Regional Roundup for Week of 11.5.2016

The big news out of the region this week has yet to hit the headlines. Sources from inside the Mekong River Commission have told us that the Lao government has officially submitted the Pak Beng dam, the third dam on the Mekong mainstream, for notification to the MRC. This sets forth the processes detailed in Prior Notification, Prior Consultation Agreement (PNPCA), one of the key instruments of the 1995 Mekong Agreement over transboundary water management in the Mekong region. Much criticism was thrown at the PNPCA process and the MRC itself for a poor execution over the Don Sahong dam site in 2014. Lao originally announced that the dam was not a mainstream project (it indeed is) and thus did not fit into the purview of the Mekong Agreement, but regional pressures at the diplomatic, expert, and CSO levels forced Laos to reverse its interpretation of the river’s geology.

 The Pak Beng dam will be the least controversial of sites to go up on the mainstream to date, but still with gather significant regional and global attention. It is located far into the interior of Laos upstream of the Xayaburi dam and is much smaller than the Xayaburi. This will be the most upstream dam on the Lower Mekong and thus the closest to China’s Upper Mekong hydropower. However, its proximity to Thailand should draw extra concern from upstream communities in the Golden Triangle province of Chiang Rai.

Over the past seven years, regional and civil society pressure has brought alteration to the mitigation efforts of both the Xayaburi and Don Sahong site, specifically in terms of facilitating critical fish passages (of which the success rate is still an unknown factor). Given this we predict the PNPCA process will not cancel the dam entirely, but could postpone construction and force the dam’s size (wall height and thus generating capacity) to be minimized which would reduce upstream impacts in the Golden Triangle region. Even though the dam is likely to be a run-of-the-river project, building the dam wall too high will certainly flood communities like Chiang Khong or Chiang Saen or increase the likelihood of flooding during the monsoon season.

 In other observations, Southeast Asian government officials that we’ve spoken to in the last week on edge about the potential of Hillary Clinton losing Tuesday’s general election – that is everyone with the exception of Hun Sen it seems.  


EXSE Focus

 Will Duterte End the US-Philippines Military Alliance?—The Diplomat A deeper look at the future prospects of the relationship.//This article is full of interesting insights about the dynamics of the US-Philippines alliance. Commenting on the likely strategy behind Duterte’s actions, the author writes, “strategically, Duterte does not see the United States as being as important to Philippine national interests relative to other countries like China. In his view … since Washington is unlikely to come to Manila’s defense in the event of a conflict, which is itself unlikely, there is little use for an alliance that brings only limited security benefits to the Philippines while also restricting the economic rewards it can get from Beijing.”

China and Malaysia agree on military cooperation in the South China Sea—The Guardian Najib Razak signs defence deal during Beijing visit and writes editorial saying former colonial should not lecture countries they once exploited

Related: Najib: Malaysia-China defence deal a landmark decision—The Star

Related: Leader of Malaysia, Miffed at U.S., Visits China With a Deal in Mind—New York Times

How Many U.S. Allies Can China Turn?—China File Rodrigo Duterte, President of the Philippines since June, visited China this week and signaled his interest in shifting Manila’s allegiance away from Washington toward Beijing.

Related: Rodrigo Duterte Gets Closer to China, and the Neighbors Notice—New York Times

Related: Is the Philippines Triggering a ‘Duterte Effect’ in ASEAN?—The Diplomat

 Chinese Vessels Leave Disputed Fishing Grounds in South China Sea—New York Times China’s Coast Guard had chased Filipino fishermen from the grounds, but has abandoned them since a visit from the Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte, to Beijing.

Related: Philippines says China vessels have left disputed Scarborough Shoal—South China Morning Post

Related: South China Sea: What Exactly Has Changed At Scarborough Shoal?—The Diplomat//China is now allowing fishermen from the Philippines to enter the rich fishing ground of Scarborough Shoal for the first time since 2012. This is an interesting turn of events, especially since Filipino fishermen have been complaining that it was becoming more difficult in recent months for them to reach Scarborough Shoal. CSIS’s Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative discussed this here. However, the author of this article specifies, “Though the situation is no doubt an improvement from the status quo in the aftermath of the July 12 ruling by a Hague-based tribunal on the maritime disputes between Manila and Beijing in the South China Sea, it is not a return to the status of the shoal in 2012 — before China seized it from the Philippines following a stand-off.”



 Why Indonesia Matters in a Season of Change—The Diplomat Indonesia is important to the U.S., in ways that might be unexpected.

Philippines, Japan ink economic, defense deals—Investvine The Philippines and Japan agreed to cooperate closer in various economic sectors and to work together in regional security initiatives that “promote peace and stability.”

Podcast: The Future of U.S. Statecraft in Asia—CFR  “The lion’s share of the history of the 21st century is going to play out in Asia,” states Kurt Campbell, the former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs

Behind Duterte’s Break With the U.S., a Lifetime of Resentment—Wall Street Journal Philippines president, driven by a sense of grievance over colonial history and perceived slights, threatens to undo a vital American relationship in Asia.

Related: With Duterte’s latest remarks, possibility of severed Philippine-US alliance looks increasingly possible—Southeast Asia Globe

Related: Philippine President Wants U.S. Troops Out—New York Times

US stops arms sales to Philippines—Investvine It must have been a discovery for Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte that his actions do have consequences. The US State Department halted the planned sale of some 26,000 assault rifles to the Philippines’ national police

Malaysia to buy navy vessels from China in blow to US—South China Morning Post Malaysia will sign a contract to buy littoral mission ships from China when Prime Minister Najib Razak visits Beijing next week

China to pour in billions for rail project—The Star Malaysia begins its first step in the 600km rail journey from the Klang Valley to Tumpat with the inking of a deal with China offering RM55bil in soft loans, shares Transport Minister Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai.

Japan competes with China for Myanmar influence with 800 billion yen aid deal—South China Morning Post Japan will provide aid worth 800 billion yen (US$7.73 billion) to Myanmar over five years as it competes for regional influence with the country’s biggest trading partner China.

Washington’s untapped influence in Myanmar—New Mandala Despite China’s power and proximity, the US has more influence than it recognises in Myanmar



Myanmar’s logging ban feeds shadow economy of illegal trade—Mongabay Despite efforts by local authorities, a nationwide logging ban has heightened illicit trade of wood in Myanmar’s second-largest city.

Forestry crimes triple, but fines down: report—Phnom Penh Post Illegal forest clearing is taking place at about three times the rate it did last year, but fines for forestry and wildlife crimes have fallen dramatically, according to a progress report released last week by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forests and Fisheries (MAFF)

Armed enforcement team formed to protect forest reserves—The Star Trespassers into Sabah’s forest reserves are becoming more aggressive, prompting the state Forestry Department to form an armed enforcement team.

Resettling China’s ‘Ecological Migrants’—New York Times Miaomiao Lake Village is just one of the new communities built to accommodate the world’s largest environmental migration project. But residents are struggling to adapt.

Living in China’s Expanding Deserts—New York Times People on the edges of the country’s vast seas of sand are being displaced by climate change.//This is a part of the New York Times’ series on displacement of people due to climate change. This article looks at some of the consequences of China’s rapid rate of desertification on the people living in the affected areas and provides some great photos.

Related: How China’s Politics of Control Shape the Debate on Deserts—New York Times

Southeast Asia’s last major undammed river in crisis—The Third Pole From the snow-capped mountains of Tibet, the Salween rushes through steep gorges in Yunnan Province and flows through four of Myanmar’s ethnic states before emptying into the Andaman Sea.

Related: Civil Society Groups Continue to Boycott Myitsone Dam—The Irrawaddy

Experts Warn Mekong Delta Agriculture, Livelihoods Face Serious Threats—RFA The effects of the severe drought that the El Niño weather phenomenon—exacerbated by climate change—delivered to Southeast Asia this year will be felt for months, if not years, to come in the economically vital Mekong Delta, environmentalists and United Nations experts said.

Vanishing Mekong? Shifting tropical storms threaten a great river delta—Third Pole This is one of the world’s great deltas. It is home to more than 20 million people and the rice that is grown on its fertile land underpins food security across South-East Asia. //One of the study’s authors states, “Only around 5% of the catchment area’s total annual rainfall is sourced from storms, but because this heavy and sudden rainfall is so effective at washing mud and sand into the river, the storms are responsible for more than 30% of the sediment that reaches the delta.”  The results of this study highlight the urgent need to take action to build resilience in the Mekong delta. They also point to the importance of using a basin-wide approach to determine the impacts of climate change and to develop effective adaptation strategies.

 A Waterfight Like No Other May Be Brewing Over Asia’s Rivers | Bloomberg—International Rivers Climate change is expected to increase global competition for water.

 Laos: PM announces continued suspension of mining concessions—Mekong Eye Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith said yesterday the government will maintain the moratorium on new mining concessions because it needs more time to inspect a number of operations.

Mining will be regulated: Kachin State MP—Mekong Eye Kachin State MP Kyaw Kyaw Win said on Sunday that the state parliament would enact regional laws to control the mining industry.

Vietnam’s Growing Environmental Activism—The Diplomat Another act of civil disobedience shows that ordinary Vietnamese are becoming more vocal.

Can renewable energy help address poverty in China?—China Dialogue China is fast becoming a green energy superpower, leading the world in investment and installation of low-carbon technology.



America’s Dangerous ‘China Fantasy’—New York Times Trade and economic growth is making Beijing more repressive, not less.

Xi Jinping, ‘Core Leader’ of China, Appears Both Triumphant and Anxious—New York Times The Communist Party gave the president the exalted title of “core leader” last week, a victory clouded by warnings in official documents about risks the country and party face.

Related Xi Jinping Is China’s ‘Core’ Leader: Here’s What It Means—New York Times

Related: Xi Jinping becomes ‘core’ leader of China—The Guardian Communist

Three Threats to China’s Economy—Project Syndicate China’s economy is facing serious challenges, reflected in trends like falling fixed-asset investment and rising credit. But many of those challenges can be addressed with one major initiative: reform and restructuring of the state sector.



Doing Business in Myanmar Has Just Gotten a Little Easier: World Bank Report—RFA The business regulatory environment in Myanmar has improved during the past year thanks to reforms that have reduced regulatory complexity for domestic businesses and improved the country’s credit information system

Burma Army Forces Hundreds of Rohingya Villagers from Homes—The Irrawaddy Hundreds of Rohingya villagers are facing a second night hiding in rice fields without shelter, after the army on Sunday forcibly removed them from a village in a crackdown following attacks on border security forces.

Diplomats to visit northern Arakan—DVB Senior diplomats from the United States, China, Britain and the European Union will this week visit Burma‘s troubled northern Arakan State, which has been cut off to aid workers and observers for more than three weeks, sources said.

Calls Grow for Access to Western Myanmar in Face of Military Lockdown—New York Times The security forces have trapped members of the Rohingya ethnic group, a stateless Muslim minority, and largely blocked aid deliveries, advocacy groups say.

Related: Govt Urged to Open Access to Arakan Conflict Zone—The Irrawaddy

Myanmar police to arm, train non-Muslims in conflict-torn region—Channel News Asia Myanmar police will begin arming and training non-Muslim residents in the troubled north of Rakhine State, where officials say militants from the Rohingya Muslim group pose a growing security threat, police and civilian officials said.//This seems like a very dangerous plan given the existing ethnic tensions in the region.

Report Links Increased Militarization and Drug Trade in Eastern Shan State—The Irrawaddy Data published by an ethnic Lahu civil society group indicates that the Burma Army plays a key role in regional opium trade.

First Group of Burmese Refugees in Thailand Repatriated—The Irrawaddy The first group of Burmese refugees sheltering in Thailand was repatriated by UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency, and Thai authorities.

New Investment Law Enacted—Thw Irrawaddy The long-awaited Myanmar Investment Law was signed into being by President U Htin Kyaw on Tuesday after both houses approved the bill earlier this month//Some have argued that the new investment law was drafted too hastily. A contributor to Earthrights International wrote, “The Law represents a missed opportunity to introduce an investment framework that decentralizes decision-making power over large-scale investment projects, and ensures that the voices of local communities affected by massive development projects are heard.”

With new budget, can Najib save his reputation?—Southeast Asia Globe Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is facing pressure over the state of the economy and international criticism over corruption allegations, appears to be using social welfare programmes in the government’s 2017 budget as a means to improve his tarnished reputation. However, the measures might be too little, too late

Duterte’s plan to revive Philippine democracy—New Mandala The Philippine president is working towards a constitutional amendment in favour of greater federalism and parliamentarism. Could this empower the country’s citizenry and strengthen democracy? And how does it fit in with Duterte’s controversial policies against drugs and crime? //Among many of the interesting points made here is that President Duterte is interested in decentralization in an effort to alleviate economic inequality and stem corruption, an agenda that was likely inspired by his experience as mayor of Davao City in Mindanao. 

Thai government wants Cambodia to extradite three Thais on lese majeste charges—Thai PBS Cambodia is “processing” a request from the Thai government for the extradition of three Thai citizens in Cambodia who are wanted on lese majeste charges

Thailand ‘making preparations’ for Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn to ascend throne on December 1—South China Morning Post Thailand is making preparations for Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn to ascend the throne on December 1

The Truth About Anti-Vietnam Sentiment in Cambodia—The Diplomat A closer look at a subject that often does not get enough sustained attention.

Related: Race to the bottom: how Cambodia’s opposition is targeting ethnic Vietnamese—Southeast Asia Globe

Rice farmers despair amid low prices—Bangkok Post Kneeling and sobbing before a top commerce ministry official, a Phichit farmer appealed to the government Sunday to help growers suffering from the fall in rice prices to 5,000 baht a tonne, the lowest level in decades.

Cambodia’s Ruling Party Hits Boycotting Lawmakers in the Pocketbook—RFA Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) plan to hit lawmakers boycotting the National Assembly in the wallet as they approved new rules that cut lawmakers pay if they refuse to show up.

Cambodia opposition leader officially banned from entering the country—Investvine In a severe blow to democracy and freedom of speech in Cambodia, opposition leader Sam Rainsy, head of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), has officially been exiled from the country in a move that contradicts domestic laws and violates.//Since the official exile of Sam Rainsy, the CNRP leader has stated that he still plans to return to Cambodia before the general election in 2018.

Cambodia’s latest game of cat and mouse—New Mandala With commune elections next year and the national election the year after, it is a bad time for fractures to be forming in the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).

Cambodia aims to export one million tonnes of rice to IndonesiaThai PBS Cambodia is about to sign very soon an agreement with Indonesia which will pave the way for the export of one million tonnes of rice under a new quota system

Trade deal to reduce tariffs with Vietnam—Phnom Penh Post Cambodia and Vietnam inked an agreement yesterday to drop import tariffs on dozens of products in an effort to boost bilateral trade.

Related: Vietnam: Can the Communist Party Keep Up With Market Reforms?—The Diplomat

Lao Villagers Barred From Asking Questions on Railway Project—RFA Lao villagers attending a meeting held to promote a controversial Lao-Chinese railway project were blocked from asking questions regarding compensation and where they will be moved when displaced from their land, sources in the Southeast Asian nation say.//A district official explained, “we were afraid that if we had let villagers ask questions are the meeting, we could not have given them any answers.” Hopefully answers will be available soon, since the report states that construction on the 265-mile railway is scheduled to begin in December.

This week’s news digest was curated by Gabriella Neusner with introduction by Brian Eyler. Photo: Fanny Potkin

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