Category Archives: Thailand

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.


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

The best of Thailand’s PM Prayuth Chan-Ocha, a true April Fool

Gen. Prayuth: Taking aim at the haters

Gen. Prayuth: Taking aim at the haters

Yesterday, Thai government officials announced that starting next month, officials other than Thailand’s Prime Minister, General Prayuth Chan-Ocha, would be giving weekly press conferences to make sure the media “accurately” covers the government’s actions.

Gen. Prayuth commented: “We want to explain to media, and we want to create understanding between the state and the media to avoid any mistakes.” The mistakes and verbal gaffes indeed have been many and if the military junta wasn’t so repressive, he actually might be a funny PM. In honor of April Fool’s Day (we didn’t want to scare anyone with fake news of PLA jets bombing Naypidaw or something of that sort), we’re giving you a list of ExSE’s favorite quotes from a true April Fool, Gen. Prayuth. Without further ado…

Letting you know that he’s hip with the youth and a proponent of culture, Gen. Prayuth even has ideas on how to improve Thai soap operas:

“I have ordered that scripts be written, including plays on reconciliation, on tourism and on Thai culture,” Prayuth told reporters. “They are writing plots at the moment and if they can’t finish it I will write it myself,” he said of a team of government-appointed writers.

Thai PM bemoans divisive soap operas, offers to write better ones“, Reuters, September 26, 2014

To make sure Thailand remains the ‘Land of a Million Smiles’, the junta has cracked down on political dissent and discussion. In giving his reasoning for the crackdown, Gen. Prayuth quipped:

“Please understand that I don’t come from an election. I’m well aware of that. So please put on hold all political criticism and forums on politics,” said the prime minister, who came to administrative power through a military coup on May 22.

‘Unelected’ Prayut warns against political forums“, Bangkok Post, September 19, 2014

After two British tourists were murdered, Gen. Prayuth wanted to make sure that the Thai authorities were taking the case seriously, or at least make it look like they did. But you can guess what happened…

“There are always problems with tourist safety. They think our country is beautiful and is safe so they can do whatever they want, they can wear bikinis and walk everywhere,” Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who is also the army chief, told government officials. But “can they be safe in bikinis… unless they are not beautiful?” he said, addressing the issue of tourist safety in a speech broadcast live on television.

Thai PM questions if ‘tourists in bikinis’ safe after murders“, AFP, September 17, 2014

In one of his most notorious statements, Gen. Prayuth admits that there may be more than one of him:

“He was referring to the media’s suggestions for him to try to improve his personality. “I would like to thank [the media] for warning and suggestions. I won’t change my personality because I am a person with multiple personalities,” Prayut said.

Prayut admits he has ‘multiple personalities’“, The Nation, November 3, 2014

Last but not least, it looks like the good ole General has some thoughts about truth and journalism. When asked by reporters what the government would do with journalists who didn’t support the official line, Prayuth, without smiling, replied:

“We’ll probably just execute them

We’ll probably kill journalists who don’t report the truth, says Thai leader, Reuters, March 25, 2015

Leave a Comment

Filed under Current Events, SLIDER, Thailand

Meet the Salween


I heard the name “Salween” before. I didn’t know exactly where it is. I knew it was somewhere close.

Somehow its name portrays a feeling of fearless turbulence. Perhaps, it’s the sound of “S” and the rhyme between “ween” and a Thai word “wian” from the word “wonwian” meaning lingering and wandering which makes me think of the word “namwon” meaning whirlpool.

There is a legend about the two great sister rivers of Southeast Asia: the Salween and the Mekong.

And this is how the story goes:

One day, the two rivers decided to go to sea. They agreed to travel through the mountains together and stopped whenever they wanted to. The Mekong slowly spanned its waterline through the landscape while the Salween hurried its way to claim the frontline.

After rushing ahead, the Salween decided to stop for a quick nap to wait for the Mekong. Days passed and the Mekong was still absent. The Salween thought the Mekong took a chance when it was sleeping to get ahead—to be the first to see the ocean. Angry and feeling betrayed, the Salween rushed through the channels and aimed to destroy any rock that stood in its way. Its wild speed was felt by those living nearby. The Mekong, on the other end, finally arrived at where the Salween was napping. Not seeing its younger sibling did not push it to move any faster. The Mekong continued to crawl and collect waters along the way; it even went off-route to carry fish and water into Tonle Sap before it finally reached the sea.

It is said that many communities believe in this story, though I have only heard it from two people. The anecdote may vary. Though it does resemble the turtle and the hare tale, but stories and legends are much better tools to narrate and describe the difference between the two.

Perhaps, it is the Salween’s anger that makes it the last free flowing river in China and Southeast Asia until 2015.

The Salween is originated from the marshland in the Himalayan Plateau—the same glacial area where the Mekong and the Brahmaputra start their mightiness. It travels over 2,200 kilometres through southwest China, Thailand, and Myanmar. Most of the areas it nourishes are occupied by ethnic indigenous communities. In Yunnan alone, the Nu River  (as the Chinese called the upper Salween) feeds at least 22 ethnic groups. The same reality applies to downstream communities at the border between Thailand and Myanmar and major ethnic states in Myanmar (where Burmese names it “Thanlwin”). I remember someone told me that the Salween’s turbulence is reflected by perpetual ethnic tension in the most recent open country of ASEAN.

The plan to dam the free flowing Salween is not new. 13 cascade dams for the Nu River were proposed in 2003 as part of China’s 10th Five Year Plan. Chinese environmentalists immediately called the government to halt the project. Their voices were listened, but the hiatus is now over and the proposed 13 hydropower projects are back on the table.

Thailand’s eyes on damming Myanmar’s Thanlwin/Salween is also not new. Nearly ten years ago, Thai environmentalists became aware of 7,110 MW Ta Sang Hydropower Project, a Thai national dam at the cost of Burmese environment. The news of Ta Sang Dam has been silent but a recent loosely done EIA report and signed MOA for the 1,360 MW Hat Gyi Dam prove that the intention isn’t going away.

7 is the number of proposed dams on the Thanlwin/Salween. Over 20,700 MW will be generated to Thailand and China. The newly built transmission lines that would come with the new dams would gracefully pass over the electricity and wealth to Myanmar’s neighboring countries. Its people would have to look up to the electricity they are not entitled to use while watching their houses and livelihoods inundated by the reservoir.

But the real battle has only started. In June, 2014 Myanmar government switched on the green light for Chinese Hanergy Holding Group Company to tackle its hydropower project in Shan State. Kunlong Dam will stand tall to hold back the Salween while producing 1,400 MW of electricity to be sent back to China.

Large-scale hydropower projects—along with many other environmentally and socially detrimental projects—never prove beneficial to local communities. “The few should sacrifice for the many” is the excuse project proponents always use to dignify their grand prize. However, in this case, “the few” we’re talking here isn’t small in number but their political voice and power to decide how and who would control the river they rely on.

“We call the Thanlwin, ‘the River of Peace’” said Ko Ye, an activist from Dawei who has been fighting against Thailand-proposed mega development project in his hometown. “Because if this river is dammed or falls under one group’s control, the ethnic war in Myanmar will never stop.


Filed under China, Current Events, Economic development, Energy, Environment and sustainability, ethnic policy, Mekong River, Myanmar/Burma, SLIDER, Sustainability and Resource Management, Thailand, water, Yunnan Province

South Thailand’s Muslim Insurgency is not Global Jihad

solider guarding Muslims

A Thai soldier guards a group of Muslims during prayer. Photo courtesy of The Nation.


In the early morning of January 4, 2004, a group of armed men raided an army depot at the Rajanakarin Camp in the southern Thai province of Narathiwat. They walked away with hundreds of military-grade weapons, and left four Thai soldiers dead in their wake. Around the same time, arsonists set alight 20 provincial schools and two unmanned police posts. A series of similar incidents followed in neighboring Yala and Pattani provinces, prompting then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to declare martial law in volatile areas within Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat—on top of his already high-handed brutality in the region.

Further angered and suppressed, belligerents in this area escalated violence to new intensities. At the core of this conflict is a separatist movement active among the Thai Malay Muslim community since the 1960s. While the term “Malay” refers only to an Austronesian ethnic group, ethnic Malay identity cannot be divorced from Malay traditions, Malay language, or adherence to Islam. This has pitted Malay identity in direct competition with the Thai identity cultivated under King Bhumibol Adulyadej. This conflict of identity and consequent alienation from the Thai community has prompted violence to erupt in Thailand’s majority Muslim southern provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat, collectively referred to as Patani.

Since a renewed surge of violence in 2004, the South Thailand Insurgency, as it is know, has incurred over 6,000 fatalities and over 11,000 injuries and has significantly impeded development in the region. The Thai state, meanwhile, refuses to acknowledge the ethno-national and ethno-political grievances at the heart of the conflict, hindering an effective solution to the violence and prompting international organizations—including the Malaysian government and the United Nations Development Programme—to become increasingly involved in the problem-solving effort. Effective dialogue between belligerents and the Thai state is the only way to resolve the South Thailand Insurgency, but this will remain out of the realm of possibilities if Thailand continues to deny the identity issues fueling this conflict.

Patani map

Map of Patani region. Source:

Patani Region

Patani is a historical region located on the northern part of the Malay peninsula. In the modern day, this region is transnational: Patani includes the southern Thai provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat, and parts of Songkhla, as well as the Malaysian state of Kelantan.

Patani was an independent Muslim city-state until the sixteenth century when it became a vassal state of Siam, and came under increasingly direct Siamese rule during the Sukhothai and Ayuthaya periods. Following resistance and a series of rebellions in response to this shift, Patani fractured into seven separate regions. These seven regions existed until the Bangkok Treaty of 1909, in which the British (who at that time controlled Malaysia and were creeping northwards) acknowledged Thailand’s sovereignty over the seven regions of Patani. In return, Thailand relinquished the southern territory of Kelantan to British control. By 1933, Thailand had consolidated the seven Patani regions and renamed them Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat. Today, the Patani region is home to roughly 1.8 million Thai citizens, 80 percent of whom are Muslim. The remaining 20 percent are almost all Thai or Sino-Thai Buddhists.


Rise of “Nation, Religion, King”

In the post-colonial, increasingly globalized world, the Thai monarchy saw the need to reinvent itself for the modern era. In the process of reinventing the monarchy, King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s relationship with the monastic community of ordained Buddhist monks—the sangha—became intertwined with the prosperity of the nation. Thus, the role of the sangha was given a national component, and became integral to a healthy state of internal affairs. In later years, King Bhumibol was emboldened to transform the sangha. Guiding Bhumibol in this process was Vajiravudh (Rama VI)’s three pillars of nation, religion, and king. These pillars linked King Bhumibol inextricably to the nation through religion, and served to strengthen the king’s intertwinement with the sangha. In practice, the pillars meant that Buddhism was to facilitate the deification of King Bhumibol. Accordingly, a variety of rituals and holy days were presided over by the king, and royally endorsed public works projects were under taken in the countryside. Rural temples, controlled by the sangha and hence the king, became a link between the village and the national consciousness, thus providing the Thai people with a common experience with king, and laying the framework for a common Thai identity.


“Thainess” vs. “Otherness”

A standardized practice of Theravada Buddhism, in other words, has historically been employed as the ideological underpinning for the civilization and unification of all Thais. It was not just the practice of Buddhism that was standardized, but also the ethnic composition of its adherents. Promotion of the Thai language, too, was used to standardize Buddhist practices. This standardization provided a specific group of people within Thailand’s borders with a collective goal and a common sense of duty towards the advancement of the nation. The goal was to “make them realize [that they belong to] the same nation, religion and king, pledging loyalty to the king and the nation as their refuge and worship Buddhism.” A Thai identity based in these precepts resulted. This is known as “Thainess.”

It is the standardization of the sangha that has facilitated the construction of otherness. Confronted with globalization and modernity, Western notions of nationhood and rigid borders began to change the Thai attitude on who is entitled to benefit from the state. In order to determine this, an identity binary developed: “Thainess” arose situated opposite to “otherness.” Thainess is defined by a collective duty to Vajiravudh’s three pillars as previously discussed, and holds little in common with Western notions of individualized national identity. This group alone is allowed to benefit from the Thai state.

“Otherness,” by contrast, encompasses everything Thainess is not. Because the three pillars define the Thai conception of nationhood, any deviation from these three pillars disqualifies an individual or group from integrating to and benefiting from Thai society. The South Thailand Insurgency is one particularly aggressive response to this identity binary. In southern Thailand, Malay Muslims cannot integrate because they do not practice Buddhism; those who do not practice Buddhism are not viewed as Thai. Simply put, to be a part of Thailand is to be quintessentially Buddhist. Standardization has changed meaning of religion from one of personal choice to that of identity signifier.

A Thai soldier guards a Buddhist monk as he collects alms. Photo courtesy of USA Today.

A Thai soldier guards a Buddhist monk as he collects alms. Photo courtesy of USA Today.

The effects of otherness extend beyond the inability to integrate into Thai society: otherness is often viewed as a threat to national stability. King Bhumibol has cultivated a sense of fear and animosity towards those who do not identify with the three pillars, and has convinced each individual Thai that his or her fate is tied up with the state, and that the state’s fate is tied to the monarchy. If the monarchy falls, Thai prosperity will falter. This common understanding has provided the monarchy with masses directly aligned with its ideology, thus protecting the monarchy from threats of otherness. The South Thailand Insurgency attests to the lengths to which many Thais are willing to go to protect their monarchy—the foundation of their identity—and to prevent the fracture of the state. This conflict is also a testament to the difficulty of building a national identity in Thailand—the process is hindered by porous borders, multiple ethnic minorities and religions, and a complicated citizenship process. This means that language spoken, religion practices, and ethnicity do not line up as the Thai state insists they do.


Conflict Overview

Many consider the current violence in the “Deep South” to be a renewed version of the older liberation struggle of the 1960s and 1970s, which itself was a reaction to Thai state control. Lack of state legitimacy due to rigid ethnic identifiers then as well as now is at the core of the conflict. King Bhumibol’s continued standardization policies and centralization of the Thai state have alienated those who do not subscribe to the “nation, religion, king” trifecta, resulting in a “legitimacy deficit” of the Thai government in minority regions. In Patani, Bhumibol’s policies have transformed Patani’s political and Islamic educational and legal structures into a “quintessentially Thai” system. Because Malay Muslims in this region cannot identify themselves within this structure, grievances and resistance movements have materialized to address the government’s failure to provide Malay Muslims with a niche in Thai society.

Grievances are brought to the attention of the Thai state by a number of Patani liberation movements, with most fighting carried out by small groups of fighters consisting of young men aged 17 to 25. Violence occurs in open areas during the day, and takes the form of drive-by shootings or bombings, and sometimes larger, organized attacks. This has meant that most casualties are civilians. The most active groups are the BRN-C (BarisanRevolusiNasional-Koordinasi), its alleged armed wing the RKK (Runda Kumpulan Kecil), the GMIP (Gerakan Mujahidin Islam Patani), the BBMP (BarisanBersatu Mujahidin Patani), and the PULO (Patani United Liberation Organization). As opposed to the conflict of the ‘60s and ‘70s in which insurgent groups were sharply divided, today’s insurgent groups share a common Islamist agenda, ideology, and goals. Above all, the liberations movements demand the creation of a Malay Muslim state separate from the rest of Thailand. This united front has made the modern iteration of the conflict more difficult to fracture and quell than the last.

 Destruction in Patani. Photo courtesy of The Christian Science Monitor

Destruction in Patani. Photo courtesy of The Christian Science Monitor

Following the 2004 raid on the Rajanakarin Camp depot, violence in the three southernmost provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat has increased dramatically. The 2004 Krue Se and TakBai incidents have become synonymous with the recent resurgence in violence, and have fueled grievances among liberation groups in recent years. Then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s unapologetic response to the incidents served to heighten violence towards Thai forces on the part of the liberation groups. Since then, violence has escalated steadily. Because the conflict is ongoing, it is difficult to accurately assess the number of injured and killed. In a July 2014 report, Deep South Watch released the most up-to-date information on number of killed and injured by religious affiliation. Some sources speculate that death tolls have climbed to 8,000 or more.


Insurgency, Not Global Jihad

This conflict cannot simply be described as Buddhism versus Islam, religion versus religion. At this core of this conflict is an issue of identity that happens to have a religious component. The main reason the South Thailand Insurgency cannot be considered part of the global jihad is because the conflict is more strongly contextualized as one of Thai vs. other. And while the conflict undeniably has a religious component, that religious component is only one piece of a larger identity issue. To date, there has been no evidence of external involvement in the bombings and killings in the Patani region. The South Thailand Insurgency is ethno-political and ethno-national at heart, and centers on a local historical claim to the Patani territory. As Islam garners more and more negative press around the world, we must be careful to assume that all conflicts that involve Islam are fundamentally jihadist in nature.

Fatalities and Injuries 2004-2014



Human Development Indicators

Poor development is both a cause and effect of the South Thailand Insurgency. Development in the area has been particularly hindered since heightened violence emerged in 2004. A comparison of the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Indicators (UNDP HDI) from the years 2003, 2007, 2009, and 2014 reveals that the three southernmost provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat have consistently failed to match the national development average. HDI ratings experienced a marked decreased following the violence of 2004. Education, income, family and community life, and participation in political and community activities are areas of particular concern.

HDI Yala


HDI Pattani


HDI Narathiwat


It has been suggested that poor development is heightening regional grievances and exacerbating the conflict; development is then further hindered, fueling further dissent. But while development averages in Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat remain below the national average, UNDP HDI data reveals improving development indicators in 2014. This could be due to the increased involvement of international organizations in the region, discussed in the section below.



A number of solutions have been implemented to facilitate resolution to the South Thailand Insurgency. Thailand, however, has taken a back-seat role in the problem-solving effort. The two most comprehensive peace processes, the Southern Thailand Empowerment and Participation (STEP) Project and the Ramadan Peace Initiative, were organized by the United Nations Development Programme and the Malaysian government, respectively. The STEP Project, implemented in March 2010, seeks to address grassroots development issues in Patani as a way to increase interaction with the local government and pave the way for national-level advocacy. STEP has progressed to its second and final phase, and is slated to be completed by December 2017. The Ramadan Peace Initiative, meanwhile, provided a neutral forum for talks between Thailand’s National Security Council (NSC) and the BRN-C. The talks were held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and ended in the signing of the General Consensus on Peace Dialogue Process on February 28, 2013. The two parties met again in March, April, and May 2013, vowing to keep the dialogue channels open and actively work towards peace in the region. But since Thailand’s coup in May 2014, the domestic political situation has not been conducive to furthering the peace process.

Violent Attacks in Patani Jan13-April14

On November 3, 2014, Thailand’s military government vowed again to end the violence in the three southernmost provinces, this time within one year. Questions have arisen around the feasibility of this plan considering the lack of confidence in Thailand’s new government, and the fact that peace talks started during the Ramadan Peace Initiative have stalled. And despite the violence plaguing the region and the reorganization of government, Narathiwat is still slated to be become a Special Economic Zone in 2016. The Thai government’s hope is that by developing the economy, security issues will be resolved and the violence will be quelled as the economy grows. But because this solution still does not address the fundamental issue of the conflict—identity—it holds a high potential for failure.

According to International Crisis Group, “a highly centralized administrative structure, the persistence of rigid conceptions of national identity and an old-fashioned bureaucratic outlook” inhibit resolution to the South Thailand Insurgency. Furthermore, according to the International Crisis Group these influence analyses of the problem as well as policy formation and implementation, thus making it difficult for Thai leaders to acknowledge the political dimension of the conflict. To do so would call into question state legitimacy based on the three pillars or nation, religion, and king. These misguided priorities have seriously inhibited the peace process in southern Thailand. Government spending in the region reveals that the focus remains on counterinsurgency and military capabilities rather than community and infrastructure development: as the violence escalates, so does counterinsurgency spending. Since 2005, counterinsurgency spending in the Patani region alone has fluctuated between 9.9 and 17.5 percent of total military spending. Some reports indicate that average per-capita military spending in Patani is around twice as much as average per-capita military spending nationwide.




Looking to the Future

The nature of the solutions proposed by the Thai state suggests that Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and his government (as well as prime ministers who came before him, and particularly Thaksin Shinawatra) refuse to acknowledge the ethno-political and ethno-national components to South Thailand Insurgency. In other words, there are no signs that Thailand is adjusting its adherence to the mantra “nation, religion, king” in order to accommodate minority groups. Some speculate that if the Thai government did adjust its definition of Thai identity or even allowed Patani to secede, other suppressed groups—both domestic and regional—would follow with their own liberation movements. This is unlikely for a number of reasons. First, the trifecta championed by the Thai state provides a direct contrast to minority identity that does not exist in other countries. Other minorities (like Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority group) may find it difficult to similarly contextualize their conflict as one of “state identity” vs. “other” because this rigid framework does not exist. Secondly, Malay Muslims constitute the second largest minority in Thailand (the first being ethnic Chinese) and are concentrated in a region on Thailand’s fringes. This has allowed the Malay Muslim community to over time create a united front against the Thai state. Other minorities in Thailand lack the same ability to unite due to their smaller and geographically fractured populations.

Although the South Thailand Insurgency is unlikely to threaten the existence of the Thai state, the conflict presents a severe humanitarian and national security issue and therefore deserves to be dealt with promptly and effectively. Dialogue is the most effective problem-solving tool in this situation, but there are few indications that the new Thai government is willing to cooperate in this way. In mid-November, 2014 a program to arm villagers against insurgents went into effect in southern Thailand, highlighting once again the government’s focus on weapon-based counterinsurgency. Thai authorities distributed approximately 2,700 military grade weapons—reportedly HK-33 assault rifles—to civilians in Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat. Scholars as well as sources on the ground with knowledge of local opinion believe that the plan is bound to backfire and increase violence in the region, not quell it. This kind of “problem solving” must end. The Thai government instead must demonstrate flexibility and inclusion by supporting Muslim representatives in government and easing its assimilationist policies in the south. Only when a political space for discussion and the airing of grievances is created and maintained can the violence plaguing the Patani region end.


Further reading: 

Abuza, Zachary. “A Breakdown of Southern Thailand’s Insurgent Groups.” The Jamestown Foundation. 8 Sept. 2006. Web.

Advancing Human Development Through the ASEAN Community: Thailand Human Development Report 2014. Bangkok: United Nations Development Programme, 2014.

Bean, James. “Thailand’s Little-Known Peace Process.” The Diplomat. 31 July 2013

BTI 2014 – Thailand Country Report. BTI. Bertelsmann Stiftung, 2014.

Boontanondha, Thep. King Vajiravudh and the Making of his Military Image. 2013. Web

 Decludt, Florian. “The Cause of Unrest in Thailand: ThaksinShinawatra.” International Affairs Review. The Elliot School of International Affairs at George Washington University, 20 Jan. 2014. Web 

Handley, Paul M. The King Never Smiles: A Biography of Thailand’s BhumibolAdulyadej. New Haven: Yale UP, 2006. Print.

 How Can the Peace Process Be Taken Forward?Deep South Watch. 28 Feb. 2014.

 Human Security, Today and Tomorrow: Thailand Human Development Report 2009. Bangkok: United Nations Development Programme, 2010.

Jerryson, Michael K. Buddhist Fury: Religion and Violence in Southern Thailand. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011.

 Jitpiromsri, Srisompob. An Inconvenient Truth about the Deep South Violent Conflict: A Decade of Chaotic, Constrained Realities and Uncertain Resolution. Deep South Watch. 2 July 2014.

Jitpiromsri, Srisompob, and PanyasakSobhonvasu. “Unpacking Thailand’s southern conflict: The poverty of structural explanations.” Critical Asian Studies 38.1 (2006): 95-117.

Karaman, Bahar. “Thailand promises peace ‘within a year’ in Muslim south.” Thailand Business News. 4 Nov. 2014.

Lefevre, Amy Sawitta. “Thailand promises peace ‘within a year’ in insurgency-hit south.” Reuters. 3 Nov. 2014. Web

National Security Council of Malaysia. “General Consensus on Peace Dialogue Process.” Agreement between Lt Gen ParadornPattanatabut and Ustaz Hassan Taib. 28 Feb. 2013.

“Massacre of Thai Muslims remembered.”Al-Jazeera. 25 Oct. 2012.

Mateus, Sofia Diogo. “More guns to increase ‘tit-for-tat violence’ in southern Thailand.” DW. Deutsche Welle, 11 May 2014.

McCargo, Duncan. Situation Report: Thailand. Tony Blair Faith Foundation.Tony Blair Faith Foundation, n.d. Web.

Melvin, Neil J. Conflict in Southern Thailand: Islamism, Violence and the State in the Patani Insurgency. Stockholm: Stockholm .

“Rohingya: Stateless and Unwanted.” Al-Jazeera. 2014..

Shadbolt, Peter. “Explainer: Thailand’s deadly southern insurgency.” CNN. 19 Feb. 2013.

Southern Thailand Empowerment and Participation (STEP) Project: 2010-2012. 2010.

“Southern Thailand Empowerment and Participation (STEP) Project.” United Nations Development Programme. Web.

“Thailand begins peace talks with southern rebel group.” BBC. 28 March 2013.

Thailand Human Development Report 2007. Bangkok: United Nations Development Programme, 2007.

Thailand Human Development Report 2003. Bangkok: United Nations Development Programme, 2003.

“Thailand Islamic Insurgency.” Global Security. 22 June 2014.

“Thailand/Malay Muslims (1948-present).” University of Central Arkansas.

Thailand: The Evolving Conflict in the South. International Crisis Group. International Crisis Group, 11 Dec. 2012.

“Thailand military seizes power in coup.” BBC. 22 May 2014.

“Thai mosque killings criticised.” BBC. 28 July 2004.

United States Bureau of Intelligence and Research. International Boundary Study. Rept. no. 7 1965. The Florida State University. Web.



Leave a Comment

Filed under Current Events, ethnic policy, Regional Relations, SLIDER, Thailand

How’s it Going, Thailand?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The nation is still divided and fragmented.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leave a Comment

Filed under GMS, Governance, Regional Relations, SLIDER, Thailand, 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.


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

China’s Maritime Silk Road is all about Africa


Rice bound for Africa is loaded onto a cargo ship in Bangkok, Thailand

A recently signed agreement between China and Thailand sheds light on the dynamics of the Maritime Silk Road.

Amid all the fanfare and media buzz about China’s re-envisioning of its two Silk Road projects, the New Silk Road and the Maritime Silk Road, admittedly little is known about the details, the mechanics, and the functions of the new routes.  For example, this interactive graphic published by Xinhua suggests the Maritime Silk Road’s prime focus is to facilitate trade between Asia and Europe when in actuality the focus of the Maritime Silk Road is to support and facilitate booming trade growth between Asia and Africa.  To put this into perspective, from 2011 to 2013, trade between China and the EU showed no increase, keeping steady at around USD 530bn.  This was outpaced by trade growth between China and Africa which expanded at an average of 10% per year over the same period of time and is projected to increase 15-20% per year over the next five years.  In 2013 total trade between China and Africa reached USD 210bn – five years ago China’s total trade with Africa was less than half of what it is now. Continue reading


Filed under ASEAN, China, Current Events, Foreign policy, GMS, Regional Relations, SLIDER, Thailand, Trade, 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

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

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