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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.



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 Copies of the DVD can be ordered from  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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Review: Hun Sen’s Cambodia


It is now 36 years since the end of the Khmer Rouge regime that all but destroyed the Cambodian nation, decimated its most educated people, and reduced the country to year zero.

Amazingly, the young foreign minister who emerged from the debris in 1979 is still in power.

Hun Sen, then a gaunt-looking 27-year-old, was drafted from the obscurity of a Vietnamese camp for Cambodian dissidents and defectors to serve in the newly installed Heng Samrin government. His parents were poor rice farmers. He entered politics without any diplomas or degrees. From the world’s youngest foreign minister in 1979, he currently ranks as the region’s longest-serving prime minister.

Two years after the defeat of the Khmer Rouge regime,world's youngest foreign minister emerges from the genocidal darkness of the oppressive regime. Photo copyright: Tom Fawthrop

Two years after the defeat of the Khmer Rouge regime,world’s youngest foreign minister emerges from the genocidal darkness of the oppressive regime. Photo copyright: Tom Fawthrop


Hun Sen’s Cambodia by Sebastian Strangio, a former journalist with the Phnom Penh Post, helps to fill a number of historical gaps in charting the rise of Hun Sen through the 1980s to the 2013 elections. The young foreign minister was a fast learner. Appointed prime minister in 1985, Hun Sen soon boldly charted an end to the civil war. In 1989 he gave the country a new name — the State of Cambodia — as well as a new flag and constitution, and shrewdly paved the way for an eventual peace settlement in Paris.

Unfortunately, Strangio’s attempt to record recent Cambodian history is marred by an obsessive desire to view every topic through same prism: the legacy of UNTAC — the UN peacekeeping mission (1991-93). Also pervasive is the author’s conviction that in every field Cambodia’s achievements are nothing more than a “mirage.”

A confident Hun Sen already the prime minister ,dares to swim in a Kampot river in spite of Khmer Rouge insurgents still active less than  25km away.

A confident Hun Sen already the prime minister ,dares to swim in a Kampot river in spite of Khmer Rouge insurgents still active less than 25km away. Photo copyright: Tom Fawthrop

Cambodian Reform

Cambodia has clearly made great progress in the last 30 years.

The nation was reborn in the 1980s. Peace returned in 1999. Cambodia long ago lost its regular place on TV news as one of the world’s most dangerous war zones. The magic of the ancient temples of Angkor and the nation’s cultural revival now once again captivate visitors. Both tourism and the garments industry have fueled economic growth.

Moreover, Cambodia is less repressive than many ASEAN governments, including Thailand and its cycle of military coups. Yet, according to Strangio, multiparty elections offer only a “mirage of democracy.”

In Cambodia’s last election, Hun Sen’s ruling party suffered a stunning loss of 22 seats, with the united opposition coming in a strong second with 55 seats in a national parliament of 123 members.

It’s too soon to dub this a “Phnom Penh Spring,” but Cambodia’s political diversity is more than just a mirage, particularly in comparison to the long-serving prime ministerial reigns ofMahathir Mohamad in Malaysia (22 years) and Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew (31 years). Malaysia and Singapore have never tolerated the strikes, protest rallies, and vociferous opposition that are all welcome features of Cambodian political life.

Cambodia, according to Strangio, was the nation where the UN and Western aid lavished billions of dollars on peacekeeping, implanting liberal democracy and human rights. The author assumes that Cambodia could make a smooth and rapid transition from the genocide and cruel deprivation of the 1980s to a shining beacon of democracy today. Of course that fantasy has not happened. The author concludes that the ruthless intransigence of Hun Sen and his ruling party, abetted by a traditional Cambodian resilience to foreign mentors of all ideologies, thwarted the allegedly benign, well-meaning Western efforts since the end of the Cold War to create a democratic success story.

In so doing, the author fails to detect a “mirage” of a different nature that did not come from any Cambodian failures, but can be squarely laid at the door of Western nations sitting in the UN Security Council.

Flaws of Peacekeeping

The UNTAC peacekeeping operation has been widely hailed as a great success story that ended the Cambodia conflict and ushered in a putative new democracy.

The UN-run election in 1993 did help implant democracy in Cambodia. However, the author glosses over the failure of UN peacekeeping and Western nations to get rid of the Khmer Rouge bases sustained and supported by the Royal Thai Army in blatant violation of the 1991 Paris Peace treaty.

From 1993-1998, the Pol Pot nightmare continued to haunt the fragile new state. The Khmer Rouge still controlled the gem-rich border province of Pailin and Anlong Veng to the north. They still planted landmines and burned down remote villages that defied them.

The war continued because the United States, France, and the UK all gave a much higher priority to preserving their deep military and trading ties with Thailand than putting pressure on this important ally and its military to sever the supply lines to the outlawed Khmer Rouge.

It was an elected Cambodian government led by Hun Sen — and not the UN — that finally eliminated the Khmer Rouge insurgency. On this point the book accepts that many voters in the 2003 election felt relief the war was finally over and rewarded the government with a strong mandate. Having secured the peace where the UN had failed, Hun Sen reached the zenith of his popularity at home.

In 2003, I wrote that if Hun Sen had retired around this time, his achievements and his legacy would have outweighed his dark side. But since peace and stability returned to Cambodia, corruption and looting of natural resources have boomed, with the prime minister’s close associates as the main beneficiaries.

The book rightly points out that 20 years of Western aid has only spawned an aid-addicted dependency. But Hun Sen hardly invented crony capitalism, corrupt patronage, or the skimming off of foreign aid.

The World Bank’s neoliberal development model of sweeping privatization and starving the public sector of any significant aid has also encouraged or tolerated cronyism in the scramble over newly privatized assets and the mass eviction of the urban poor. The opposition has failed to offer a real alternative to Hun Sen’s adoption of the neoliberal model of development designed by the World Bank. Neither side has come up with policies that could narrow the yawning gap between rich and poor.

Hun Sen must take a lot of responsibility for the ugly side of Cambodian development. But the book’s depiction of Western government aid as always benign and benevolent suffers from a lack of critical questioning.

Transitional Justice

Strangio dismisses the landmark trial of a few surviving leaders from the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime — Asia’s first case of international justice — as just another deception.

But the complex UN-backed tribunal brought together local and international lawyers and judges based on a UN partnership with the Cambodian authorities. Many cynics predicted that the trial would never take place. Whatever the shortcomings of this legal process, millions of Cambodians belatedly experienced a very real justice. They finally saw Pol Pot’s chief accomplices held to account, given a fair trial, and convicted of crimes against humanity.

According to UN legal expert Lars Olsen, Cambodian participation in the process exceeded that for all previous international justice courts. In addition to the 500 Cambodians who filled the public gallery day after day, they also participated as victims and litigants known as “civil parties.” Most victims have expressed some satisfaction that the tribunal brought a sense of accountability, closure, and justice.

That Cambodia was brave enough to face its tragic history should alone command international respect. Indonesia is still afraid to document and investigate the skulls in its own cupboard: the massive bloodbath in 1965-66, with an estimated 900,000 dead, and the subsequent atrocities in East Timor.

If the United States and its allies had not helped the Khmer Rouge hang on to Cambodia’s seat in the UN General Assembly and blocked the credentials of the Heng Samrin government, this genocide tribunal could have taken place more than 25 years ago, as Hun Sen proposed in 1986. As it is, the ongoing tribunal is a case of far better late than never.

Why has Hun Sen, a leader from such humble origins, subsequently turned his back on the poor majority of Cambodians and their cry for land and justice? What kind of egomania has driven him to want to remain prime minister until the age of 72?

Strangio should have put these questions to Hun Sen in an interview.

Yet despite five years of commendable research, Strangio’s book doesn’t rely on any interviews with his prime subject. So we never get any of the answers that might have truly illuminated Hun Sen’s character, or any deeper insights in why he has chosen the path of electorally sanctioned authoritarianism and feudal-style patronage — a hallmark of the 1960s under the rule of Prince Norodom Sihanouk.

Tom Fawthrop is a frequent contributor to ExSE.  He directed a Cambodian film Dreams and Nightmares broadcast on UK Channel 4 in 1989 and has interviewed Hun Sen on three occasions. He is also co-author of the book ‘ Getting away with Genocide?”  Pluto Books 2004.

This review was originally posted here on the FPIF website on February 15, 2015 and is reposted with the permission of the author.  

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Fire, Spirits and Ritual Self-Injury in Phuket: The Vegetarian Festival

Photograph by Amy Devlin (2013).

Fireworks explode in a loud cascade in the middle of the street, but no one flinches. I watch as a young barefooted man passes me – a pair of guns are impaled in his face, the barrels poking into the open flesh of his cheeks and out of his open mouth. He’s dressed in a black costume embroidered with Chinese symbols.

He is a mah song, a spirit medium, and he’s not the only one. Throngs of men and women are parading down the street, with metal skewers, needles, and even weapons inserted into their cheeks, arms, torsos and elsewhere on their bodies. They are in trances – their heads are twitching rhythmically, eyes rolled back, and their hands are clenched. Groups of devotees reverently carry statues of the gods. As far as the eye can see, everyone is clad in white. Continue reading

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Book: The Great Game – The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia

The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia

Peter Hopkirk (Kodansha International, 1992)


In recent years, there’s been talk of a new Great Game being played out over the oil-rich steppes of Central Asia. Where the oil and natural gas from countries like Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan will flow has been a matter of great debate between China and Russia as both try to spread and use their influence in these former Soviet Republics. This talk of a new Great Game piqued my interest not only in the current resource battles being waged, but more in the original Great Game – the century-long struggle between czarist Russia and Great Britain over Central Asian supremacy. To better familiarize myself with the subject, I read The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia by Middle East and Central Asia expert Peter Hopkirk.

The Great Game has many strengths, Hopkirk’s masterful writing being the highlight. All too often in histories, the author can get bogged down in minute details and the book, despite being well-researched, fails to interest the reader. This is hardly the case in The Great Game. In many places, the book reads like an adventure novel, keeping the reader fully engrossed in the story. Hopkirk’s writing makes the officers and officials on both sides of the struggle come alive not just as players of the Game, but as heroes that I found myself rooting for as they attempted to overcome natural and man-made challenges.

Much of Hopkirk’s great writing stems from his superb research. The author seamlessly incorporates dozens of primary sources, including the diaries and memoirs of many of the Great Game’s players. The reader is fortunate that Hopkirk has done his homework on the whole of the Game; the earliest years in the Karakoram are just as well-researched as the last stages of the struggle. The depth of knowledge that the author has on the subject is impressive and it shows in his writing. Combined with an almost literary style, The Great Game makes for an informative and enjoyable read.

That is not to say, however, that the book is without its faults. Most obvious is Hopkirk’s bias towards Great Britain in his depiction of the Game. Large swaths of the book are taken up by stories of British adventurers and officials that can often leave the reader wondering what the Russians were doing at the time. This is not to say that Russia is ignored in this history, far from it. However, accounts of British exploits are on the whole better researched and certainly more deep and colorful in their descriptions. This may not betray a bias in Hopkirk’s sentiments, but more a bias in the available documents. A quick glance at the bibliography shows a wealth of British sources compared to Russian ones. The gap is especially large when only looking at primary source material. That Hopkirk’s native language is English and that the book was written in 1990, at a time when Soviet archives might not have been accessible, makes the lack of Russian sources understandable, but no less regrettable.

Another area that sticks out to the reader is the very Eurocentricity of the account. While the Great Game was primarily a contest between Russia and Great Britain, with the Persians as nervous onlookers, the playing field was neither the British Isles nor the Russian steppe. Instead it was contested in the mountains of modern day Afghanistan and Pakistan and the deserts of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. The author does a superb job of portraying the heroes of the Great Game and in this perhaps he is unparalleled. But this period of imperialism involved more than just a few dozen Russian and British officers. There were countless emirs, officials and citizens in places like Khiva, Bokhara, and Kabul that felt the effects of the Game’s twists and turns much more intensely than those in Moscow and London. Indeed, it can be argued that the Great Game more significantly changed the fates of the nations that were invaded by the imperial powers than those of British and Russia themselves. As an example, the kingdoms of Khiva, Bokhara, Kokhand and Tashkent were subsumed into the Russian Empire as a result of the Game and were not independent again until the collapse of the Soviet Union, emerging as Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan

Because much of what Hopkirk presents to the reader about these territories are only gleaned from Russian and British sources, one is left guessing as to what, for example, the Khivans thought as the Russians finally broke down the walls to their supposedly impenetrable city. What did the citizens of Hunza, high in the mountains of modern-day northeast Pakistan, think as the British fought their way into their kingdom? How did Russia building a railroad across their newly won colonies in Central Asia affect the lives of the herders there? These are questions that are left unanswered. There is undoubtedly a lack of primary source material that could answer these questions, but there is also a lack of curiosity in their answers. Hopkirk’s account focuses only on the great empires and the men who created them through force of arms, not on those whose lands were taken in name of spreading Christianity, opening new markets for European traders and creating buffer states to protect existing colonies. These passive players of the Great Game far outnumber the colonial heroes, but their story is not told, and rarely considered. From this view, The Great Game follows a long tradition of histories that, despite their meticulous research, lack a truly full perspective. Colonialism and imperialism are brutal, often one-sided affairs, but that does not mean their histories have to be as well.

Despite these shortcomings of perspective, The Great Game remains a book that is necessary for anyone looking to understand this period in the history of imperialism. Peter Hopkirk’s narrative is as engrossing as it is informative and gives the reader insights into the motives and outcomes on both the Russian and British sides. Most importantly  by reading The Great Game, students of the past and and watchers of the present can better understand the ‘new Great Game,’ no matter which it is played.


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Book: The Mekong – Turbulent Past, Uncertain Future

The Mekong: Turbulent Past, Uncertain Future

Milton Osborne (Grove Press, 2000)


The Mekong, Turbulent Past, Uncertain Future, by Milton Osborne is a critical introduction to the history, geography, and a slate of current issues facing the Mekong River basin.  Despite being written in 1999, the book is a must read for those looking for a primer to the myriad issues challenging the region.  Those more familiar with the Mekong region will find interest in the anecdotal observations of locations like Luang Prabang and Phnom Penh by locals and outsiders through the centuries as well as the personal perspectives of the Milton Osborne himself, a seminal authority on the Mekong and Southeast Asia.  PLUS, any book that begins with a description of drinking Beer Lao along the Mekong must be a good one.

Weaving the 2000 year history of a river and those living in its watershed into a 300 page narrative is no small task.  As a basic approach, Osborne selects contemporary themes prevalent to the region such as violent exploitation by outside groups, biodiversity losses, the protection of local and indigenous cultures, and the establishment of independent state and regionalism.  He then searches for the roots of these themes in both the historical record and contemporary experience.  The composite product is a rich chronology that begins with the rise and fall of classic empires like Angkor Wat, transitions to the exploits of the European Colonials up the river as they search for a river road to China, and finally pits emerging Mekong states in a battle with a contemporary rising China over the Mekong’s abundant endowment of resources.  The book by no means is a local history, but rather one of an outsider looking in, a familiar and recurrent theme utilized by Osborne to connect with his English speaking audience.

Part I of the book begins with the 13th century reflections of Chou Ta-kuan who made the only written documentation of the great Khmer kingdom at Angkor.  Chou’s observations, calling the Khmer “a coarse people, ugly and deeply sunburnt,” reveal prejudices of the hegemonic Chinese empire toward lesser and classic rice cultivating states to the south.  This reminds the reader at once of similar prejudices European colonials held toward Asians as well as the prevalent chauvinism that modern day Chinese often show toward their southern neighbors.  Osborne’s description of the Khmer empire highlights the critical linkage of the seasonal ebb and flow of the Mekong watershed’s Tonle Sap lake to sustaining the life of a historically unprecedented empire.  He accurately portrays that this natural phenomena of yearly flooding along the Mekong and its tributaries serves as lifeline to the abundance of fish species that nearly 60 million people rely on for sustenance in contemporary times.

The book excels as a historical narrative as Osborne introduces the steady stream of European influence over the region starting with exploits of the Portuguese and Spanish in the 16th century and then, across a few of the books chapters, giving a detailed account of a 19th century failed French exploratory mission to find a way to navigate the river from its delta at the sea to upstream into China.  At the time of the book’s writing in 1999, Chinese engineers were blasting rapids in the upper reaches of the Mekong near the Golden Triangle to open trade river trade between China and Thailand, so the river exploration theme may have seemed more relevant then than now.  Yet even today local communities struggle to cope with the costs of foreign investment and imposed development practices.  The story of the not-so-successful Lagree-Garnier mission of the late 1850s reveals hubris of the French who discovered, at great cost of human life, that the river could not be used as a trade route to China.  Yet their meticulously recorded 15-month expedition produced the region’s first accurate topographic map, and picturesque illustrations by the expeditions’ engraver, Louis DelaPorte detail the dynamic cornucopia of human culture that was found then (and still exists) along the course of the Mekong.

In Part II, Osborne tells of the political and social upheaval of the Mekong region of the 20th century through his own experiences and those of his friends and colleagues, some of whom met a violent end in the decades of Cold War conflicts that plagued Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.  Arriving in Phnom Penh in 1959 on assignment by the Australian government, Osborn tells how he once (like many Southeast Asian leaders today) was excited about the prospects of the US’s plans to dam the Mekong.   Through first-hand, detailed accounts he portrays how the Vietnam War and the Cambodian conflict put an end to American sponsored hydropower cascades on the river.  This portion of the book also introduces readers not so familiar with the Vietnam War, the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and the US’s Secret War with Laos to key events, political leaders, and suggests literature for further reading.

The irony of Part III, an exposition on future concerns toward the Mekong, is although it was written 14 years ago, so little has changed of the rhetoric and concern towards the future of the Mekong.  Much of this portion is spent discussing the details and impacts of China’s dams on the Mekong on downstream fisheries and communities – a theme that still pervades the current literature on Mekong issues.  This suggests little progress has been made on issues that were not only apparent in the mid-1990s, but in retrospect, apparent in the 1950s when the US planned to dam the Mekong.  Osborne discusses the lack of political gravitas displayed by the Mekong River Commission, the coordinating body responsible for the river’s maintenance and development made up of the four lower basin member states of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.   He introduces salinization of the Mekong Delta and the potential costs that will be burdened by local communities through increases of regional transportation infrastructure such as highways and bridges built across the Mekong for the purpose of trade facilitation.  Most Mekong scholars would agree that the circumstances surrounding these key contemporary issues have only worsened since the time of the book’s writing.

The Mekong: Turbulent Past, Troubled Future is a must read and good starting point for all students of the Mekong and its narrative is as significant now as it was in 2000 at the time of its publishing.  More importantly, the book leads the reader to more exhaustive texts like the Cambridge History of Southeast Asia and sets the reader to explore a widening pathway of issues developing in the Mekong basin.  The book also serves as an excellent travel companion for those backpacking through the region.  Travelers will be surprised to see how much the urban spaces, like Phnom Penh, Jinghong, and Dali described in the book by its various characters throughout the centers have changed and enticed by how much cultural cores, like sleepy Luang Prabang, have not.

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Art Exhibition: Yin Xiuzhen, Nowhere to Land (Pace Beijing)


It’s a microcosm of how rapid consumer-driven development has taken root in modern China: 798 Art District, once an esoteric artists’ enclave on the fringes of the city, has emerged as a prime tourist destination in Beijing, replete with international galleries.  Fashioned from a former military factory complex from the Mao era, industrial Bauhaus-inspired spaces serve as stark galleries for an array of contemporary Chinese artists.

Among these, the name of Pace Gallery may ring a familiar bell – earlier this summer, their sister gallery in NYC made a splash when Jay-Z rapped for six hours as part of a performance art piece.

In slightly more subdued fashion – but no less telling for the times – the irregular arches of Pace Gallery Beijing make a striking backdrop for Chinese artist Yin Xiuzhen’s current exhibition. In evoking the human aspects of globalization, Nowhere to Land is especially timely in the dynamic Chinese context, and Yin’s work gives a compelling account of what the view from inside the seismic changes of the country might look like.

Yin (b. 1963), a true Beijing native, presumably bears the perfect vantage point from which to witness the massive Chinese economic transformation. Since graduating from Capital Normal University in Beijing in 1989 with a B.A. in oil painting, the artist’s work has been featured internationally. Recent exhibitions include solo showings at the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands (2012) and New York’s MoMA (2010), as well as a smattering of group exhibitions in cities across the world, including Moscow, Shanghai, Venice, Sydney, Sao Paolo and San Francisco.

Yin’s work is all about the art of looking and deciphering. Incorporating homely, intimate and personal items into larger constructions, she emphasizes the superficial qualities of what seem at first impression to be straightforward sculptures. And in doing so, she problematizes the underlying assumptions behind glossy Chinese narratives of progress and globalization.

Yin Xiuzhen 2012_Nowhere-to-land

Yin Xiuzhen. Nowhere to Land. 2012. Mixed media.
Image courtesy of Pace Gallery. Continue reading

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The 3rd Annual ICIRD Conference, Part II

Previously, I introduced ICIRD 2013, a Bangkok-based conference exploring issues of development, greater economic integration, and the idea of the regional commons. This blog post will delve more deeply into the background of the commons, an alternative way of organizing public goods that circumvents the hungry advance of neoliberal globalization. 

By way of illustrating, one of the most pressing current issues surrounds the Mekong River, the classic example of a regional – and transboundary – commons in Southeast Asia. Crossing six countries, laden with social and historical significance, and layered with overlapping claims and uses, millions depend on its shared resources, while growing hydropower development threatens large-scale devastation and destruction of riparian ecosystems. But forms of the commons can range in scale from municipal parks and shared community fishing sites along river banks, to oceans and digital commons on the far end.

The Commons as Social and Historical

Certainly in the context of greater regional integration augured by the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), the concept of the commons becomes an increasingly important, if imperiled, way of organizing assets and resources within communities. Introducing the Focus on the Global South Round Table I, Shalmali Guttal offered the following definition of the commons: it is a collection of assets that are actively managed for the good of the collective and should be accessible by everyone. They include not only natural and physical resources, but social, cultural, political (e.g., concepts like justice) and intellectual wealth as well.

But that’s not all that the concept offers: there can be no commons without a certain type of social relations based on sharing. It’s important to remember that the commons are entwined within the history of Southeast Asia, just as its growing commodification is embedded within the larger context of globalization. As Dr. Victor Savage (National University of Singapore) mentioned in an earlier panel, historically the Southeast Asian region has lacked traditional notions of private land ownership. Here, instead, usufruct rights guaranteed the rights of access for communities, and the commons functioned as safety net and social insurance.

But over time, as  Dr. Walden Bello (Member of the Philippines’ House of Representatives) reviewed, the transition to capitalism became inextricable from the plunder of non-Western societies, in a process that continues even now. He argued, for example, that the ADB and World Bank are central in enforcing ideologies of private property and codes to delegitimize communal traditions.

The tension between these divergent worldviews, one based upon the primacy of private property and the other upon the social relations upholding the commons, is ultimately not about choosing between a given set of choices, but rather about entire ideological frameworks brought together in one current, historically-informed confrontation.

Resistance and Alternatives

Pervasive throughout the ICIRD panels was the idea that everywhere the commons are being threatened by a neoliberal logic that seeks its enclosure and commercialization. The growing commodification of nature makes itself readily felt in the rise of issues like land grabbing, water privatization, and rampant hydropower development in the region, all of which were repeatedly raised in the course of the conference.

Neoliberalism, in Dr. Bello’s account, lost much of its legitimacy, due in part to the role of research organizations and scholars who documented its high human costs, as well as the internal crises of neoliberalism, erupting spectacularly in the Asian financial crisis of 1997 and the global crisis in 2008. He argues that while neoliberalism has been largely discredited, the lack of alternative paradigms means that it remains a source of default strategies for technocrats.

It may be partially true that business as usual continues for lack of other competing visions. But power also incentivizes its own perpetuation. And raising alternative possibilities is one way to counter the naturalization and legitimacy of dominant neoliberal globalization as it is taking place.

In seeking alternative forms of state-community relationships, it makes sense to step back from the lens of the nation-state. Yong Ming Li’s presentation (subtitled “Seeing like a chao baan/neak tonle,” in reference to James C. Scott’s seminal tome) offers one such narrative. By shifting down to the scale of the local, social-natural relations take on a new centrality that includes “a multiplicity of grounded perspectives and practices from the chao baan (villagers) of Chiang Khong, Thailand and the neak tonle (villagers living on the Tonle Sap lake)” (from ICIRD paper abstract). These social-natural relationships defy conceptualization based solely on market relations with nature.

The role of the research and academic communities seems clear – to keep giving voice to critical analyses of the changes taking place in the region and what’s at stake. To illustrate, the “Encouraging Green Growth in Thailand” forum was based on the appealing premise that “green economies will lead to higher resource efficiency, and investments in green innovation will benefit green pioneers with new markets, higher productivity, and human capital development” (from panel summary). Yet the forum ended in a robust debate about whether green growth (with its undeniable focus on growth) represents merely another reconfiguration of capitalism being pushed towards a new frontier.

Ultimately, as former Philippines Senator Dr. Orlando S. Mercado (who holds the distinction of being the first permanent representative of the country to ASEAN) told me after the Focus panel:

“We have to struggle to have our voices heard. But we should not only just be making our voices heard. We have to be able to move within the system to affect changes by taking advantage of various crises that erupt. To me, as a scholar interested in disaster mis-management, I feel that the cause of protecting the commons is served very well by making sure that each crisis, each disaster, each calamity, is taken advantage of to show that there must be people championing the cause of those who are adversely affected by its lack of management and the privatization that is ongoing as a consequence of economic development – all on the altar of creating a community that is ‘prosperous’.”


Filed under ASEAN, China, Current Events, Economic development, Environment and sustainability, Governance, Mekong River, Reviews, SLIDER, Thailand, water

Book: River of Lost Footsteps

River of Lost Footsteps

Thant Myint-U (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Since the beginning of political and economic reforms in 2010, Burma has become a regular topic inthe news. Anyone who regular reads publications like the New York Times or the Economist would beable to consider themselves relatively well-informed about the rapidly changing situation in the Golden Land. However, much of the coverage of Burma is often ahistorical, and there is little public discussion about Burma before 2010, let alone before Aung San Suu Kyi. In River of Lost Footsteps, Thant Myint-U provides a detailed history of Burma over the past four centuries, all the while weaving in the story of his own family in Burma.

Indeed, Thant Myint-U is uniquely positioned to write such a history. Born in New York, his grandfather U Thant was the Secretary-General of the UN in the 1960s. Educated at Harvard, the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies and Cambridge, the author has lectured extensively on Asian and British imperial history. In the book, his mastery of the subject is quite evident, but also is a certain objectivity. Being Burmese himself and having spent summers there while growing up, he has an obvious intimacy with the country and passion for it but at the same time, he lacks the nationalistic bias that some native Burmese writers might carry. Continue reading

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Filed under Cold War, Current Events, Foreign policy, Governance, Myanmar/Burma, Reviews