will mark the region’s most significant political transition in 2016. Nguyen Tan Dung is likely to be selected as Vietnamese Communist Party chairman, with Truong Tan Sang staying on as president or similar role to balance Dung’s reformist tendencies. Dung’s leadership will be key as Vietnam implements the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a painful process that will force Vietnam to learn to run and walk at the same time. Dung’s princeling son, Nguyen Thanh Nhgi, will also be elevated to the Central Committee and has a bright path ahead if his father can lead the country into a new era of high economic growth and balanced relations between the US, China and Russia.

Corruption scandals will continue to keep a stranglehold on Indonesian and Malaysian politics. In Indonesia, President Joko Widodo’s efforts to prop up a sagging economy will be hampered by an unstable cabinet and nagging questions relating to 2015’s Freeport corruption scandal. In Malaysia, Prime Minister Najib Razak will continue to face intense public scrutiny over the 1MDB scandal. It is possible that Najib will use a new national security law to muffle Malaysian civil society’s calls for his resignation.

After refreshingly open elections in 2015, 2016 will be a year of political posturing for Myanmar. As Aung San Suu Kyi and her victorious National League for Democracy take power in early 2016, the military will position itself to retain many of its past privileges. Look for Than Shwe and the other generals to create a formal post in the government for Aung San Suu Kyi, who is legally barred from the presidency, in a bid to define and contain her power as head of the NLD. Those expecting radical change from the NLD government will be disappointed – there will be little structural political reform, the NLD’s foreign policy will be largely similar to Thein Sein’s, and the ethnic reconciliation process will still muddle along. However, look for the new ruling party to permanently shut down the Myitsone hydropower project and consider suspending the Salween river’s cascade of dams in order to push along the ethnic peace process.

Like 2015, this year will see a further intensification of the Rohingya refugee crisis. However, with the world’s eyes adjusted to seeing the plight of refugees, there will be more attention paid to the issue and Aung San Suu Kyi will receive pressure from both Western and Muslim-majority countries to solve the problem of Rohingya persecution in Myanmar. Another ethnic group that came to the forefront last year, China’s Uighur population will also stay in the news in 2016. Increased crackdowns in their home Xinjiang province will force more refugees into Southeast Asia, and lead to a handful of Uighur-related terrorist attacks, both foiled and executed, in Thailand and Indonesia.

The regional economy will see decreased growth in 2016 as a result of slowing growth and structural issues in the Chinese economy. Chinese money will still flow south as the One Belt One Road strategy is rolled out and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank officially opens for business. Contrary to some expectations, the AIIB’s first loan recipient will not be Myanmar, but either Laos or Cambodia.

On the other side of the coin, the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership will begin the ratification process in a number of regional countries this year. Our bets on order of approval are Singapore first, followed by Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam. Indonesia will likely commit to the TPP by the end of the year while Thailand’s economic struggles under the military junta will push it closer to joining. Much of the US-ASEAN Sunnylands conference in February will be centered on TPP ratification, along with South China Sea issues and counter-terrorism cooperation, and will serve to solidify relations between the US and the bloc. ASEAN leaders will be looking for assurances of American commitment to the region during the next administration and they will likely receive them. Of course the future of the TPP and the US Rebalance to Asia lies in the fate of the US Presidential elections and our prediction is that America’s first woman president will keep the Rebalance at the forefront of her foreign policy – after all it was her idea.

Last but not least, the Asian Economic Community will be the same on January 1, 2017 as it was at the head of this year – a half-baked dream with little hope of success.

To all of the East by Southeast readers and their families, we wish a you happy new year and much joy and success in 2016!

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Filed under ASEAN, Brunei, Cambodia, China, Economic development, Foreign policy, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Mekong River, Myanmar/Burma, Philippines, Regional Relations, SLIDER, South China Seas, Thailand, USA, Vietnam

Large dams are not the answer to climate change in the Mekong Region

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Some may say it is too early to conclude that the changing weather patterns in the Mekong region – be it a longer dry season, unexpected river water level fluctuation, or cold days in early summer – are a result of climate change. Even if we could summarize the large number of expert debates and long list of research papers, it’s unlikely that a clear answer to the simple question “Is climate change happening in the Mekong?” would emerge.

But if instead we look on the ground, local communities along the Mekong River in Thailand will tell you that something is happening to the climate and that it’s not what it used to be.

A study1 just published by local Thai communities who live along the Mekong River, titled “Ecology, Economics, Cultures of the Mekong Basin: From Kaeng Kood Koo to Pha Chan in a Changing Current” reports that weather patterns have been fluctuating oddly over the past several years. In addition, the water level in the Mekong River rises and ebbs unpredictably and unlike the past. These changes have greatly affected these communities who still rely on nature to make their living as fishers and farmers (see also video here).

Cold spells and heavy rains: The case of 2011

As an example, we can look back to 2011 when two incidents occurred that appeared odd to many Thai river-side communities and are still recalled now: a highly abnormal cold spell in March 2011 when Thailand is usually warming up ready for the hot season, and then a prolonged period of heavy rainfall that lasted much of 9 months in 2011.

In the Mekong Region, the hottest2 time of the year usually falls in April. It is the same month when Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Laos celebrate the water festival, which practically speaking is a great way to cool off as the temperature becomes sweltering hot. But back in 2011, a month before this large festive event, the average temperature in Thailand cut to almost half its normal rate to 18 degrees Celsius (°C)3 in Bangkok. In Ubon Ratchatani Province in northeastern Thailand next to the Mekong River, the temperature dropped to around 15 °C.

Basic CMYK

Meanwhile, as the average temperature seemed to struggle to go beyond 25 °C for the whole month of March, the monsoon brought in at least 4 large storms swelling the Mekong River.

To the communities living alongside the river, the most apparent effect of the chill and increased water volume was on the fishery. Local fisher folks hold an intimateknowledge5 of the Mekong fisheries that is passed on from generation to generation. They understand the seasonality of the Mekong River, including how the river’s ecosystems relate to the different types of fish migration, breeding habits, and behaviors. The fishers’ observed that the change in weather pattern and water level in March 2011caused many fish to become dull6 to find food and instead the fish started hiding behind rocks and in pools. As there were less fish swimming in the river, it affected the fish catch of fishers, such that many fishers gave up fishing during the period as it was uneconomical to spend money on diesel fuel when they knew they could find no fish.

The heavy rainfall that started in March continued on for another nine months. In July 2011, Tropical Storm Nock-ten made land fall, bringing severe flooding to North, Northeastern and central Thailand. Large swathes of farmland, as well as Thailand’s capital city Bangkok, were left under water.

2011’s rainy season added so much water to the Mekong River and made the current so unusually turbulent that many riverbanks and riverbank gardens were flooded or even washed away. Many riverbank farmers lost their crops and therefore their income. Assistance and financial help from the local authorities made their way to some communities, but many admitted that they still had to pay for another round of seeds and sprouts by themselves7 hoping that the river water would not flood their land a second time.

Fish and agriculture are the most basic foundation of the livelihoods and economy of the Thai communities along the Mekong River. Fish are a key source of protein. Riverbank gardens are the people’s homemade salad bar. They are both a steady source of income for many communities. The changing weather and its impact on the Mekong River have impacted both.

A Thai fisher with a fish caught from the Mekong River in Baan Muang, Nongkhai Province, February 2013. (Photo by TERRA.)

A Thai fisher with a fish caught from the Mekong River in Baan Muang, Nongkhai Province, February 2013. (Photo by TERRA.)

Climate change as experts (and greenhouse gas emitters) see it

According to studies done by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and theMekong River Commission (MRC), climate change will affect and change the Mekong River in the coming years. And there’s no guarantee that locals are ready to face those challenges. IPCC8 and MRC‘s data point out three things that would result from climate change:

1. Increasing temperature across the basin: One consequence of this is that there will be accelerated glacial melt in the Mekong headwaters, which in the long term will reduce the dry season water released from the glaciers
2. More rain in the rainy season; less rain in the dry season: this will greatly affect both agriculture and fisheries across the basin
3. Longer summers and shorter winters: this could lead to warmer water temperatures and could change fish behaviors, especially related to breeding and migration

To alleviate the impacts of climate change, many governments who ratified the Kyoto Protocol – created under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) treaty to reduce greenhouse gases emissions – came up with an idea to create mechanisms to meet their carbon emission reduction goals. One of the mechanisms is the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM)9 which provides a long list of projects like renewable energy, methane capture, and reforestation as options to seek carbon credits. Though it sounds like a good mechanism, CDM was never designed to pressure emitters to reduce emissions, but simply to help emitters to “trade-off” carbon emission.

Hydropower development is included in the list of CDM projects. Water is supposed to be a great source of renewable energy to generate electricity as it was at first assumed that dams don’t emit carbon. Yet, recent research10 has revealed this idea to be profoundly wrong and in fact large hydropower dams can have significant carbon footprints.

In 2002, Singapore researchers reminded scientists that greenhouse gas emissions from hydropower reservoirs are under-estimated11. Another report12 published in Nature Climate Change points out that hydropower is not as low-carbon as assumed; instead dams produce emissions as they trap sediments and vegetation in the reservoir, which then decay and release methane and carbon dioxide. An academic study by Marco Aurelio dos Santos13 and his team in 2006 indicated that greenhouse gas emissions from hydropower per megawatt could in some cases be as high as fossil-fueled plants, especially in tropical areas. In a letter in Nature Geoscience in 2011, a group of researchers14 called for significant consideration to be given to hydropower dams’ carbon footprint.

But it is not only a dam’s “carbon footprint” that should be of concern. The process of dam construction can wipe out carbon sinks by triggering deforestation within and beyond reservoir areas, as has happened at the Lower Sesan 2 dam15 site in northeast Cambodia. Dams also block sediments and nutrients from making their way downstream to replenish soils, as well as to rebuild the delta areas and avoid excessive river bank erosion. With less nutrients feeding the soil, farmers may opt for chemical fertilizers to replace the missing nutrients, but in the long term this destroys the soil health and creates a cycle of agrochemical dependency – as well as potentially farmer debt.

Climate justice not climate change

Treaties like the Kyoto Protocol should be designed to pressure high emitters of greenhouse gases to reduce their greenhouse gas contribution that lead to detrimental impacts on the earth and on communities, many of whom are being left in an increasingly vulnerable situation. But at the moment it appears designed to find a means to help these emitters’ behavior appear acceptable before the global community by skewing the climate change debate towards carbon credits instead of true reductions.

The Mekong River basin is home to over 65 million people. The ecological diversity16within the basin sustains the region’s food security17. The Mekong River is second to none when it comes to the amount and diversity18 of fish species which provide both food and income sources in Southeast Asia. But climate change is affecting many people now and it is not stopping. If high emitters of greenhouse gases are serious about addressing climate change, it is time that they started learning about climate justice. They need to learn about the myriad impacts of dams on people19 and the environment, which are already well known to millions of dam affected people globally.

Flooding of a riverbank garden in Phra Klang Toong village, Nakhon Phanom Province, Thailand in December 2013. (Photo by TERRA.)

Flooding of a riverbank garden in Phra Klang Toong village, Nakhon Phanom Province, Thailand in December 2013. (Photo by TERRA.)

The lower Mekong River is already feeling the impact of a series of dams built upstream in China. Thai riparian communities faced another flooding20 in the dry season that spanned between the end of 2013 and early 2014 when the Mekong River unprecedentedly and unexpectedly rose between one and two meters, which lasted for approximately a week before receding. Affected riverside communities lost21 their boats, crops, fish stocks and income as a result of the rapid rise in river level. There was no warning and no government officials reacted to the situation promptly. Locals were left to cope with the situation by their own means. Though no government came forward to confirm if the exceptional water rise and quick ebb were caused by China’s dams, local communities22 stood firm to point to upstream dams for the loss and damages.

With the waning of fossil fuels like coal that are also gaining a bad reputation for releasing large amounts of carbon and creating pollution, some developers and governments are proposing a turn towards hydropower projects and apparently with the support of the CDM. Yet such an approach will never tackle the problem at its root as the current development model champions industrialization and urbanization and still prioritizes high GDP pursued through the use of dirty and unsustainable electricity sources. Large dams are false solutions23 to climate change as they fragment free-flowing rivers and devastate24 local natural resources and communities. Instead a more radical rethinking of development is required, including how we relate to our rivers and the wider ecosystems that could sustain us for the present and future generations.

 This article was originally printed here on the Mekong Commons site.  It is reprinted with permission of the author.
Footnotes
  1. Chantawong et al. (2015) Ecology, Economics, Cultures of the Mekong Basin: From Kaeng Kood Koo to Pha Chan in a Changing Current. Published by Foundation for Ecological Recovery (Thai language).
  2. The Nation (2011) “More cold weather coming“. 29 March 2011.
  3. James Hookway and Wilawan Watcharasakwet. The Wall Street Journal. 19 March 2011. Thailand Braces for Tsunami, Then Cold Snap.
  4. Chantawong et al. (2015) Ecology, Economics, Cultures of the Mekong Basin: From Kaeng Kood Koo to Pha Chan in a Changing Current. p 184 Published by Foundation for Ecological Recovery (Thai language).
  5. A River, Its Fish and Its People: Local Knowledge of the Natural Environment at the Mouth of the Mun River. Mekong Watch. May 2004.
  6. Chantawong et al. (2015) Ecology, Economics, Cultures of the Mekong Basin: From Kaeng Kood Koo to Pha Chan in a Changing Current. Published by Foundation for Ecological Recovery (Thai language).
  7. Chantawong, Montree. “The Shifting Mekong and Damages to Downstream: Who’s Responsible?“. 19 March 2014.
  8.  IPCC (2000). IPCC Special Report – Emission Scenarios. Summary for Policymakers. A Special Report of IPCC Working Group III Published for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
  9. Mira Käkönen. CDM and challenges in delivering to the poor: case study from Cambodia. Finland Futures Research Centre, University of Turku. 28 February 2012.
  10. Roberts, Kale. Mother Earth News (2015). “Renewable Energy Is Not Always ‘Green’: Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Hydroelectric Reservoirs“. 2 July 2015.
  11. Li, Siyue and Lu, X. X. (2012). Uncertainties of Carbon Emission from Hydroelectric Reservoirs. Nat Hazards. 24 March 2012.
  12. Butler, Rhett. Mongabay (2012). “Tropical Dams Are A False Solution to Climate Change“. 27 May 2012.
  13. dos Santos, Marco Aurelio. et al. Gross Greenhouse Gas Fluxes from Hydro-power Reservoir compared to Thermo-power Plants. Energy Policy. (2006)
  14. Barros, Nathan. et al. Carbon Emission From Hydroelectric Reservoirs Linked to Reservoir Age and Latitude. Nature Geoscience. (2011).
  15. Titthara, May. Phnom Penh Post. “Call for Sesan 2 Logging Halt“. 1 July 2015.
  16. The Guardian. “Thorny frog and dementor wasp among new species discovered in Mekong“. 27 May 2015.
  17. International Rivers (2015). “The Mekong Feeds Millions: Dams Threaten Southeast Asia’s Vital Lifeline“.
  18. VietnamNet Bridge. “Hydropower plants likely to affect Mekong River’s fishery resources: experts“. 27 December 2014.
  19. Zaffos, Joshua. “Life on Mekong Faces Threats As Major Dams Begin to Rise“. 20 February 2014.
  20. International Rivers (2014). “Mekong Floods: The Dampening of the Wintery Suffering“. 8 January 2014.
  21. Chantawong, Montree. “The Shifting Mekong and Damages to Downstream: Who’s Responsible?”. 19 March 2014.
  22. Clark, Pilita. Financial Times. “Troubled Waters: the Mekong River Crisis“. 18 July 2014.
  23. TERRA (2013). “The False Solutions to Climate Change: A Case Study on Hydropower in the Mekong River Basin“.
  24. Cronin, Richard P. World Politics Review (2015). “International Pressure Could Still Turn the Tide on Mekong Dams“. 25 March 2015.

 

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Bright City Lights: Urban Trends and Futures in Southeast Asia

Traffic congestion in Bangkok

Traffic congestion in Bangkok

This year, Jakarta earned the unsavory title of “World’s Worst Gridlock.” The city of 23 million is now reputed for having to most congested streets in the world. Another Indonesian city, Surabaya, took the number four spot. If you continue down the rankings to number eight, you will find yet another Southeast Asian metropolis – Bangkok.

The tendency for gridlock in these cities is more than a daily inconvenience for residents. These levels of traffic congestion are indicators of a trend in the wider Southeast Asian region. In this part of the world, urban populations are growing faster than municipal and national governments can handle.  When managed sustainably, cities can be a valuable vehicle for economic development and socio-demographic transition. For example, cities can facilitate productive trans-border connections and slow birthrates, which enables more women to enter the workforce. Nevertheless, urbanization is a double-edged sword.

Rapid, unplanned growth results in unsustainable development that threatens social, economic, and environmental stability.  In a landmark report that analyzes 10 years of urbanization data from East Asia, the World Bank suggests that urbanization in East and Southeast Asia will have “long-lasting effects on the region’s social, economic, and environmental future.” Understanding the growth trends in Southeast Asia will boost the region’s ability to avoid the pitfalls associated with the rapid type of urbanization that has been observed over the past decade.  In other words, the region needs to pay attention to these changes if they don’t want to spend the rest of their down time stuck in traffic.

Dominant Urbanization Trends

Between 1990 and 2010, Southeast Asia increased its urban population by at least 12%, per United Nations estimates. The fact that Asian cities are growing is not a fresh realization, but few observers of these phenomena have questioned how these cities are growing, instead of just how big.

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For example, in the past 10 years, East Asia has experienced more urban growth in small- and mid-sized cities than in major metropolitan areas. This has several more nuanced implications for the region. Successful development in smaller metropolitan areas could relieve much of the pressure put on high-population areas. For example, a Thai development strategy used tax breaks to encourage people to take up residence in the regions outside of Bangkok . Unfortunately, the government failed to provide infrastructure and facilities to support business development in outlying regions. Bangkok remained the prime area for investment, and the program floundered.

Megacities like Bangkok often gain international reputations that afford them opportunities to advertise for foreign direct investment.Small and mid-sized cities, on the other hand, have to fight for attention and funding from national governments and lack the resources necessary to advertise to a wider range of investors. Take the case of Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang, two metro areas in Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh City is the country’s largest city and Da Nang was only about an eighth of HCMC’s size in 2011. However, the rate of urban population change in Da Nang was 4.5% as of 2010 and HCMC was 3.9%. While this may appear to be a narrow margin between two cities, imagine the national impact when every mid-sized city in a country grows at this rate. The need for infrastructure would surely outpace the investment available to these smaller metropolitan areas.

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In addition to major growth in small- and mid-sized cities, the fastest growth of urban population was experienced in East Asia’s low- and middle-income countries, namely Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Japan, South Korea, and even Thailand place far behind these countries in their rates of urban land and urban population increase.

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The less developed countries in the region face administrative and financial challenges on a national level, which creates an environment where a single city in the country, often times the capital city, experiences the majority of the urbanization. The massive, resource-hogging cities that result are known as “primate cities” in the vernacular of urban studies scholars. Concentrating an entire country’s political, cultural, and economic capital in one area creates national vulnerability if there is a crisis in that single city.

Urban primacy is especially detrimental for a country when there is massive migration to the core and a development lag in the country’s periphery. This phenomenon plays out the same way in developing countries across the globe: Rural poor migrate to urban areas in search of better economic opportunities, but financially and administratively inept governments cannot provide migrants with adequate resources for finding jobs and homes. Densely populated and amenity-poor settlements result as migrants join the informal economy of the city.

Bangkok, Yangon, Phnom Penh, Vientiane, Jakarta, Manila, and Kuala Lumpur have all reached primacy within their respective countries. As previously mentioned, Bangkok is one city that has acknowledged its primate city status and attempted to reduce its dominance of Thailand’s geography. Countries such as Cambodia and Myanmar will also need to take steps to ensure that Phnom Penh and Yangon do not morph into unsustainable networks of unplanned settlements. The challenge lies in the fact that countries like Cambodia and Myanmar lack the administrative and financial capacity to shift rural to urban migration trends. However, it is promising that smaller cities in the region are doing most of the growth, even if they have a long way to go before they can compete with these metro areas.

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Finally, Southeast Asia’s urban populations are growing faster than the region’s urban land. At present, the main reason for dense urban growth in the region can be attributed to the lack infrastructure available on the periphery – a far cry from the smart growth policies that many cities implement to promote compact growth. Even so, high-density urban growth is associated with many positive outcomes when it is effectively provided for. Namely, high-density development tends to have fewer negative environmental consequences than urban sprawl. Kuala Lumpur is actually an exception to this trend in Southeast Asia, and has been criticized for failing to compact its urban growth. A heavy reliance on automobiles has been detrimental to the city, but other emerging urban areas in the region have the chance to get ahead of the car craze and promote smart growth that emphasizes efficient land use and practical transportation.

By and large, dense urban growth still has a number of caveats. As mentioned, the reason density in the region is high is due to a lack of amenities outside of core cities. If population growth outpaces the ability of the core to provide services, the quality of life in many cities will quickly degrade. Overcrowding is also a serious challenge that many cities in the developing world are faced with, and Southeast Asia is no exception. Comprehensive urban planning will be necessary to prevent overcrowding from becoming another major trend in the region.

Urban Planning and Governance: Missing Links

When you combine all of the formulas for urban growth in Southeast Asia, the results are two-sided: There is potential for inclusive, sustainable urban areas, but there is also a chance for the region to mushroom into a clutter of poorly planned development. When planning is neglected, poverty, environmental degradation, and land use conflicts ensure. For Southeast Asian cities to avoid falling victim to, say, the level of air quality degradation that many Chinese cities now face, spatial planning and good governance are crucial.

A 2009 assessment of urban governance prepared for UN Habitat is grim: the report asserts that the capacity of both local and national governments in the region is fragmented and weak, with a serious lack of simple management skills and adequate budgeting for necessary infrastructure. “Good” urban governance requires transparency, political will, and funding, but many Southeast Asian governments underperform in all three categories. There is always a propensity for countries to urbanize, regardless of political stability. With that being said, Southeast Asia’s urbanization trends alone illustrate that not all growth is good growth. A solid political environment at least ensures that there is a structure for discussing urban needs when they arise, although definitive actions need to be taken if there is going to be any change.

Administrative fragmentation is another burgeoning obstacle for Southeast Asian boomtowns. This term refers to the spillover of growth from one municipality into neighboring jurisdictions. One example is Manila’s urban area, which spans 85 municipalities and seven provinces. The World Bank predicts that many of the growing small- and medium-sized cities will soon experience this type of administrative challenge, if they are not experiencing it already.  Different jurisdictions often struggle to coordinate plans for infrastructure development and management, leaving many areas underserved.

The ecosystems impact of such trans-boundary urban areas is also notable because rivers, lakes, and forests require cooperative management.  Overcoming administrative fragmentation appears daunting in a region where political stability is scarce, but regional planning associations have proved to be an effective way to manage fragmented urban areas. The Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) is one such organization tasked with monitoring urban development, but it struggles with a low budget and limited regulatory power. Even so, the future of many urban agglomerations in the region would look brighter if such organizations were widely utilized. Urban management organizations have the ability to pull multiple institutional actors together when questions arise about different stakeholders’ opinions.

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Urban Futures

Southeast Asia’s urban population has not yet reached 50% of total population, an indicator that more urban growth is still to come. The future of the region’s urban areas will in part be dictated by the trends that have been observed in the past decade, but also by events that remain to be seen. Climate change is one of the foremost worries in the region, but political stability and economic productivity will also play roles in the ability of the region’s cities to develop sustainably. Metropolitan areas in the region need to get ahead of urban growth and expansion in order to take some of the uncertainty out of the future.

Climatology experts maintain that no part of the world will remain unaffected by climate change, but Southeast Asia is actually a particularly high-risk area. A number of Southeast Asia’s urban centers falter in climate change scenarios that involve sea level rise, drought, saltwater intrusion, and severe weather events, and famine. As metropolitan areas in the region continue to develop, resilience is a topic that needs to be kept in mind. Cities like Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh need to have planes in place for flooding and typhoon events. Manila needs to ask itself how to feed a metropolitan area of 16 million if crop productivity plummets due to droughts or heat waves.

Besides the need for climate change adaptation measures, Southeast Asia also represents a large market for mitigation efforts. By reducing dependency on cars and carbon-based energy sources, the region can bypass being a part of the carbon problem. China and the West used coal to fuel their urban expansion, but Southeast Asia has the opportunity to exclude GHG heavy industries and develop using environmentally sound technologies. As new attempts at international climate treaties are rolled out, it will be interesting to see where many Southeast Asian nations fall on the spectrum of mitigation requirements.

Historically, developing countries have been held to lower emission reduction standards than countries in the developed world, but countries like Malaysia and Thailand have potentially reached a threshold where they will be counted among the world’s more developed countries, and thus required to reduced their emissions further. In any case, climate mitigation is good for Southeast Asia if it means that the impacts of climate change on the region will be softer than current predictions.

Political stability is also a recurring obstacle for a number of Southeast Asian countries. Years of stability and growth have been punctuated by sudden regime changes that have reduced the level of confidence both Southeast Asian nationals and outsiders have in the region’s governance. Urban planning is an intensely political process, so the status of a country’s national government directly effects urban development. If establishing effective national governments proves to be too much of a challenge for parts of the region, how can we expect urban management to get the attention that it requires?  Metropolitan development authorities and NGOs could potentially help cities weather the storm if political institutions fail, but finding consistent, effective governance is critical for the future of Southeast Asia’s cities.

Future economic development in Southeast Asia will also continue to shape urban areas in the region. Low-cost manufacturing has played a significant role in growing many of the region’s largest cities, but that may change as smaller urban areas take up lower-technology manufacturing as well. Some suggest that economic outcomes are better in regions where the largest cities take on service industries and high-tech manufacturing and the smaller cities concentrate low-tech industries. However, this is impossible if the infrastructure needs of smaller cities remain unmet. Investment in Southeast Asia’s small- and mid- sized cities is an important step that the region can take to move towards greater economic output.

Urbanization in Southeast Asia has reached a clear bottom line: In order to reap the benefits of healthy, innovative urban areas, the region needs to raise its expectations for planning and governance. If current regional urbanization trends continue to play out, there is potential for Southeast Asia to be the home of several highly productive urban areas. Investing in small and mid-sized cities will create robust national economies and capitalizing on dense growth will keep the environmental impact of cities to a minimum. However, if planning and coordination are left on the wayside, the region will be set on a course for vulnerability to any sort of crisis that should arise.

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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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Letter to the Mekong River Commission on the Don Sahong Dam

The following is a letter written by Mekong river expert and conservationist Alan Potkin submitted today to the Mekong River Commission’s online stakeholder consultation concerning the Don Sahong dam.  The construction of the Don Sahong dam on the Mekong’s Hou Sahong channel in Siphandon, Laos is a project sparking extreme controversy in the Mekong region.  Despite Vietnam’s and Cambodia’s condemnation of the dam along with a massively successful petition campaign gaining more than 250,000 signatures and increasing local and international coverage of the controversial project, construction for the dam is likely to begin by the end of the year.

Indeed “now is the time to separate fact from fiction”…

Notwithstanding his Googleable scientific publications being exclusively in quantitative algology, rather than in any aspect of ichthyology (not  least fish taxonomy, physiology, and reproductive or migratory behaviors), I had consistently argued that we should accept that Dr Peter Hawkins, Don Sahong’s Environmental Manager, was speaking and acting in good faith until proven otherwise…

Until this latest announcement by him that the altered dry season hydrology above and below Siphandone, following the new release regime
from the Lançang Jiang cascade of hydropower dams in Yunnan PRC, will now make it “easier for fish to migrate” through alternate channels other than Hou Sahong during the dry season.

Well, maybe yes and maybe no.

According to years of fieldwork conducted there by Dr Tyson Roberts and Profs. Ian Baird and Water Rainboth, amongst others,
no less than 150 species of fish transit through, or are resident, in Siphandone. Other than their basic taxonomy, almost nothing is known in
sufficient empirical detail about any ofthem to understand exactly what ecological and behavioral cues initiate bi-directional migration and successful reproduction: Water temperature? Current velocity and/or stream stage? Phases of the moon? Subtle chemical alterations? Angle of the sun in the sky/polarization of insolation?

How much change in elevation per unit of lineal distance could be encompassed within a particular species’ genetically-determined
metabolic parameters and swimming musculature to still be a manageable pathway?

All essentially unknown!

The planet’s best understood migratory fishes are the salmonidae of the northern hemisphere, which in any given inland waterway probably never exceed four or five different species having themselves much in common. Yet even now ichthyologists are far from certain over exactly how salmonids are capable of navigating to, and infallibly identifying, precisely that reach of river/tributary wherein they were originally spawned, perhaps even a decade earlier, with most of those intervening years as adults spent offshore in the oceans.

And if any or all of that that were known in exact and correct detail about one or two or three of the most economically and nutritionally
important Mekong species, there would yet be another 140 species, at least, which might be responding to completely different sets of stimulae and environmental cues.

I would be delighted to have these assertions proven false by aquatic ecologists holding credible expertise far greater than my own.

Once again, I would note that available to whomever might successfully navigate far upstream into several of our interactive eBooks, notably
“Mekong-Orwell” —mostly about the Pak Mun debate Xayaboury and Don Sahong— there are linked online videos showing the
rather underdeveloped state-of-the-art of “fish friendly” turbines, and showing the general impassibility of even a 70cm artificial obstruction erected across the migratory pathways of one of the most robust and powerful N. American fish species, but one which lacks any evolutionary history of jumping.

Thanks as always, for all due consideration.

Access the interactive media links below to learn more about Alan Potkin’s work on Mekong issues.
http://www.sethathirath.com/mekong_actual_outcomes1.final_cfp.pdf
http://www.sethathirath.com/nam_phit/digital_mekong_planning.pdf
http://www.sethathirath.com/mekong_orwell_eBook/pak_mun_homepages.pdf
http://www.sethathirath.com/mekong_fish_atlas_4.1/welcome.pdf
http://sethathirath.com/EFDNW_UNESCO_1.4.1/nongchanh%20interactive/EFDNW_poster/nongchanh_poster_homepage.pdf
http://vimeo.com/86935784

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Filed under Cambodia, Current Events, Laos, Malaysia, Mekong River, SLIDER, Sustainability and Resource Management, Vietnam, water

Laos Agrees to Discuss Dam Project with Neighbors

Representatives pose for a photo at the June 26 meeting of the Mekong River Commission

Representatives pose for a photo at the June 26 meeting of the Mekong River Commission

Laos has agreed to open a discussion with neighboring countries on the Don Sahong dam, but stopped short of saying it would delay construction on the controversial project.

In agreeing to the prior consultation, Laos is allowing input from the farmers and fishermen who depend on the Mekong River for their livelihood. It would also provide time for neighboring countries and opponents of the project to conduct a more comprehensive environmental impact study.

The announcement was made on Thursday during a meeting of the Mekong River Commission in Bangkok. Representatives from Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia — all members of the commission — participated in the meeting. The agreement provided no provision for delaying the project before an adequate environmental study could be completed.

“Prior consultation does not stipulate any condition on continuing or not continuing” construction of the dam, Hans Guttman, the commission’s chief executive officer, told reporters. Guttman said the prior consultation should begin in July, with the process expected to take about six months. He said Laos did not offer to delay construction on the dam, nor did neighboring countries ask for a delay during the consultation period.

The Laos delegation did not release a statement or meet with reporters following the daylong meeting. Laos has begun preliminary construction on infrastructure at the dam site, despite strong opposition from Vietnam and Cambodia, who requested a 10-year moratorium on dam construction on the Mekong mainstream until further studies could be completed.

Earlier, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand stated that the dam must undergo prior consultation, as required under the 1995 Mekong agreement, to which Laos is a signatory. The Don Sahong dam is being constructed in the mainstream part of the Mekong River in the southern province of Champasak, nearly two kilometers upstream from the Laos-Cambodia border.

Opponents of the project fear the dam will block the migration of fish and cause a steep drop in the flow of water to those living downstream. Nonn Panitvong, an adviser to the Green World Foundation, said plans to build several dams along the Mekong, would transform the river, the world’s second-most biodiverse river after the Amazon, “into a giant freshwater pond”.

“That would be the end of the Mekong River,” he said.

Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia program director for International Rivers, called on neighboring countries to pressure Laos to delay construction until prior consultation is completed. “Neighboring countries must articulate to Laos their own intentions in what this process means, otherwise, the prior consultation process is likely to have missed the point entirely,” Trandem told ucanews.com.

Trandem said she hopes Laos proceeds with good faith rather than issue an “empty political statement”. “All construction should stop on the Don Sahong dam until a transboundary impact assessment is carried out and meaningful consultation takes place,” she said.

This article by Stephen Steele was originally posted here on June 27, 2014 on the UCA News website.

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Filed under Cambodia, Current Events, Economic development, Energy, Laos, Mekong River, Regional Relations, SLIDER, Thailand, Vietnam, water

Carrots, Sticks & the TIP Report: Understanding the US Government’s Anti-Trafficking Efforts in Southeast Asia

Last week the US State Department issued its annual Trafficking In Persons (TIP) Report, which ranks every country in the world according to their adherence to the US government’s anti-trafficking mandate. For the first time, Thailand was designated “Tier 3,” the lowest “rung” on the TIP Report’s ladder.

The report, which is published by the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking, describes “Tier 1” countries as those demonstrating sufficient anti-trafficking efforts; “Tier 2” as those that have begun to demonstrate such efforts but still have improvements to make; and “Tier 3” as countries demonstrating little to no effort to combat trafficking. Countries that receive the Tier 3 ranking are subject to sanctions by the US government. Continue reading

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Filed under Cambodia, China, Current Events, ethnic policy, Foreign policy, GMS, Governance, Health, Malaysia, Mekong River, Philippines, Regional Relations, Singapore, Uncategorized, water, Yunnan Province

New Addition: Country Profiles on East by Southeast

ExSE is excited to announce the addition of a new section to our website!  Country profiles are now available for Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar/Burma, Thailand, and Vietnam.  These profiles introduce the historical, political, and economic milieu of countries in Southeast Asia and provide you with up to date analysis of current events and developing trends in the region.  You will find links to economic and environmental data as well as a discussion of each country’s regional connections (including the China connection!) in a greater context.

These country profiles are authored by undergraduate students enrolled in the Regional Development in China and Southeast Asia program at the IES Kunming center.  Each semester new students will have the opportunity to update, edit, or add to the existing reports so be sure to check for updates frequently.

Country reports can also be accessed via the site’s top menu bar under Profiles.

If you have suggestions, contributions, or photos to provide for the country reports, please feel free to contact us at eastbysoutheastmail@gmail.com.

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Filed under ASEAN, Cambodia, China, Current Events, Laos, Myanmar/Burma, SLIDER, Thailand, Uncategorized, Vietnam