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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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Filed under ASEAN, Cambodia, Current Events, Economic development, Energy, Environment and sustainability, Foreign policy, GMS, Governance, Mekong River, Regional Relations, SLIDER, Thailand, Vietnam, water

Yunnan border zone slated to cost 200 billion yuan

New infrastructure projects, like the Kunming-Singapore Railway, will be passing through southern Yunnan on their way to Southeast Asia.

New infrastructure projects, like the Kunming-Singapore Railway, will be passing through southern Yunnan on their way to Southeast Asia.

Investment and development money continues to pour into southern Yunnan’s Xishuangbanna. Weeks after the largest resort in the province opened near the city of Jinghong, prefectural officials unveiled plans for a new economic zone with an eye-popping price tag.

The Mengla Economic Zone, according to plans approved this summer by the Yunnan Development and Reform Commission, will span 4,500 square kilometers, centered around Mengla County (勐腊县). Initial estimates place the cost of the multi-purpose undertaking at 200 billion yuan (US$31.4 billion). The zone spans 240 as-yet unclear projects reportedly focusing on the sectors of agriculture, education, logistics, processing, tourism and transportation.

The latter of the these is perhaps most important to national planners. Connecting cities in Yunnan to Southeast Asia by rail has long been a goal of the Bridgehead Strategy, which looks to integrate the province’s economy more closely to those of its international neighbors. Mengla County borders Laos and is one key component in plans to build a web of railway lines by 2020 which will further connect Southeast Asia with Kunming.

Progress, however, has been slow on multiple fronts. The Kunming-Singapore Railway — the main trunk line of the planned network — was once expected to open in 2015. However, due to ongoing financial disagreements between China, Laos and Thailand, completion projections have been pushed back at least five years.

In that time, a branch railway along the recently opened Kunming-Hekou line will be extended 500 kilometers south to the border town of Mohan (磨憨) in Mengla County. When finished, the railway will pass from Yuxi through Pu’er, Jinghong and Mohan before linking up with a 44.5 billion yuan (US$7 billion) Chinese-built high-speed line running to Laos’ capital, Vientiane.

The newly announced Mengla Economic Zone appears to be a very expensive kick-starter of sorts. Its launch is not only aimed at furthering Chin’s Bridgehead Strategy, but also seems designed to convince Laos — which is wagering half its annual GDP on the railway project — that Chinese intentions are serious and longstanding.

Regardless of the effects on Laos, the economic zone is another enormous financial shot in the arm for largely rural Xishuangbanna. Less than one month ago, real estate conglomerate Wanda opened a 15 billion yuan (US$2.36 billion) resort and development area of its own in the prefecture. The goal for such a sizable investment, in the words of company chairman Wang Jianlin (王健林), is to “…revolutionize Yunnan’s tourism industry“. One way or another, it looks as if sleepy Xishuangbanna is in for drastic changes in the coming years.

The preceding article was written by Patrick Scally and originally posted on GoKunming. It is republished here, in its entirety, with full permission from the author. 

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Solving Southeast Asia’s drug problem

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Image of the Golden Triangle where Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet.

The Obama administration has once again named Myanmar and Laos to its list of twenty-two countries determined to be major drug trafficking countries or major drug transit countries. The White House memo, issued on Monday, noted that Myanmar “failed demonstrably during the last twelve months to make sufficient or meaningful efforts to adhere to their obligations under international counternarcotics agreements.” The United States, however, did extend Myanmar a National Interest Waiver to promote democracy and avoid reduction of aid to Burma as a result of the designation.

The Golden Triangle, an area formed roughly by the upland frontier areas of Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, and China, was the world’s leading opium producer from the 1960s to the 1980s. But just less than ten years ago, it was moving toward opium free status as deepening economic ties with a rising China brought new investment and governments supported crop substitution programs in the region. Now, opium, methamphetamines, and other drugs from the Golden Triangle are once again flooding regional and global markets.

In just the past two months alone, 26mn methamphetamine tablets were seized in Yangon, Myanmar and 1.5 tons of marijuana packed into coffee shipments from Laos were seized in Cambodia. Earlier this year The New York Times ran a series of exposes on opium production and heroin addiction in Myanmar’s conflict-ridden Shan and Kachin states. The United Nations estimates that Myanmar’s poppy cultivation has tripled since 2006 and takes up almost 150,000 acres.

Despite recent spurts of economic growth in Myanmar and Laos, flagging economic conditions on the countries’ peripheries and civil war in Myanmar are pushing marginal peoples toward the production of opium. Lucrative cash crops like opium won’t make farmers rich, but hired labor on an illegal opium farm in Kachin state will earn $8 per hour compared with $2.50 working on a legal farm.

A new push factor for upland drug production in Laos and Myanmar is the arrival of small-scale agricultural investors from China’s neighboring Yunnan province. Their projects, often set up on lowland concessions granted by national or local governments, utilize less local labor and thus create a landless poor classes that literally ‘head for the hills’ to cultivate opium. Another new addition to the landscape is recently built highways and other infrastructure development projects that link urban centers but often ignore the periphery. Poor road conditions in upland areas cannot facilitate logistical support or encourage investment that could promote legal and productive agricultural activities in upland areas. And once the opium makes its way down narrow trails to the lowland areas, the highway serve as quick conduits for global distribution networks.

Being out of reach from state security and legal institutions – which typically underperform at any rate in Laos and Myanmar – permits opium farmers and trafficking middlemen to operate with impunity. Upland Southeast Asia is not the only place affected. Evidence shows drug use is on the rise in China and within Southeast Asia’s growing urban and rural middle classes. Moreover, crackdown efforts in lowland areas of these countries has only pushed production further into upland areas which are harder to reach.

Efforts to control and stem opiate production in Laos and Myanmar are often focused on identification and eradication. Government agencies locate productive areas and destroy illegal crops. This often forces rural peoples into poverty or drives villagers to new, more remote areas ripe for opium production. The UN and China have introduced crop substitution as a solution in Myanmar and Laos. But this “big state solution” often fails in its implementation because it neglects the needs of upland agriculture and flounders in its long term commitment to solving the problem.

In 2007, China’s crop substitution programs looked to be succeeding in reducing opium production. However, poor investment in infrastructure and low commitment to technical assistance created a situation where alternative cash crops could not compete on a global market and upland farmers were left high and dry.

Investments in coffee and rubber – often seen as more lucrative cash crops – take three to seven years to yield a harvest. This, coupled with falling global food prices and high transportation costs due to lack of infrastructure, discourages alternative investment. As a result, crop substitution investments in sugar, buckwheat, coffee, and rubber have consistently failed or are currently flagging in upland Southeast Asia.

To effectively curb the production of opium and other illegal drugs in upland areas of Myanmar and Laos, expenditure on agricultural extension programs and infrastructure such as paved roads and logistical facilities must increase to attract suitable investment into these areas. Advances in the peace process in Myanmar and resultant spurts of legitimate economic growth in the country’s ethnic autonomous states will do much to curb opium and methamphetamine production. Laos, however, is a different story. Even peace cannot stem opiate production, with its current set of weak institutions dictated by the fiat of a few powerful families with strong ties to China. Counter-narcotic efforts are vital to stop the flow of opium and methamphetamines in Southeast Asia. But they must be paired with viable economic solutions for the upland farmers involved in drug production.

This article was first published here on The Diplomat website on September 17. 

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All aboard: Kunming-Vientiane Railway inches forward

china train head

Although a bit trite with repetition, no saying better encapsulates the major obstacle facing Laos than “geography is destiny”. The only landlocked country in Southeast Asia, Laos is wedged between the vast rivers and expansive mountain ranges that demarcate its natural borders with China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand. Because of its lack of access to maritime trade routes, the small country has historically relied heavily on domestic subsistence agriculture with little opportunity for much international commerce.

The legacy of its geography in combination with the destruction wrought by the United States during the Vietnam War has today resulted in a nation with some of the world’s highest poverty and unemployment rates. With the help of the Chinese and Thai governments, Laos hopes to change this narrative of international isolation in the years to come.

Since 2010, plans have been under consideration to construct a high-speed railway between Kunming and Vientiane, Laos’ capital. However, political and financial setbacks have pushed the starting date of the project back by five years. This year, the three governments all sound confident that construction of the seven billion dollar project will begin.

Many analysts now view the construction of the Kunming-Vientiane railway within the context of China’s larger ambitions to revamp trade routes throughout Southeast Asia. China’s president Xi Jinping has openly stated his eagerness to establish silk road-esque connections with China’s neighbors, placing Kunming at the epicenter of overland transactions. The country has already invested 40 billion dollars to facilitate railway links, which it hopes will eventually drive new economic plans throughout South Asia.

Already, long-term proposals have been hashed out to eventually link Kunming with Singapore. The first phase in the series of projects is currently under construction, with China building a 737-kilometer connection between the Thai city of Nong Khai — just across the Mekong River from Vientiane — and Map Ta Phut — one of the largest deep water ports in Thailand.

The planned Kunming-Vientiane rail then, would add on to existing railroad infrastructure, facilitating a larger Kunming-Bangkok route by — according to recent estimates — no later than 2020. A link to Malaysia would from there be relatively simple. If all goes as projected, passengers may, within the next decade, be able to hop onto a high speed rail from Kunming all the way to Singapore.

Past financial qualms that have plagued the realization of the Vientiane-Kunming proposal continue to worry politicians in both China and Laos. Although a fairly small investment for China, the seven billion dollar price tag corresponds to over 60 percent of Laos’ US$11.24 billion gross domestic product, making it a hefty and risky endeavor. Currently, the two countries have agreed on a 40-60 split of the initial financing, with Laos contributing US$840 million and China US$1.26 billion. The remaining five billion will later be chipped in by Chinese venture capital firms, who would then hold substantial stakes in the railway once it is up and running.

Although worries over the pragmatic utilization of the railway have previously stymied Laos’ cooperation with Chinese entrepreneurs, increasingly Lao politicians believe the connection to Yunnan’s capital is paramount for their country’s economic growth. In an interview with Japanese magazine Nikkei, Laos’ deputy prime minister, Somsavat Lengsavad, explained that Laos, being a landlocked country, can only rely on roads, so the transport cost is very high. “In our policy of turning Laos from a landlocked to a land-linked country, we believe the railroad will help us reach our objective. [The railway] will boost the Lao economy because many investors are now looking for a production base here. They say that if the country had a railway, it would help them reduce their transportation costs. So it would make us more attractive to investors.”

Recently, the country has proven itself one in an appealing group of potential manufacturing centers in Southeast Asia as overseas companies flee China. Over the past few years, Laos has ridden a growing wave of economic growth, with annual GDP often topping eight percent. Such financial development has been attributed primarily to the construction of massive 1,000-megawatt hydroelectric dam complexes, growing highway infrastructure and multibillion-dollar investors betting on long term prosperity in the region.

Politicians, including Lengsavad, remain sanguine that the fiscal expansion will only be further boosted by a direct link to Yunnan. Already, companies including Samsung and Yahoo have left China to venture into smaller, burgeoning financial systems. Laos hopes the Vientiane-Kunming connection will enable it to hop onto the train of foreign investment out of China.

Skeptics, including Lao politicians, point out that the real construction cost of the Kunming-Vientiane route may soon render the project another white-elephant. Without a doubt, both financially and topographically, much stands in the way of the railway’s establishment. An astounding 154 bridges, 76 tunnels and 31 train stations will be necessary for the Lao leg of the track. The monumental proposals stands in stark contrast to Laos’ nearly complete lack of experience with railway construction. The land-locked country currently boasts only of a 3,5-kilometer train link, spanning the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge.

To make matters more complicated, the Annamite mountain range, which the railway will eventually need to cross, is infamous as a minefield littered with unexploded American ordnance dropped during the Vietnam War. These factors combined are likely to result in a final cost for the track much greater than the projected seven billion dollar price tag. Laos thus finds itself stuck between a rock and a hard place — on one hand it desperately needs infrastructure for greater commerce, while on the other, current proposals may leave the country in an even more precarious financial situation than it currently faces.

This article was written by Richard Diehl Martinez and first posted here on GoKunming.

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Kunming’s China-South Asia Expo Balloons to Enormous Proportions

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When the Spring City throws a trade and investment party, everyone comes. That is the lesson gleaned following closing ceremonies held yesterday at the twenty-third annual Kunming Import and Export Commodities Fair and third annual China-South Asia Expo. Expected to generate billions in business agreements and attract hundreds of thousands of curious attendees, the twin events did not disappoint.

The expos are held each year with the intention of attracting greater foreign business interest and interaction with Yunnan-based companies. This principal goal is part of a larger strategy to build up the province’s economy while also increasing China’s political and commercial footprint in Southeast Asia and beyond.

In terms of sheer numbers, these goals are being realized. Contracts signed during the course of the fairs totaled 785 billion yuan (US$127 billion) in direct foreign investment — a catchall term including money put toward virtually any business acquisition or other commitment. At last year’s expo opening ceremony, Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang (汪洋) said he expected the next few years to be “the most active and fruitful period yet” for cooperation between Yunnan, Association of Southeast Asian Nations member-countries and South Asia. He appears to have been correct.

The numbers for direct foreign investment in Yunnan dwarfed those concerned with Chinese ventures in other countries, which reached 155 billion yuan (US$25 billion). In total, 903 overseas firms inked deals to begin or expand existing businesses in the province. The largest of these involved the fields of tourism, energy and infrastructure development, logistics, education, and environmental protection.

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Highlighting Yunnan’s growing importance as a trade and investment hub, 20,000 businesspeople as well as dignitaries from 31 countries attended. Among the most notable were Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao (李源潮), the president of the Maldives, Laos’ prime minister and high-ranking representatives from Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam.

India’s Minister of State External Affairs, VK Singh, also attended. He represented the expo’s feature country, a place of honor this year replete with a dedicated “museum” devoted not only to the Subcontinent’s most advanced industries, but also its history and culture. At a separate event held during the expo, Singh officially opened China’s first yoga college at the Yunnan University of Nationalities campus in Chenggong.

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Giving India such recognition was no random decision, but instead a calculated diplomatic move aimed at encouraging the world’s second most populous country to embrace China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The brainchild of President Xi Jinping, the proposal looks to propel regional integration between China and the countries of Central and South Asia, India chief among them.

While enormous deals and industry-specific conferences were carried out behind closed doors, the general public tuned out in droves to this year’s expos. In preparation, organizers printed half a million tickets. It did not prove to be enough, as 740,000 attendees passed through the gates at the Kunming Dianchi International Convention and Exhibition Center, shattering last year’s attendance numbers by 500,000.

An exhibitor from Taiwan, surnamed Li, told reporters she had signed deals to sell dried fish to Carrefour, Parkson and Golden Eagle while at the expo. She, like many other exhibitors, ran out of things to sell two days before the expo concluded. “Everyone has been so friendly and warm,” Li said, “I hope to see them all again next year.”

This article, written by Patrick Scally with images by Yereth Jansen, was first posted here on Gokunming.com.

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Who’s afraid of China’s One Belt One Road Initiative?

A month ago China unveiled an action plan for China’s controversial One Belt, One Road initiative. The action plan introduces a series infrastructure development projects and trade related agreements along three Silk Roads emanating from China and reaching as far as Europe, Africa, and South America. It undoubtedly will be the subject of scrutiny as analysts and pundits on both sides of the Pacific chime in to make hasty comparisons to China’s 14th century maritime expansion and the more recent U.S. led Marshall Plan.  Some may even go as far to equate the One Belt, One Road to Japan’s pernicious WWII era East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere – this analogy, to the Chinese, is ultimately insulting.

Scrutiny and false comparisons aside, China and the world will be made economically better off by a successful implementation of the One Road, One Belt initiative.  China estimates the total benefit stream for investors and firms that participate in the initiative to reach an astronomical USD 21 trillion. Moreover, the prospects of such benefits are particularly timely at a time when global aggregate demand is on a downslide.   During a series of fall 2013 visits to Asian neighbors, China’s president Xi Jinping first announced the One Road, One Belt proposal as an umbrella concept describing three economic belts extending westward from China toward Europe and Africa.  The three economic belts roughly follow historical trade routes linking China with the West and are known as the New Silk Road, South Silk Road, and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (See map).

One Belt One Road

According to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, the initiative seeks to strengthen economic collaboration, improve road connectivity, promote trade and investment, promote currency conversion, and bolster people-to-people exchanges.  The timing of the initiative is critical.  China’s current development trajectory requires an infusion of economic growth emanating from its under-developed interior using an outward focused plan to export its finished products abroad while importing much needed raw materials and foodstuffs from the rest of the world.

The catchword among the planners of the Belt and Road system is youwai zhinei (由外至内) or ‘to bring the outside in.’ This concept reveals the actual logic of the plan as an outward looking plan that fills domestic economic needs first. Xi Jinping is betting his political future, and by extension, the continued legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party, on this plan to solve China’s economic woes and deliver successful reforms.  Thus, criticism should not pontificate on how the initiative is China’s grand strategy for global domination, but rather focus on assessing the efficiency of the various related project and prognosticating whether Xi can drive the initiative’s benefits home in time to stave off an economic slowdown.

To address current criticism, pundits are quick to draw historical comparisons to when Ming dynasty Admiral Zheng He, a court eunuch whose naval fleets, sailed as far as the east African coastline collecting tribute and expanding China’s sphere of influence.  To be sure, Zheng He’s ships were equipped with soldiers and were not simply diplomatic missions.  However, historian Jeremiah Jenne Executive Director of The Hutong in Beijing says, “Zheng was not trying to conquer or colonize in the name of the Ming Court. China gets into a lot of trouble in contemporary diplomacy because there seem to be elements in the foreign policy and military establishments and a whole swath of the general population who have trouble separating tributary arrangements from actual control and sovereignty.”

Jenne’s comments are generally made in reference to China’s historical claims to most of the South China Sea, many of which are based on Zheng He’s naval explorations.  However, on equal measure, Western detractors of the One Belt One Road plans should also not claim Zheng He as a world conqueror or challenger to the status quo.

Some analysts suggest the cheap financing and aid packages attached to the One Belt One Road plan are part of a political strategy for China to placate its neighbors over territorial disagreements with trade incentives and cash.  China indeed ill-advisedly attempted this strategy in the mid 1990s with its economic cooperation strategies vis-à-vis mainland Southeast Asia, but its track record with this strategy, particularly with Vietnam and Indonesia is spotty and has not produced desired results.

Yun Sun, resident fellow and Chinese foreign policy expert at the Stimson Center in Washington D.C. does not quite agree with the view that One Belt, One Road is motivated primarily by strategic and political calculations. She says, “The plan is primarily an economic campaign designed to serve China’s economic restructuring and export needs. It will benefit the region, as well as China.”  She admits the initiative will inevitably have a political impact and Beijing conceivably sees the political benefit as a part of the package.

“Using the counter-factual approach,” continues Sun, “China would still pursue One Belt, One Road without South China Sea disputes, so we can’t really say that the South China Seas or mending ties due to disputes there is the cause of China’s One Belt One Road.”

The post-WII Marshall plan which successfully lifted both the US and Europe out of its post-WWII economic woes and acted as the keystone to US led global restructuring models such as the Bretton Woods system indeed serves as a useful comparison to the One Belt, One Road initiative.   While we should be mindful that there is no guarantee the plan will deliver the local and global economic benefits that China hopes for, we should be more mindful that unlike the Marshall Plan, China has no economic restructuring model to offer the rest of the world, its stock of soft power is not necessarily improving, and this plan, still in its proposal stage, will be no easy sell.

To provide a comparison, China’s scorecard in regard to economic belt and road development in mainland Southeast Asia is murky and has contributed much to its current reputation rising regional power with unclear intentions.  Vietnam has stringently followed China’s export-led growth model and as a result is currently heading toward dire and inexorable economic straits unless it considers other alternatives.  Even in poor countries like Laos, where mid-to-high-value Chinese exports are not preferred to Thai or even Vietnamese products, scant evidence exists to demonstrate the “Made in China” image is improving.

The record of Chinese firms abroad in regard to environmental protection and labor practices is abysmal in countries like Laos, Myanmar, and Cambodia with no evidenced improvement in corporate social responsibility practices. Tied to this, Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption crackdown will reveal deep corruption and graft in many of China’s overseas infrastructure development projects.  Moreover, Xi Jinping is pledging to break-up the monopolies of many of China’s powerful state firms – construction and energy firms are already in his sights – thus, it is unclear who will build the One Belt, One Road projects.

To reiterate, these are the issues that deserve scrutiny and attention rather than the high-level rhetoric of China’s grand strategy.

Liu Jinxin, regional logistics expert and chief architect of the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Corridor (a westward stretching leg of the South Silk Road – see map), says that the greatest challenge facing the One Belt, One Road strategy is in China’s public relations strategy.  “Too many out there misunderstand China’s intentions, and factions, particularly within democratic countries, will misinterpret the benefit flows that this plan will deliver.”  Liu also cites the need for harmonizing legal structures between cooperative partners in sectors related to trade, commerce, and logistics.  “China will learn the most from this process, specifically through interaction with countries in Europe where the rule of law is strong.  However, since China’s legal system is not based on rule of law, it will be difficult for China to emerge as a conversation leader on this initiative.  In many ways China’s role is passive.”

Thailand’s refusal to pass a regional cross-border transportation agreement sponsored by the Asian Development Bank (which China and other mainland Southeast Asian states have ratified) is reflective of Liu’s commentary.  The ratification of this agreement would require the break-up of many entrenched factions within Thailand’s customs and inspection agencies as well as the military – a move these powerful groups are unwilling to budge on despite Thailand’s overall enthusiasm for economic cooperation with China.

When applying a critical eye to the One Belt, One Road initiative, its best to begin with a consideration toward the feasibility of such a project and looking at China’s real capabilities. Many worthwhile questions arise amidst such an inquiry, and certainly no one should take for granted that China can pull such an endeavor.  The functionality of the initiative is to push China successfully through its next wave of economic reforms promising further stability to East Asia and delivering a substantial contribution to global economic growth.

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Review: Great Gamble on the Mekong documentary

Khone Phapeng falls in southern Laos; photo by Tom Fawthrop

Khone Phapeng falls in southern Laos; photo by Tom Fawthrop

Fishers and farmers have for some time tried to block a proposed dam on the Mekong River in southern Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR). Most recently, they made their views known at a public consultation on the Don Sahong dam. In all likelihood, however, they will lose and the dam will be built. Great Gamble on the Mekong, a new documentary from filmmaker and journalist Tom Fawthrop, insightfully details the probable dire consequences of this dam, and the failure this represents for a once-promising extra-legal cooperative structure, the Mekong River Commission.

The Mekong runs from the Himalayas in Tibet through China, Burma, Thailand, Lao PDR, Cambodia, and Vietnam—the latter five forming the Lower Mekong Basin (LMB)—where it empties into the South China Sea. According to Fawthrop, it provides protein and food security for 65 million people in the form of fish for food and trade, and water and nutrients for home gardens and commercial farms. At the same time, the Mekong has long represented a potential source of renewable energy. China has already built six dams on the Upper Mekong, and plans to build at least 14 more.

Dams have been discussed and rejected on the Lower Mekong mainstream since the 1950s, though they have gone up on its tributaries in that time.  In 1995 Thailand, Lao PDR, Cambodia and Vietnam signed the Mekong Agreement and formed the Mekong River Commission (MRC). The goal of the MRC is to facilitate cooperation in managing the resources of the Lower Mekong, but it has no final decision-making power.

The proposed Don Sahong dam at the center of this film would sit squarely across the main channel that migratory fish use to bypass the massive Khone Falls near the Lao border with Cambodia. It would be the second dam begun on the mainstream of the Lower Mekong—construction began on Xayaburi, another controversial dam, in 2012—with as many as 10 more to follow.

 

Cost-Benefit Analysis

The Lao government and the Finnish company Poyry it hired to oversee construction of Xayaburi claim that dam will provide clean energy to three million people in Thailand and one million in Lao PDR. The MRC claims dams on the Lower Mekong mainstream have the potential to reduce the severity of floods and droughts, and thatbuilding all 12 would generate $15 billion in economic activity, create 400,000 jobs, and reduce greenhouse gas emmissions by 50 Mtons CO2/yr by 2030. A study commissioned by the MRC, and completed by the International Centre for Environmental Management (ICEM) in 2010, concluded that the 12 dams could meet 8 percent of the region’s energy needs by 2025.

The ICEM study is clear however that benefits will not be disbursed equally: “Mainstream hydropower generation projects would contribute to a growing inequality in the LMB countries. Benefits of hydropower would accrue to electricity consumers using national grids, developers, financiers and host governments, whereas most costs would be borne by poor and vulnerable riparian communities and some economic sectors…In the short to medium term poverty would be made worse….”  Lao PDR does plan to use the revenues from selling the energy produced by its dams for rural roads, health care, and education, though during the “concession period” (estimated by ICEM at 25 years) after dam completion, the bulk of revenues would go to the dams’ financiers and developers.

According to the academics and nonprofit workers that Fawthrop interviews in Great Gamble on the Mekong, the exact impacts of the dams are impossible to predict, but they will likely be severe. “The Don Sahong dam will only push Cambodia and Vietnam closer to a food crisis,” says Chhith Sam Ath, an employee of the World Wildlife Fund in Cambodia. In addition to flooding gardens along the river, and diminishing the fish stock, they predict that the entrapment of nutrients by the dams will hurt rice production in Vietnam, leading to higher global food prices.

The 2010 ICEM study concluded that building the 11 mainstream dams on the Lower Mekong would reduced “capture” (non-farmed) fisheries by 16 percent. Combined with the built and proposed dams on the Upper Mekong, and on tributaries in the Lower Mekong Basin, this number rises to 26-42 percent. New aquaculture associated with dams would only replace at most 10 percent of this loss. Lao PDR and its developers claim they can mitigate the losses of fish–Poyry claims fish gates will allow 80 percent of migratory fish to pass up and down streams, while MegaFirst, the Malaysian company planning to dam Hou Sahong, claims making adjacent channels wider and deeper will provide fish with a detour route.

Yet the fish gates Poyry plans to use have never been tested on the varieties of fish found in the Mekong, and fish passes need to be designed to take into account individual species’ behavior and sensitivity to factors such as oxygen and nutrient levels. AsPoyry’s senior project manager conceded, “whether the fish get across [the dam], you’ll only see when it is built.” Faulting Lao PDR for not testing the fish gates in the Mekong before building a dam, when you need a dam to test the gates seems unfair. But they could test the technology on a smaller, less impactful dam on a tributary.

 

The Political Process

In the face of this uncertainty, the ICEM report recommended putting off any mainstream dam construction until 2020, using the intervening years to more fully study the impacts of the dams on the Upper Mekong and on the tributaries of the Lower Mekong. In a five-year strategic plan issued in March 2011, the MRC Council also recommended more study, as well as a thorough Procedure of Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement (PNPCA), the internal procedure of the MRC for member countries to consider and offer feedback on the proposals of other countries. Yet eight months later, Poyry announced that Lao PDR had met its obligations under the 1995 agreement and could proceed with construction of Xayaburi. A year after that, in November 2012, Poyry received an eight-year contract to supervise Xayaburi’’s construction and engineering, and construction began. Poyry claimed at the time that it had updated designs to take into account the concerns of downstream nations. Yet in January 2013, Cambodia and Vietnam vigorously protested that their concerns had not been addressed, and demanded a halt to construction. They were unsuccessful.

A similar drama unfolded around the Don Sahong Dam. Last September, Lao PDR announced the start of the Don Sahong Dam, this time avoiding the PNPCA by claiming the project was not on the mainstream. After diplomatic outrage, the Lao government consented to a PNCPA, which began last July and is only required to run six months. Despite opposition from the governments and civil society in Vietnam and Cambodia, the Lao government has signaled its intention to proceed with the dam.

These dams are the first major test of the MRC’s ability to handle conflict among its members. The MRC tasks members with “aiming at arriving at agreement” on projects that significantly impact water quality or flow but has no voting mechanism or penalties for not reaching agreement. The CEO of the MRC Secretariat, Hans Guttman, states in Great Gamble that if the parties don’t arrive at an agreement, the country proposing such a project can still go ahead with it.

 

Resistance

Citizens of Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam have lobbied their respective governments to halt the dam. Hundreds of NGOs, both local and international (including World Wildlife Fund and International Rivers) have been trying to mobilize the opposition. Thai villagers filed a lawsuit against EGAT, the National Energy Policy Council, and three other government agencies in 2012, challenging the power-purchasing agreement they entered into with the Lao PDR government for electricity from Xayaburi. In June 2014, the Thai Supreme Administrative Court agreed to hear the case.

The international response, outside of the press, has been muted. MRC’s international donors issued a joint statement in January 2013 urging further study before beginning dam construction, but have said little else. The UN and heads of state have been notably silent.

Fawthrop’s film does not address how concerned Westerners can respond. The answer certainly feels fraught, given Laos’ historical experience of French colonialism and U.S.military aggression, including the unexploded ordinance that still affects the country. Then there’s the region’s very real need for clean energy as well as the standard argument about the hypocrisy of industrialized nations telling any country to sacrifice growth for environmental protection.

This is the progressive’s dilemma when it comes to foreign policy. Certainly any intervention should come in the form of carrots and not sticks: money and/or technology to develop less destructive sources of renewable energy; promotion of tourism to the region; UNESCO World Heritage Site recognition for Kohne falls, and so on, conditioned on implementing the ICEM report’s recommendations.What Great Gamble on the Mekong makes clear, and what studies of other massive dam projects have proved is that this is a humanitarian issue, and that the poorest will likely suffer the most.

Great Gamble on the Mekong has some distracting elements. The claim that the Thai banks funding Xayaburi are “getting nervous” as a result of letters sent to them by anti-dam activists seems like wishful thinking. For the sake of their own credibility, the filmmakers shouldn’t have included a cartoon set to Pink Panther music. Finally, the filmmakers should have addressed how some species got to be endangered before any dams were built. For example a WWF report says that overfishing was partly responsible for the decline of the great catfish. These critiques aside, this is an important and stirring film.

Nathaniel Eisen is a freelance author interested in the intersections of trade, human rights, security policy, and the environment. Information about the documentary Great Gamble on the Mekong can be found at www.tomfawthropmedia.com. Copies of the DVD can be ordered from eurekacuba@gmail.com.  This post was first published on the Foreign Policy in Focus blog on 12/26/2014.  It is reposted here with the permission of the author.

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Seismicity & Sediment Flow in the Mekong River Basin

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

 

Tectonic setting

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

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

 

Sediment regime

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

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

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

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

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

 

Seismicity: Predicting earthquakes in the northern Mekong Basin

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

Conclusion

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

 

References:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How’s it Going, Thailand?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The nation is still divided and fragmented.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Illicit Drug Industry & Counter-Narcotics in Southeast Asia

drug picture 1

Drug enforcement officials in Burma. Image: The Irrawaddy

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

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

 

Colonial Roots of the Southeast Asian Drug Trade

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

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

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

 

Colonial Events Timeline

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

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

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

 

Drug enforcement officials in Burma. Image: Business Week

Drug enforcement officials in Burma. Image: Business Week

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

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

map

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

 

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

 

Threats Posed by the Illicit Drug Industry

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

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

Number of Heroin Users 2010

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

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

drug market value

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

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

 

International Cooperation and Efforts to Eliminate the Drug Industry

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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