Category Archives: Laos

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.

Leave a Comment

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

Bright City Lights: Urban Trends and Futures in Southeast Asia

Traffic congestion in Bangkok

Traffic congestion in Bangkok

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

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

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

Dominant Urbanization Trends

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

Screen Shot 2015-04-10 at 5.50.38 PM

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

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

laos.vte

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

Screen Shot 2015-04-10 at 7.20.26 PM

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2015-04-10 at 5.24.48 PM

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

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

Urban Planning and Governance: Missing Links

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

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

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

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

 Screen Shot 2015-04-10 at 7.26.18 PM

Urban Futures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leave a Comment

Filed under ASEAN, Cambodia, China, Current Events, Economic development, Environment and sustainability, Governance, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar/Burma, Philippines, Sustainability and Resource Management, Thailand, Vietnam

Laos Vegas: Rolling the dice on rural development

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In Lao PDR, there are three large casinos presently in operation: the Savan Vegas Hotel and Casino, the Kings Roman Casino and the Dansavanh Nam Ngum Resort. They are facing controversies over forced evictions, dispossession of farmlands belonging to the local rural communities, and are ridden with mafia-style armed fights among rival casino and investor factions. In January 2005, China’s anti-gambling campaign forced many casinos and small gambling houses to move to countries on China’s southwestern border including Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam. Meanwhile, Lao officials and others, including middlemen and land developers, are reaping the cash benefits from this so-called rural development.

“The damned Chinese are taking over Laos,” the words spat out of a farmer whose nickname is Khoua living in the northern province of Luang Nam Tha. He was mouthing what most Lao people believe. Rural people dispossessed of land, urban dwellers witnessing the slow demise of their once elegant cities, all blame the mainland Chinese. Their presence is increasingly obvious, whether it be in the high speed motorcades blasting though Luang Prabang or in the proliferation of Chinese enterprises and their gargantuan construction projects, many of which lie echoingly empty and idle after completion. The influx of Chinese workers is affecting the local people’s chances of employment or skills training. But in the midst of frustration about the Chinese presence, what often goes unremarked or largely forgotten is that the Chinese are there as a direct result of the investment policies of the Government of Lao PDR, with many benefits from power to wealth being reaped by a long line of Lao officialdom.

When the author visited the area in November 2012, there were massive boards advertising the latest megaproject. Some provinces like Oudomxai north of the capital are more Chinese than Lao. That being said migrations and state borders have shape-shifted over the centuries blurring ethnicities and cultural loyalties. But what is obvious is the anger and resentment aimed at China while at the same time failing to recognise the agency and responsibility of the Lao government in ceding land and concessionary deals in return for investment and bribes.

This development complexity is best exemplified in the huge (and often bizarrely designed) casinos and gambling establishments that are expanding under the same perseverating rhetoric of development and poverty alleviation by which large dams and roads are being built. While these casinos have been written about in the mainstream media, very little analysis has been done about what they mean for rural people and their livelihoods.

Ferries bringing patrons across from Thailand and China for gambling (Photo by Melinda Boh.)

Ferries bringing patrons across from Thailand and China for gambling (Photo by Melinda Boh.)

From Chiang Saen in Thailand’s north, the white colonnaded building across the river, topped with a huge gilt crown is a bizarre sight. From Huay Xai in Laos, a potholed road through farmlands leads to the casino complex. The car suddenly jolt-lands on to thick cement, marking the casino’s boundary in Dork Ngoui Kham. Half an hour later we spot the golden cupola, its clock set on Beijing time, marking Bokeo Province’s Special Economic Zone (SEZ) office.

The nearby King Roman casino reveals plaster toga-clad statues alongside Chinese patriarchs and the symbols of the newest local religion: gambling. Parked nearby were two stretch limousines. Inside the building, men in suits gambled at the tables. “Kunming officials doing a site inspection,” was the official story from an attendant.

The only Lao person we saw was a farmer on a dust-covered motorbike with his equally dust-covered wife, narrowly avoiding being pushed into the Mekong River by the boat passengers.

The concession area includes archaeological treasures, importantly the ruins of a 16th century city reputedly built by King Setthatirat. Other remnants, possibly from the Mon empires of the first millennium CE, are considered to be of World Heritage value. Instead they may end up under the runway of an international airport planned to bring patrons in, but fiercely resisted by the local farmers. History will be replaced by what appears to be a gambling based narco-empire, where anything goes. For Laos, it means that some of the most fertile arable land and considerable archaeological treasures would soon be buried under asphalt to feed the gambling industry.

Stretch limousines pick up selected high rollers from the airport (Photo by Melinda Boh.)

Stretch limousines pick up selected high rollers from the airport (Photo by Melinda Boh.)

Civilising

Defending the casino and entertainment complex, a senior Chinese manager told researcher Pal Nyriri: “Before it was opium and drug businesses. There were no roads, no electricity … Laos is developing and it [the casino] is good for them.”

Zhang Wei, the casino’s principal developer, told Thai sociologist Pinkaew Laungaramsri of Chiang Mai University: “The biggest obstacle is that villagers … do not understand us. We have rented all the land and forest … but they … cut … or burn them. We can’t go around, arresting or beat up (sic) and fine the villagers who burn our gardens … it will cause ethnic issues.”

A local NGO worker, requesting anonymity, recalled taking a Chinese delegation to the site in 2009. “The three Government officials, a journalist, an environmentalist and a few academics were shocked at what they saw. ‘This gives China a bad image,’ they said. When we stopped; a crowd of up to 70 to 100 village people assembled shouting that they would not give up their land. The area is one of the most fertile and productive in Laos.”

They pointed to a white Humvee. “That’s the local official. Zhang gave him and the (Lao) police the same cars.”

China may see itself as a civilising influence, drawing on its long and remarkable history, using its wealth and dynamism to bring rapid economic growth. But with its entrepreneurs building casinos like those at the Lao border, China risks reinforcing its growing reputation for exploiting its neighbours.

Because although it’s the Lao government’s party apparatchiks and provincial officials whose signatures and rubber stamps bless these casino developments, it’s China that gets the bad press, a point clearly understood by the visiting Chinese delegation. The development of ‘legal/ illegal’ states through the formation of SEZ’s has enabled the Lao government to consolidate power, and amass wealth, patronage and control, while portraying itself as a helpless lackey of China.

Laos is fast gaining a reputation as a lawless state. It has shown unwillingness to arrestwildlife trafficker Vixay Keosavang while it faces continuing criticism for its intransigence in not being serious about investigating the high-profile disappearance of Magsaysay award winner Sombath Somphone. Moreover, Laos continues to face allegations of human rights violations, money laundering and profligate illegal logging that are causing both international concern to its many foreign donors and local frustration.

The so called “red carpet”, the road being paved pink for the patrons (Photo by Melinda Boh.)

The so called “red carpet”, the road being paved pink for the patrons (Photo by Melinda Boh.)

SEZs and other confusions

The casinos in the SEZ epitomise the complexity of the modernist zeal with which the Government of Lao and China pursue investment. Observers like Danielle Tan have noted the SEZs bring a post-socialist neo-liberal model to the Lao-China border zones. For nations that expound socialism and wisdom of central control, this is a strange choice. Neo-liberalism increases state income through taxes, exploits labour and expropriates land from traditional owners and farmers. The renowned sociologist Pierre Bourdieu considers neoliberalism “a program for destroying collective structures”, and even nations themselves.

With their confused legal frameworks and ambiguous status, SEZs invites all sorts of temptations. The implicit freedom tempts the seamier side of legitimate trade and investment particularly in the fabled Golden Triangle. Added to this mix, the Chinese fascination with gambling and luck makes Bokeo’s proximity all too tempting.

Along with disappointed losers, Tan found evidence of drug sales and money laundering, while Li Quan a London based tiger conservationist, told the Global Times that Lao casinos were trading posts for endangered species. Others are worried about child trafficking, rape and tax farming 1.

Tan alleges that the former military junta and drug lord Lin Mingxian is a major investor in the King Roman Casino, a charge denied by Zhang Wei. Ying and Zhang, of China’s Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CIR) and part of the 2009 delegation, agreed, writing, “While the nominal boss of the Casino in Bokeo is a Fujian native with a Hong Kong passport, it is … likely… the real investor is a drug cartel from Myanmar.”

The other side of China’s double jeopardy is legitimacy. The Bokeo casino is a photocopy of those in Mong La (Myanmar) and Boten (Laos) both managed by Zhang Wei, and both closed by China after evidence of mafia-style gunfights and crimes. However the King Roman is within Lao sovereign territory, while the others were on international no man’s land.

The Vice Prime Minister of the Government of Lao PDR, Somsavat Lengsavad, reacted to China’s concern about ongoing casino development with assurances that no further concessions would be granted as “casinos were a bad model for Laos.” But barely six months later in March 2014, the Vientiane Times announced plans for another casino in the South.

In total forty-nine SEZs are planned. How many will have casinos is anyone’s guess, and pose a serious concern to China.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Size matters

The CIR’s critical appraisal of Laos’ transparency backs Nyiri’s research revealing that the Government of Lao granted the Hong Kong registered King Roman group a concession for the Bokeo land in 2007, after a down payment of US$850,000.

Lao government media KPL reported 827 hectares were ceded for 40 years; the maximum allowed under Lao law, but at variance to the company’s own estimation of 10,300 hectares for 99 years. In 2010, Zhao reported the new casinos would be bigger in scale than those in Boten, bragging that US$500 million would be spent developing the site, more than ten times the Laos national health budget.

A resident of Huay Xai who declined to be identified, admitted the casino is run down: “The paint’s peeling and shops boarded up. Less people visit now. One rich guy hired some [Lao] cops to protect him, but they shot him and took his money. Despite joint patrols, we still have shootings, as the Chinese mafia are using the place as a staging post. Gamblers are afraid. As for the organic farms and markets they promised, well who would buy the stuff? The farmers who lost their land are now broke and they used to produce what the casino promised but never delivered.”

“The casino’s still trying for the airport, but there is well-organised resistance. The locals called in Thai TV. The Lao police arrested two cameramen and held them for two weeks. The Thai government responded by closing the border until they were released. Now it’s a stand-off. The PR risk is too high.”

China has its own problems with crime. What it does to curb the influence of its neighbour will be interesting to see.

Post script: In late 2013, the Lao media announced that the farmers had been given their promised settlement. The casino had agreed to pay a compensation amount that was found satisfactory to the government. Many on the Lao agribusiness list-serv cheered.

Following up on this story, I was told by the above long term resident of the area (new laws in Laos restricting critical media make me reluctant to name anyone for fear of recrimination) that the company had in fact offered compensation way over the odds as the farmers had been both successful in gaining publicity and in holding out, fearing the same poverty that had mired their neighbours.

But the informant said the Lao government refused to give their imprimateur to the negotiated rate fearing that the amount offered would set an unhealthy precedent for other areas of Laos, so the farmers were given a significantly reduced amount. Hence the term “found satisfactory to the government” does not mean what one might have assumed.

This article was written by Melinda Boh for the Mekong Commons website and published here on 1/31/15.  It is reposted in its entirety with permission from Mekong Commons and the author.  ExSE is excited to begin a new cooperative partnership with the Mekong Commons team in sharing analysis and reporting.

Leave a Comment

Filed under China, Economic development, Governance, Laos, Mekong River, SLIDER

Letter to the Mekong River Commission on the Don Sahong Dam

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

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

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

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

Well, maybe yes and maybe no.

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

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

All essentially unknown!

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

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

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

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

Thanks as always, for all due consideration.

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

Leave a Comment

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

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.

1 Comment

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

Laos Agrees to Discuss Dam Project with Neighbors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leave a Comment

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

Laos extradites drug suspects to Yunnan

Editors note: This article was originally written by Cissy Yu and published on Go Kunming. It is reprinted on Exse in its entirety. 

Yunnan has long been the country’s main entry point for illegal drugs. Despite increased interdiction efforts, international law enforcement cooperation and recent large-scale busts, it appears the province’s ‘Drug War‘ is becoming more costly and having only a small effect on the overall flow of narcotics across the border.

Last week, Lao police transferred five suspected members of a drug ring to Kunming in a display of cooperation between the two countries. Authorities originally detained the suspects in a joint police raid conducted on March 19, 2013, when a naval patrol seized more than 500 million yuan (US$82.3 million) worth of methamphetamines on the Mekong River.

China has been conducting patrols such as this with the help of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar since the “Mekong River Massacre” of October 2011. The attack, which killed 13 Chinese sailors, spurred Beijing to begin interdiction patrols along the river. Institution of the policy, although sanctioned by neighboring Southeast Asian countries, was the first time in three decades that Chinese forces have operated outside the nation’s borders without a United Nations mandate.

Although the drug lord responsible for the killings, Naw Kham, was sentenced and publicly executed in Kunming last year, illegal drug trafficking continues to run rampant in the border regions between Yunnan, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand. Known as the Golden Triangle, the area supplies an estimated 60 to 70 percent of all drugs consumed in China. A United Nations surveyconducted last year reported that opium cultivation in the Triangle rose by 22 percent in 2013, largely driven by mounting demand from the mainland.

Yunnan’s 4,060-kilometer border with Golden Triangle nations presents a grim challenge for anti-drug personnel. According to Yunnan Net, 70 percent of methamphetamines confiscated in China last year were seized in Yunnan. Currently, there are 1.7 million registered drug addicts in the province, although the government acknowledges the actual numbers are much higher.

While heroin remains the most commonly smuggled drug on the border, methamphetamines — also known as ‘ice’ — are a fast-growing second. In Ruili, a border town infamous in the past for its heroin trade, methamphetamines now dominate the market. One dose of the crystals — known as bingdu (冰毒) in Chinese — reportedly costs as little as five yuan.

Yunnan’s narcotics officials, meanwhile, claim they have redoubled efforts to combat the drug trade. Provincial courts sentenced more than 5,020 suspects for drug crimes in 2013. Yet some officials have complained that the record numbers on trial have led to more lenient judgments. “A suspect who would get the death penalty elsewhere [in China] only gets several years of jail in Yunnan,” said a National People’s Congress deputy. “The judicial system should be punishing these people with an iron hand.”

Image: China Radio International

Leave a Comment

Filed under China, GMS, Health, Laos, Mekong River, Regional Relations, SLIDER, Yunnan Province

Monsters in the Mekong

Construction of the Xayaburi Dam in Laos

Construction of the Xayaburi Dam in Laos

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

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

1 Comment

Filed under China, Current Events, Laos, Mekong River, Regional Relations, SLIDER, Thailand, water

A Casino at the Khone Falls in Laos?

Khone Falls in Siphandone, Laos.  Image: Corbis

Khone Falls in Siphandone, Laos. Image: Corbis

At the end of March 2014 the Lao PDR government will consider a proposal to build a special economic zone slated for tourism development and other unspecified commercial uses in Siphandone, one of the world’s most pristine and biodiverse areas.  The SEZ will showcase a casino located less than one kilometer from the famed Khone Falls, the largest in Southeast Asia.

“The Siphandone area is set to become a more sought after tourism destination with many more activities to experience,” remarked Buasone Vongsongkhone, Deputy Governor of Laos’ southern Champassak province on Monday, March 17 after a meeting to discuss the proposal.

Vongsongkhone said the plans for the SEZ will include a casino and other facilities in keeping up with developing tourism trends in the Siphandone and Khone Falls area while protecting the environment.

“At the meeting we discussed how to regulate the casino to ensure the zone has proper security.”

What Vongsongkhone did not discuss was the impact of the new SEZ on the relatively untouched ecosystem of the Siphandone area.  Siphandone, translated as “four thousand islands” is where the Mekong River fans out into a waterfall and islet ridden expanse more than 15 kilometers wide.  The sparsely populated area has been described as an environmental oasis and is home to numerous native fish and bird species.  The Khone falls area is the perhaps the last habitat where endangered freshwater Irrawaddy dolphin can be found in the wild.

Satellite image of Siphandone.  Khone falls is the on left side of the image.  Google Earth

Satellite image of Siphandone. Khone falls is the on left side of the image. Google Earth

Laos’ growing reputation of holding some of our world’s last untouched natural areas and idyllic vacation spots has brought increases in international tourists to Siphandone area.  With the increase in tourism, the need for regulation and protection is obvious, but is marking a zone for economic development first and environmental protection second a sustainable approach or is it just another way for local Lao officials and outside investors to gain quick wealth through the exploitation of Laos’ abundance of resources?

Last week in an article in the Vientiane Times, the official English language outlet for Laos’ state controlled media reported “the government attaches great importance to developing SEZs to boost the country’s growth, which is crucial to lifting people out of poverty and enabling Laos to graduate from the list of least developed countries by 2020.”

Mock-up of the That Luang Marsh SEZ in Vientiane.

Mock-up of the That Luang Marsh SEZ in Vientiane.

The track record for SEZs in Laos, often dominated by Chinese and Vietnamese investment, is sketchy at best.  In Vientiane, construction of the That Luang Marsh SEZ (yet to begin commercial activities) has negatively impacted the local urban environment.  The natural wetland filters and holds the capital city’s waste water acting as a terminus of the city’s century-old waste canal system; many of these canals are now blocked by construction.  Much of the That Luang wetland areas has been filled in and long-time residents have noticed an average rise in temperatures as water is removed from the ecosystem. 

In Laos’ northern Bokeo province, the Golden Triangle SEZ dominated by the Chinese owned King Roman Casino complex has a seedy reputation as a conduit for money laundering from China and zone of human trafficking. The SEZ has scarred the scenic views of the Golden Triangle area, also known for its tourism, with open quarry mining and industrial development.

King Roman Casino along the Mekong in Bokeo Province, Laos

King Roman Casino along the Mekong in Bokeo Province, Laos

To make matters worse, the Siphandone area is slated for the construction of the 260 megawatt Don Sahong dam located  on the only of Siphandone’s Mekong channels that allows for the passage of hundreds of species of migratory fish.  In September 2013, the Lao PDR government notified the Mekong River Commission that the Don Sahong dam project would begin construction in 2014 despite years of protest and opposition by local and international environmental NGOs.

Eco-tourism opportunities such as river cruises, dolphin sighting tours, village homestays, and fishing demonstrations have brought sustainable sources of income to local communities in the Siphandone area for years.  Investors interested in building large resorts and casino complexes will likely be majority Chinese and Vietnamese taking more than they provide while leaving a stained and irreversible mark on one of the Earth’s most scenic spots.

3 Comments

Filed under China, Economic development, Energy, Environment and sustainability, GMS, Laos, Mekong River, SLIDER, Sustainability and Resource Management, water

New Addition: Country Profiles on East by Southeast

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

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

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

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

Leave a Comment

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