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Regional Roundup for Week of 6.24.16

LEADERS

Indonesia, Defying Beijing, Seizes Fishing Boat in South China Sea – NYT The boat and its crew were taken Friday after warships fired warning shots at Chinese vessels suspected of illegal fishing, an Indonesian official said. //This is the newest episode of the illegal fishing saga in South China Sea. This is a multi-country problem where Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and China accuse each other of violating exclusive economic zones in order to fish. China maintains a position that despite international laws, ‘traditional fishing grounds’ should remain open for all.

Related: Indonesia confirms it shoat at ‘criminal’ Chinese fishing boats near its Natuna islands – Quartz

Related: Indonesian navy fires on Chinese fishing boat, injuring one, Beijing claims – The Guardian 

Related: A Third 2016 Natuna Stand-Off Highlights Growing Indonesia-China Tensions 

Revealed: The Truth Behind ASEAN’s Retracted Kunming Statement -The Diplomat New details on the June 14 meeting between ASEAN and China shed light on the imbroglio surrounding ASEAN’s statement. // This story brings very important news about what really happened in the ASEAN-China dialogue. It seems the statement issued was originally agreed to by all members. However, China did not agree to it (obviously!). Malaysia, frustrated by Chinese interference, released the statement to media anyway. Later the statement had to be rescinded.

The ASEAN-China Special Meeting Mystery: Bureaucratic Snafu or Chinese Heavy-Handedness? – The Diplomat Was ASEAN consensus undermined or is there a more mundane bureaucratic explanation for the confusion surrounding the statement?

Not a Repeat but and Echo: ASEAN’s Retracted Statement and the Specter of the 2012 Joint Communique Failure – East by Southeast The emergence of numerous reports that consensus on the statement was withdrawn after-the-fact due to China pressuring Laos appears to many observers a repeat of ASEAN’s failure in 2012 to reach consensus on a joint statement during the ASEAN Summit in Cambodia.

REGIONAL RELATIONS 

After the South China Sea Ruling – The Diplomat The long-awaited Tribunal’s merits ruling will come soon. What happens then?

Suu Kyi, Thai govt to sign new migrant deal – The Bangkok Post Burma’s Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi and the Labour Ministry plan to solve the issue of illegal Burmese migrant workers by slashing their mandatory “work break” period from three years to 30 days.

Related: Suu Kyi’s Trip to Refugee Camp in Thailand Scrapped

The Lady and a Junta, Thai-Style – The Irrawaddy The visit this week by Nobel Peace Prize laureate and democracy icon Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will certainly brighten the spirits of the sombre Thai people and could also lift the profile of the Thai junta and Myanmar’s top leader. // important visit as it is expected Suu Kyi and the Thai government will discuss about a host of important issues including hydropower dams in the Salween river. Environmentalists have already urged Suu Kyi to take a stance against dams on Salween because of their perceived environmental risk.

Statement on the Visit of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to Thailand – June 2016 International Rivers General civil society members and environmental activists express concern about infrastructural projects including hydropower projects on the Slaween River.

Related: Suu Kyi urged not to back Salween dams –DVB Multimedia

US, Thailand Conclude Annual Military Exercise – The Diplomat CARAT Thailand 2016 ran from June 16 to 23.

Why Asean must worry about the Mekong Delta – The Nation Grouping is not giving enough attention to water resource security

Mekong countries share land governance experience – The Jakarta Post Increasing security of land rights and transparency of land governance would contribute to government accountability, reduce costs for businesses and strengthen the climate for responsible investment in the Mekong region, a regional land forum in Hanoi was told Tuesday.

China tackles the issues of Greater Mekong Subregion –The Nation (Opinion) This year, many of those present will have heard for the first time of a new multinational agreement driven by China that will play an increasingly important role – namely the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation or LMC (Lancang is China’s name for Mekong). In many ways the LMC is a smaller version of Asean But with just six countries involved and China at the helm, it is expected that results will come more quickly. //LMC brings hope for hydro-diplomacy at the multilateral level in the Mekong region. China has built a cascade of dams in upper Mekong region which controls significant amount of water flow in the downstream region. It is important for all lower Mekong countries to discuss the issue with China and find a way to act collaboratively on this.   

SUSTAINABILITY AND RESOURCE MANAGEMENT 

Special economic zone taps into solar power – Phnom Penh Post News Phnom Penh SEZ launched its Clean Energy Initiative yesterday, inaugurating two new solar power systems to supply electricity for water pumps on the 357-hectare industrial park. The initiative, carried out in partnership with Singapore-based Cleantech Solar Corp, is aimed at decreasing CO2 emissions and reducing energy costs.

China to generate a quarter of electricity from wind power by 2030 – The Guardian  Report says figures could rise to nearly one-third with power sector reforms, making it the world wind energy leader by a large margin.

Renewable energy must be boosted five-fold by 2025: Jokowi – The Jakarta Post President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has underlined the importance of clean energy development and energy conservation in the nation’s roadmap of energy development up to 2050. 

CHINA

Chinese Fishermen: The New Global Pirates? – The Diplomat It’s not just the South China Sea — Chinese fishing vessels have been accused of illegal activities all over the world.

China on Indonesia’s Detention of Boat –NYTimes A Chinese spokeswoman accused Indonesia of breaking international law by holding the crew of a Chinese fishing boat that was operating in the South China Sea.

China’s ‘Historic Rights’ in the South China Sea: Made in America? – The Diplomat The current understanding of “historic rights” in the South China Sea in China can be traced back to a U.S. diplomat.

A Chinese River’s Uncertain Fate – NYTimes Environmentalists have defended the Nu, in Yunnan Province, for more than a decade, battling state hydropower firms intent on building dams.

China’s Ambitious New ‘Silk Road’ Trade Route Takes Shape in Africa – Chinafile Four years and hundreds of billions of dollars later, China’s ambitious global trading strategy known as the “New Maritime Silk Road,” or “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR), is now coming to life, particularly in parts of East Africa where major infrastructure and defense projects are being built.

China’s plan to cut meat consumption by 50% cheered by climate campaigners – The Guardian New dietary guidelines could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 1bn tonnes by 2030, and could lessen country’s problems with obesity and diabetes.

SOUTHEAST ASIA

Presidential Spokesman Hits Back Against UN Criticism Over Rohingya – The Irrawaddy Magazine Zaw Htay, Spolesman for the President’s office of Myanmar says the UN and international community should focus on ongoing reforms inside Myanmar rather than human rights abuses by the former government. The comment came after UN criticized Myanmar’s handling of religious and ethnic minorities, especially the Muslim Rohingyas.

Related: Arakanese and Rohingya Criticize New Govt Term for Muslims 

EU Says Burma Needs “Space” to Deal with Rights Abuses – The Irrawaddy The European Union said on Wednesday that Burma needed “space” to deal with human rights abuses in its restive northwest, adding it would respect the call by country leader Aung San Suu Kyi to avoid the term “Rohingya” to describe persecuted Muslims there.

War of lexicon in Arakan State – DVB Multimedia Group The Arakan National Party (ANP) has condemned the Burmese government’s suggestion that the ethnic Rohingya be referred to as the “Muslim community in Arakan State”.

Related: UN Rapporteur Avoids Contentious Terms with Arakan Chief Minister – The Irrawaddy

Jokowi to visit Natuna to uphold RI’s sovereignty – The Jakarta Post President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo will visit Natuna, Riau Islands province, on Thursday to demonstrate Indonesia’s sovereignty over the waters in the outer part of the archipelago. // This visit, combined with the incident of Indonesia seizing Chinese fishing vessels mean Indonesia is very serious about establishing an authority over disputed waters in South China Sea. It will be interesting to see how China reacts to this in the coming days. 

PDF REPORT Analysis on ADB Investments in the Greater Mekong – NGO Forum on ADB ADB funded projects have failed to take into consideration the vulnerable livelihoods of the poorer communities in the Greater Mekong Sub-region.

Don Sahong Dam Construction Creates Uncertainty Over Future of Regional Fisheries and Food Security – International Rivers General Construction work on Don Sahong Dam has started blocking crucial fish migration channels and raising questions about food security and livelihoods of people living on the up and downstream of the river.

Slight Increase in Dolphin Numbers –Khmer Times Cambodia’s freshwater Mekong dolphin population has increased by four, adding a quartet of calves in the first five months of 2016 while also seeing a drop in the mortality rate compared with last year. This was encouraging news for environmentalists in a region where increased dam construction has raised concerns over the dwindling numbers of dolphins.

Villagers condemn logging and mining –Eleven Myanmar A press conference was held in Yangon, on June 16 exposing illegal mining and logging operations along the Chindwin River in Kachin State and Sagaing Region. The event, organised by the Red Shan Youth group and Kuki Women’s Centre, they said illegal activities had destroyed around 60 per cent of the forests along the river. Researchers claimed that more than 250,000 acres in Kaniare was being used for illegal and legal gold mining.

Bob Kerrey and the ‘American Tragedy’ of Vietnam: Op-ED – NYT EVEN today, Americans argue over the Vietnam War: what was done, what mistakes were made, and what were the lasting effects on American power. This sad history returns because of Bob Kerrey’s appointment as chairman of the American-sponsored Fulbright University Vietnam, the country’s first private university.

Myanmar to export 515 billion cubic feet of natural gas this fiscal year –Eleven Myanmar The Yadana, Yetagon, Zawtika and Shwe gas projects are expected to collectively produce 515 billion cubic feet of natural gas for export and 160.6 billion cubic feet for local use in the 2016-2017 fiscal year, according to the second five-year National Development Plan (from 2016-2017 to 2020-2021).

YUNNAN

Kunming’s twin expos bigger, more important than ever – GoKunming In a mark of the spring city’s growing importance, both on the domestic and international stage, 5,000 businesses and nearly as many officials from eighty-nine countries converged on Kunmingon the occasion of  fourth annual China-South Asia Expo (CSAEXPO) and twenty-fourth Kunming Import and Export Commodities Fair (KIEF).

Big thanks to Ash Chowdhury for compiling this week’s digest and providing analysis!

 

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Regional Roundup for Week of 6.16.16

LEADERS

The Truth Behind ASEAN’s vanishing South China Sea Statement – Forbes Over the last two days, ASEAN reportedly released a strongly worded statement showing unity against China over the South China Sea. Within hours, the statement had been retracted, with some Southeast Asian countries declaring it had been issued in error.//The hottest story coming out of ASEAN glaringly shows how China manipulates regional diplomacy and maintains its swagger in the region by leaning on weak states. China may be willing to take on the reputational costs of collateral damage to can Laos and Cambodia afford to continually disappoint ASEAN and the rest of the world?

Related: China, not ASEAN, the real failure on South China Sea at Kunming Meeting -The Diplomat

Related: ASEAN Foreign Ministers Issue, Then Retract Communique Referencing South China Sea – The Diplomat

Related: East Sea dominates Asean-China talks – The Nation

Related: China’s South China Sea meeting with ASEAN ends in confusion – Thanhnien News

Kunming-Singapore rail link stuck in Laos –The Rakyat Post For the southwestern city of Kunming, China’s plan to extend a high-speed rail link 3,000 km south to Singapore is already a boon – pristine expressways, a gleaming station and something of a real estate boom, as young buyers crowd property showrooms. But in Laos, work has yet to start on what should be the first overseas leg of a rail line stretching throughout Southeast Asia. The country, one of the region’s poorest, could struggle to finance even part of the US$7 billion cost and has yet to agree financial terms with China.//China: Hey Laos, why don’t you muck up that joint statement on South China Sea? We’ll consider lowering the cost of that railway we’re building for you…

 No authority to prevent new Mekong River projects: MRC – The Nation The Mekong Commission (MRC) does not have the authority to stop projects even if they have transboundary effects, delegates to the fourth Green Mekong Forum said on Monday, while the Thai Irrigation Department presented a water diversion project to fight poverty. The recent forum in Bangkok about latest developments in infrastructure and water resource management in the Mekong Region was disclosed that major development projects are necessary for solving poverty, even though it was admitted that the transborder impacts are real.//The MRC never had such authority. What’s disappointing is that the MRC has not and will likely never emerge as a negotiating platform for transboundary water management as once thought. If this is the case, then we need to think practically about the actual future role and function of the MRC because it will continue as a player in regional watershed management, but at a much lower and less dynamic capacity.

The water conflict on the Mekong –The Mekong Eye Located at the end of the Mekong River basin, the Mekong Delta in Vietnam is currently experiencing the most severe drought and salinity intrusion in 100 years.  According to experts, the principal reason is development activities in Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) countries related to the use of the Mekong River’s water resources, including the operation and construction of mega-dams along the river as well as water diversion for agricultural purposes.//Subscribe to the Mekong Eye which promotes emerging regional voices and issues that often fail to be picked up in traditional media. 

Related: Loss of Mekong freshwater dolphin affecting more than 1000 households’ livelihood –FanKhmer

PR | UN Envoys Report Concern over Don Sahong Dam Impacts to Human Rights Council – International River’s General The United Nations Special Procedures have raised serious concerns over the human rights impacts of the controversial Don Sahong Dam under construction on the Mekong River in Laos. A report detailing these concerns has been submitted to the Human Rights Council for consideration at its 32nd session, which commences today.

Don Sahong vs Dolphins: How the Dam Is Affecting Local Residents –Khmer Times Residents of Preah Rumkel commune in Thala Barivat district, Stung Treng province, have been demanding authorities suspend construction of the dam to no avail. The project has taken on a new life for local residents now that the booms of dynamite blasts and the sounds of rocks smashing under the weight of machines have become an ever-present part of their daily lives. But what residents of Preah Rumkel commune are most worried about is the loss of the dolphins that are native to Anlong Chher Teal, which attract tourists and provides incomes for people in the area.

Officials in Greater Mekong Sub-region call for enhanced cooperation –China.org Participants to the GMS (Greater Mekong Sub-region) Economic Corridor 2016 Governors Forum on Friday called for enhanced cooperation in face of economic, social and environmental challenges. The GMS Economic Cooperation Program, launched in 1992 by six countries along the Mekong River — Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, is aimed at pooling efforts to improve regional infrastructure, and to promote trade, investment and economic growth.//they’ve been doing it for years.  GMS countries are looking for new, innovative leadership.

REGIONAL RELATIONS

Stronger US-Vietnam Relations Are Not At China’s Expense – The Diplomat The recent boost in bilateral ties following Obama’s visit must be put into proper perspective.

China Woos Suu Kyi, Seeking a Fresh Start in Myanmar – Wall Street Journal Beijing hopes the support of country’s de facto leader will help ease opposition to Chinese mine, dam project.

Nixed China Aid Leaves Myanmar Agency in Debt, Citizens in Danger – The Diplomat Without assistance for a tunnel, an irrigation department is in debt and hundreds of thousands are at risk from flooding.

With Russian help, region looks to a nuclear-powered future – The Nation Nuclear power generation appears to be an emerging trend in ASEAN, with many countries here signing up for related technologies. //We saw somewhat familiar news last week as Vietnam and Russia’s relationship centering on nuclear power generation was on the spotlight. This report seems to confirm that this is a trend throughout the region.

 Japan, Thailand Eye Stronger Security Ties – The Diplomat Tokyo and Bangkok looked to boost their defense relations during Gen Nakatani’s recent visit.

Vietnam mulls $701 mln expressway to Cambodia – Thanhnien News It will be part of an expressway linking Ho Chi Minh City and Phnom Penh that will halve travel time between the two cities to three hours//like many other regional linkages, this is much needed to improve market access and regional commerce. Projects like this are well-received where Vietnamese rubber and illegal logging activities are not.

South China Sea: An Eyewitness Account of Tensions at Scarborough Shoal – The Diplomat  Anders Corr, who traveled with activists to Scarborough Shoal, joins The Diplomat’s Ankit Panda for a discussion.

ASEAN-China trade growth: facts, factors and prospects –  New Mandala What explains the sharp growth in ASEAN-China trade, and can this be sustained? //This issue is particularly important as a backdrop to the ongoing tension in South China Sea. China is the largest trading partner with ASEAN region both in terms of exports and imports. As trade usually represents a symbiotic relation we could expect large amount of trade would impede China and ASEAN countries from falling into a lengthy, bitter dispute. However, it seems ASEAN countries are more dependent on China than vice versa meaning this may ultimately become a tool for China to coerce these countries to agree to the much disputed nine-dash line in South China Sea.  

How a systems-scale approach can solve Myanmar’s electrification woes and more  –Devex Environmental advocates are calling for a holistic, streamlined approach to building out Myanmar’s hydropower sector, which is attracting growing interest from donors and investors, including multilateral organizations such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank as well as countries such as China. Systems-scale planning, can help encapsulate sustainability, environment, economic and social concerns into projects’ design, implementation and impact. The approach looks at and guides design and implementation of projects based on a system — such as river basins or lakes — and not as individual projects that are not well-coordinated and which can lead to inefficiencies, conflicts, degradation and missed opportunities.//The Nature Conservancy’s Hydropower by Design team discussed their work on system scale approach to hydropower in Myanmar earlier this week at the Stimson Center. See video here.

Myanmar – Thailand – China will discuss about Mong Tong Hydropower Project –Eleven News The developers of the Mong Tong Hydropower project (China Three Gorges Corporation, China Southern Power Grid, Power Construction of China; Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand International, Myanmar’s International Group of Entrepreneurs Co,Ltd) will discuss about the design of the proposed project. Ms. Maria Lorea Cleto from SMEC International Pty Ltd said, they will redesign the project with cascade, and it will discuss at the 3rd meeting with the Ministry of Electrical Power.  CSOs and local communities have opposed these projects in several occasions and SMEC face difficulties in doing the EIA. The proposed dam will be the highest in South East Asia, which could produce 7100MW of electricity; 90% of which will go to Thailand and China.

Public Statement on The Mong Ton Dam on the Salween River International River’s General Activists under the umbrella of The Network of People in Salween Basin issue statement calling for the Mong Ton Dam, a joint project between Thailand and Myanmar, to be reevaluated.

Related: Saving the Salween: Southeast Asia’s last major undammed river –The Ecologist 

Thanlwin dams criticised ahead of state counsellor’s Thailand visit –Myanmar Times Another civil society group has joined the mounting campaign against dams planned along the Thanlwin River, also known as the Salween, ahead of an upcoming energy meeting between Thailand and Myanmar. The local network called on the state counsellor, who is set to visit Thailand from June 23 to 25, to consider “the importance of the Thanlwin River as the home of ethnic minority peoples and as an invaluable source of biodiversity and natural resources”. The network also demanded the suspension of any dams until communities have been consulted.

SUSTAINABILITY AND RESOURCE MANAGEMENT

World Bank finds cash moving to renewables –UPI Investments in renewable energy made up more than half of all private investments last year, signaling a low-carbon shift is under way, the World Bank said. A report from the bank finds global private investments held relatively steady from 2014 to total $111.6 billion last year. Investments in renewable energy, however, were higher in 2015 than during the past five years.  

Energy access: It’s the policy, stupid –Decentralized Energy Renewable energy companies in emerging markets in Africa and Asia frequently lament the shortage of financing as the main barrier to scaling decentralized solutions such as rooftop solar and mini-grids. But at a summit this month, industry leaders singled out the lack of supportive national energy policies as the biggest obstacle to accelerated growth. The decentralized renewable energy industry, which will play a central role in solving energy poverty for the 1.1 billion people (17% of humanity) worldwide without access to electricity, is booming and significant advances in policy are being made.//a gap is emerging between the renewable energy achievements in the developed world and high hurdles to jump over to gain similar achievements in the developing world. Poor governance and policy regimes widen that gap.

 In numbers: the region’s energy sector – Southeast Asia Globe Magazine An infographic illustrating the fossil fuel consumption, total energy consumption and primary energy sources in Southeast Asia

Solar power dawns on Datong as coal industry declines – Chinadialogue While solar power cannot compete with nearby coal-fired power plants in terms of output, new government subsidies have made the price of energy for consumers more competitive.

 CHINA

Tackling pollution: Beijing’s electric bikes and buses – in pictures– NYT Vehicles are the source of a third of the air pollution in the Chinese capital, which restricts their use during episodes of heavy smog. Electric cars, buses, scooters and bicycles offer an alternative, cleaner form of transport //but electric bikes are being banned in certain districts and some Chinese cities are taking them off the street entirely.

Green Finance: A Strategic Imperative for China – The Diplomat China’s “green financing” could be the key to making sure the Paris agreement comes to fruition.

China’s Innovation Dream: Mission Impossible? – The Diplomat Chinese innovation will be stifled by political limits and censorship, unless the Party is willing to make a change.//Could have written this in 1995 or 2005. Welcome to the last century, China! 

Reality Check: The South China Sea Does Not Define the US-China Relationship – The Diplomat The relationship between the world’s two most important countries is far broader than the South China Sea disputes.

China’s ‘Belt and Road’: Where Is Africa? – The Diplomat Africa was missing from China’s “Belt and Road” roadmap, but including the continent makes good sense.//actually it’s all about Africa and here’s how. 

Canada should join China-led bank, AIIB –CCTV  The creation of the AIIB offers a strong presence that will encourage multilateral organizations to act more green, efficient and effective, providing a competitive angle that demonstrates AIIB’s advantages. The AIIB offers secure assets to institutional investors, such as issuing long-dated bonds that will provide a measurable return on funding infrastructure. China-led bank will expand its influence, making it advantageous decision for Canada to join in, since it will provide opportunities for Canada to be a standalone nation without being overly-influenced by the U.S. and Japan.

SOUTHEAST ASIA

World Bank to loan Vietnam $310 mln for climate resilience –Thanhnien News The World Bank has approved a US$310 million loan to help Vietnam build climate resilience and ensure sustainable livelihoods for 1.2 million people in the Mekong Delta region. The approved Mekong Delta Integrated Climate Resilience and Sustainable Livelihoods Project supports better climate-smart planning and improved climate resilience of land and water management practices.//Looking forward to critical outside analysis of this plan.

Singapore, Malaysia among biggest investors in Vietnam: report – Thanhnien News Eight out of 10 member states of ASEAN have made investments in Vietnam with a total pledge of $56.32 billion for 2,681 projects, the Foreign Investment Agency recently reported.

Formosa asked to install automatic emissions monitoring equipment –Vietnam News The Natural Resources and Environment Department in central province of Hà Tĩnh has asked two companies to install automatic monitoring equipment for testing emissions and the dust of emission discharge systems. According to the department head, Formosa Steel Ltd. Co and Vũng Áng Thermal Power Plant I were selected for this task. The equipment will automatically transmit data every hour to the department’s control centre.

PM: Marine environment must be protected –Vietnam News Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc has called for joint efforts to protect the marine environment and maintain sovereignty peacefully on the Việt Nam Sea. Addressing a ceremony to mark 2016 Việt Nam Seas and Islands Week and World Oceans Day, Phúc directed the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment to co-operate with relevant agencies to inspect and severely punish any organisation or individual violating regulations on discharging wastewater into the sea.

 Trump, Clinton and the Future of US-Vietnam Relations – The Diplomat Bilateral relations have come a long way. How might they fare under the next U.S. president?

ADB to more than double loans to Burma – DVB Multimedia Group Myanmar wants money to spend on large infrastructure and energy projects

Related: ADB President Commends Myanmar’s Progress, Announces Expanded Assistance -Asian Development Bank news release

Turkish Foreign Minister Visits Burma, Offers Assistance to Arakan State – The Irrawaddy  Visiting Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu thanked the Burmese government on Monday for its efforts to quell racial and sectarian violence in Arakan State, expressing a desire for mutual cooperation to resolve the issue.

Rohingya Reject New Citizenship Verification Cards – The Irrawaddy A citizenship verification exercise aimed at stateless Muslims in Arakan State, which resumed last month, has been temporarily suspended in Ponnagyun Township, where residents of a small Rohingya village have refused to cooperate as the program does not identify them as Rohingyas.

A Moment of Clarity at Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge Tribunal – The Diplomat Testimony unveils more details about one of the world’s worst genocides.

Indonesia To Coordinate South China Sea Policy Ahead of Court Verdict – The Diplomat President Jokowi asks ministries to formulate uniformed position to ‘have the same answers.’

 Indonesia’s coal addiction reaches new heights – South East Asia Globe As the rest of the world moves away from fossil fuels, Indonesia is reacting to a drop in its coal exports by ramping up local production, putting the country’s health, environment and economy in danger

Behind Indonesia’s Red Scare – The Diplomat Why is the Indonesian military again warning of an imminent communist revolution?

Strong need expected for distributed power generation –The Nation The inadequacy of transmission and distribution (T&D) infrastructure and the topographical challenges have created strong demand for distributed power generation (DPG) in Southeast Asia. According to a new analysis, the overall installed capacity of the DPG market was estimated at 20,450 megawatts last year and is forecast to reach 34,747MW by 2020. The key types of power plants analysed are those fuelled by biomass or waste, solar photovoltaic (PV) plants, those based on internal combustion engines (fuelled by diesel, heavy fuel oil or HFO, gas, or combinations), and temporary rental power plants.

Party, State to facilitate better business in Laos –Vietnam News The Party and State will facilitate Vietnamese investment and business in Laos, President Trần Đại Quang said during a working session with Vietnamese investors in Laos.  He hailed the efforts of businesses and of the Association of Vietnamese Investors in Laos to overcome difficulties and to ensure their projects are implemented on schedule. He also asked the association and relevant ministries to co-ordinate with the Lao side to better facilitate business operations and to take more social responsibility to reduce poverty, protect the environment, and ensure social welfare.

Laos gives the nod to foreign investors –The Nation The Laotian government has reaffirmed its commitment to giving the green light to foreign businesses seeking opportunities for investment in the country. “Following the common policy to attract foreign investment set by the government and given that the country is rich in natural resources, this will help increase the number of investors, especially Chinese businesses,” Deputy Prime Minister Dr Sonexay Siphandone said.

720 sq km of destroyed forests reclaimed –Bangkok Post  A total of 450,000 rai of forestland has been reclaimed from encroachers in the past two years, and about 200,000 rai of it redistributed to the poor, according to the Internal Security Operations Command (Isoc) . Spokesman Peerawat Saengthong said that Isoc, together with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, the Interior Ministry, the Defence Ministry, the National Council for Peace and Order and the Royal Thai Police Office launched a forest reclamation campaign on June 17, 2014.

Laos cracks down on social media critics –Aljazeera Three Laos nationals quietly apologise on state TV for betraying the country through anti-government Facebook posts, a striking parade of apparent confessions in the communist regime’s latest crackdown on dissent. The ominous broadcast in late May was the first news of the trio for families desperate to know their whereabouts since they were arrested in March.

YUNNAN 

Rainy season arrives in Yunnan with a vengeance –GoKunming Nearly continuous rains are causing problems both in Kunming and across the province. While the Spring City has seen limited flooding over the past several days, in other more rugged areas of Yunnan, stormy weather has turned deadly.//what has been a devastatingly dry rainy season in mainland Southeast Asia has been an incredibly wet dry season in Yunnan and now the monsoons have arrived!

This week’s news was compiled by Ash Chowdhury with analysis and commentary by Ash Chowdhury and Brian Eyler.

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Improving the US-Laos relationship through UXO cleanup

UXO Lao clearance operators use a loop detector to scan for sub-surface munitions. Photo: Cluster Munition Coalition

UXO Lao clearance operators use a loop detector to scan for sub-surface munitions. Photo: Cluster Munition Coalition

The recent leadership change in Laos and the country’s tenure as chair of ASEAN mean that now is an ideal time for the U.S. to step up engagement.  This dynamic situation gives U.S. policymakers room to pursue important goals in sustainable development and hydropower on the Mekong.  To do so, the U.S. must overcome significant hurdles.  Historically, Washington has seen little need to engage with the small, landlocked, and communist country that reminds the U.S. of struggles during the Vietnam War.  In 1997, Congress opposed Laos’ entrance to the WTO over marginalization of the Hmong minority.  Above all, the U.S.’s wartime legacy issues have been detrimental.

During the Vietnam War, the U.S. saturated Laos with cluster bombs, leaving dangerous remnants throughout the countryside.  Unexploded ordnances (UXOs) continue to injure and kill, hindering Laos’ development.  Yet, even with these obstacles, the political climate is ideal.  The U.S. government should aim for better engagement with Laos by committing to economic development and accountability in UXO removal.

Laos, as Southeast Asia’s fastest growing country, has shown positive movement in its own economic development, but major improvements are lacking. Timber and copper exports have generated a steady source of revenue.  USAID development projects in the agricultural and sustainable livelihood sectors are bringing Laos within reach of middle income status by 2020.  Newly designated Prime Minister, Thongloun Sisoulith, has expressed a desire to capitalize on emerging opportunities and open Laos to more intra-ASEAN trade and tourism.  Smart investment efforts ensure a brighter future for Laos, yet the country is still very poor and hindered by more complex issues.

Laos lies at the intersection of the Golden Triangle, an illicit drug trading center that undermines good economies.  Nutrition is a major problem.  44% of children in Laos are malnourished and 27% are underweight.  Moreover, an estimated 70% of Laos’ population is under the age of 30.  At best, present day Laos is in a state of transition.  Laos requires capacity building initiatives to improve continuing development strategies.  However, economic development in Laos is not a quick fix as issues literally under the surface threaten Laos’ human security.

The toll of unexploded ordnance on Laos’s security and development is significant.  From 1964 to 1973, according to Lao’s National Regulatory Authority for UXO, over 50,000 Lao citizens were injured by UXO from 1969 to 2008.  The most prominent casualties ranged farmers and children doing everyday essential activities, everything from building a fire to playing in a field.  Travel through rural areas is noticeably dangerous, as casualties during cross-country travel are frequent.  UXOs have dangerously outlived their purpose.  At the start of the secret bombings over Laos, soldiers were the predominant UXO victims. Now agricultural workers and children comprise over 80% of quantifiable post-conflict victims up to 2008.  Their injuries increasingly lead to amputation or death.

Pile of defused ordnance used for scrap metal in Laos. Photo: MAG

Pile of defused ordnance used for scrap metal in Laos. Photo: MAG

UXOs are an inherent threat to Laos’ human security and economic development.  UXO contamination can render lands unusable, much to the detriment of the Lao economy.  The care and treatment for UXO victims adversely affects Laos’ public health and labor resources.  Simply put, Laos’ continued growth cannot happen with UXOs strewn across the country.  Development strategies that fail to address the UXO issue may cause Laos’ future prospects may flounder.  UXOs are an impediment to the comprehensive growth strategy that Laos requires.  A vulnerable population is less likely to improve its capacity for development.  The UXO problem is a chronic barrier plaguing a country looking to take a major step in its development.  Continuing UXO contamination weakens Lao citizens’ prospects for a sustainable future.

Yet, the UXO threat may be gone in the future, as ongoing diplomatic engagement is paving the way for enhanced U.S.-Laos engagement.  High profile visits have improved amity between the two nations.  Laos has hosted more senior members of the U.S. government in a recent five year span than in the last twenty years put together.

President Obama is set to be the first U.S. president to visit Laos in September.  In addition to the high profile visits, the U.S. government has pledged enriched development output to Laos in the form of improving nationwide nutrition and education.  During his recent visit to Laos, Secretary Kerry announced that the U.S. would provide $6 million for school meals to supplement children’s daily nutrition and even pledged $19.5 million for weapons removal and abatement.

FSD deminer Mr Dasone Sitthipone working with a detector at a UXO clearance area, begins excavating an unidentified object. Photo: Australia DFAT

FSD deminer Mr Dasone Sitthipone working with a detector at a UXO clearance area, begins excavating an unidentified object. Photo: Australia DFAT

Moving forward, the U.S. should build on the framework set by these visits.  Fundamentally, working towards development goals in Laos improves U.S.-Laos bilateral relations, which in turn improve the U.S.’s access to the Mekong and the prospect for sustainable livelihoods on the Mekong.  Fostering a renewed relationship with Laos is a core value of the U.S.-Rebalance.  If the U.S. is to truly gain access to Asia’s dynamism, it must engage with all members of ASEAN.  Bolstering Laos is a smaller but important step toward improving ASEAN’s resiliency.

In any case, cleaning up war legacy issues must be high on the U.S.’s policy goals.  Above all, UXO removal is a moral imperative, and the U.S. is uniquely equipped towards removing the UXO.  As the responsible party for saturating Laos with cluster bombs, the U.S. is accountable in cleaning its remains.  In the waning months of the Obama Administration, the U.S. government has the potential to properly re-engage in Southeast Asia.  By taking a vested interest in Laos’ development through and with UXO removal, the U.S. is laying the path back to Southeast Asia.  Interestingly enough, the contentious issue that separated these countries for so long can become the key issue that brings the closer together.

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An alternate past/future for Mekong River dams under the UN Watercourses Convention: Part 3

The author presenting at the Mekong River Commissions's PNPCA workshop, February 2016.

The author presenting at the Mekong River Commissions’s PNPCA workshop, February 2016.

This article is the third in a series looking at dams in the Mekong. Part 1 can be accessed here and Part 2 here.

Notification, consultation & negotiation

The following scenario is a simplified alternative history where the basic elements of the Xayaburi Dam dispute discussed in

Part 2 are applied to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses (UNWC) framework operating alongside both the Agreement on the Cooperation for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong River (Mekong Agreement) and its supplementary Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement (PNPCA). An alternative legal framework and vision for the future of Mekong dam development is thus proposed. This three-piece article concludes with potential next steps for improved transboundary cooperation in the Mekong.

As proposed in the PNPCA and required under the UNWC (Arts. 12-13), Laos would be legally bound to notify potentially impacted riparian states of its plans for the Xayaburi Dam because of the possible significant transboundary impacts this ‘planned measure’ might have on the Mekong River. Hence, Laos’ written submission, complete with available information and any initial Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) results, would have been directly provided to the other Mekong River Commission (MRC) states’ governments, ideally up to six months prior as stated in the PNPCA, before any construction or permits were obtained (UNWC Arts. 11-12). Under the UNWC, the other riparians would then have had six months to reply in writing during which time Laos could not advance any aspect of the dam project without their consent (Arts. 13(a), 14(b)).

Given the actual voiced concerns, it is most probable that the downstream states of Cambodia and Vietnam would have requested a delay in the project initiation, so further studies could be conducted on the dam’s cross-border impacts. Laos would then have been obliged to extend the reply period by an additional six months (Art. 13(b)). It is also highly probable that these delay requests would have required under the UNWC Article 17(3) for Laos to cease any planning for the dam project, including contract negotiations, clearing land, building roads, or initiating construction. As is their right under the UNWC, Cambodia and Vietnam may have likely replied before the extended deadline with justification for their findings that the dam would cause significant transboundary harm, therefore recommending possible alternatives or improved designs be investigated (Art. 15).

After the six-month extension, if no agreement were reached, Laos and the other states would have officially entered into consultations and negotiations, as required under the UNWC (Art 17(1)), with the primary facilitation forum still being the MRC.

Obligation to cooperate in good faith and exchange information

Laos may have then, as they did, commissioned another EIA, this time investigating cross-border impacts. Ideally this would occur at the outset of the proposal given it is a global due diligence — demonstrating reasonable steps to avoid harm — obligation upon states, endorsed by the ICJ.1 No construction would have been allowed during this study (Art. 17(3)), and all available information and EIA results would have had to have been released to the other states in a timely fashion (Art. 11).

Concurrently, throughout the notification, reply, consultation, and negotiation stages, all states would have cooperated in good faith by adhering strictly to all procedures under the Mekong Agreement and the PNPCA, including the open and timely exchange of available information to work to peacefully settle issues (Art, 17).

All of the above would have been beneficial to Cambodia and Vietnam as potentially impacted states having timely access to all the available data in order to be best informed to meaningfully engage in consultations but also to Laos in terms of fostering political goodwill from its fellow MRC members. It could also have been much more efficient for Laos in seeking to avoid potential project delays – as experienced in reality in relation to the various disputed dam designs and inadequate environmental impact and resettlement studies (see Part 2) – if they could have demonstrated full adherence to all applicable UNWC (and PNPCA) processes. This may have given fewer grounds for process-related disagreements between states, and in-turn diminished the need for retrospective actions such as multiple EIAs and the Pöyry report (see Part 2) to seemingly rectify procedural and information-related gaps.

Dispute resolution 

What if, despite all of these positive improvements, disputes about the project were to still arise? Perhaps, as actually occurred, Cambodia and Vietnam would have disputed the new EIA results saying Laos did not share all project data to which Laos would have responded that these states were unreasonably blocking development of its legitimate hydropower energy potential (see Part 2).

The first step would have been to take the issue to the MRC, but resolution may not have been achieved. Under the Mekong Agreement, the matter would then be referred to bilateral channels to seek a diplomatic solution although under Article 33 of the UNWC a request for mediation would also be possible at this juncture. If resolution were still elusive, a third party fact-finding body could impartially gather and analyse all the available information and then provide its key recommendations (Arts 33(3)-(9)). If the states still failed to reach agreement concerning the Xayaburi Dam, the UNWC would permit any of the dispute parties to seek arbitration by an independent tribunal or to appeal to the ICJ for a final ruling (Art. 33(10); Annex). All dispute parties would consequently be obliged to implement all of the findings from any ruling.

An alternative future vision for Mekong River dams with the UNWC in force

With so many variables, it is impossible to know if any of the Xayaburi Dam issues would have turned out differently from the current reality if the UNWC had been in force between the relevant states. Even having the UNWC and Mekong Agreement with its PNPCA operating collectively is unlikely to resolve all disputes. Nevertheless, the above fictional scenario demonstrates that having both treaties – the UNWC and Mekong Agreement – operating concurrently and complementing each other would certainly improve predictability and transparency by guiding expectations about how states can act regarding project proposals on both the Mekong’s mainstream and tributaries.

Moreover, it would underpin the PNPCA with clearer, legally-binding and largely time-bound sequential procedures, while allowing the MRC to continue to be the primary negotiation forum with additional dispute outlets available through third-parties. Such changes would not only have impacted the Xayaburi Dam proposal process but also the processes for the other ten dam projects currently being planned or built that might harm regional development as a whole.2

Previous academic research examining controversial dam projects on the Mekong mainstream (the Xayaburi Dam in Laos) and its tributaries (the Yali Falls Dam in Vietnam) supports this assertion that having the UNWC in force would have clarified some divisive substantive and procedural, legal elements.3,4 Moreover, many researchers argue that having the UNWC in force in the Mekong would go a long way to ensuring international best practice standards for due diligence and cooperation regarding future hydropower projects, especially regarding the PNPCA framework and Mekong Agreement dispute resolution procedures.5,6,7,8,9,10,11

In sum, the UNWC would provide a strengthened legal foundation of detailed and binding principles and procedures upon which the Lower Mekong Basin states could improve water governance and resolve ongoing conflicts. Accordingly, as a globally-recognised platform, the UNWC would support a balanced and level ‘playing-field’ for all the MRC states to govern the lower basin more equitably, especially between upstream and downstream riparians. In-turn, hopefully many of the major threats to the river and its people might be alleviated via a clearer and compulsory set of rules to abide by for hydropower development.

Revitalising processes for sustainable development that people can believe in: The time is now

As the pace of dam construction rapidly accelerates and as the region’s economies develop, it has become evidently clear that the legal obligations of the Mekong Agreement and the PNPCA urgently need significant clarifying and strengthening to evolve and cope with these and other regional trends.

China is pushing the LMCM as a viable water cooperation platform uniting the Upper-Lower Mekong Basins and was very quick to signify its own strategic position upstream and future importance to Mekong water relations downstream, especially negotiations over water supply, by opening a dam days before the March meeting supposedly in response to Vietnam’s request for increased flows (see Part 1).13,16,17 Portrayed as a symbolic act of goodwill and ‘hydro-diplomacy’, critics dispute China’s supposedly benevolent rationale with some saying it was simply a fortuitously-timed routine exercise and others highlighting that it will have no major benefits downstream, especially in the Mekong Delta where it is needed most.18,19,20,21In November 2015, the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Mechanism (LMCM) was launched by foreign Ministers from all the Mekong River basin states with the inaugural leaders’ meeting held on 23 March 2016.12,13 Not only is this the first multilateral agreement between all Mekong riparians that incorporates water resources, but China – Asia’s upstream superpower or ‘hydro-hegemon’ – rarely signs treaties or establishes institutions for joint-management of shared rivers.14,15

Despite the LMCM emerging on the regional agenda and seemingly being positioned by China as a legitimate alternative to the Mekong Agreement, MRC member states finally appear to have recognised strengthening the existing PNPCA as a crucial priority. A workshop entitled ‘Dialogue of Lessons Learnt from the Implementation of the PNPCA and Guidelines’ was convened in February 2016 by the MRC Secretariat. Its stated aim was to draw lessons from states’ PNPCA experiences of both the Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams in order to improve the procedures and guidelines.22 One of the workshop’s thematic sessions specifically investigated how guidance from the global water conventions and applicable international case law might support implementing legal ‘best practice’ standards for notification and prior consultation procedures within the PNPCA and its Guidelines.1,11

Additionally, several NGOs, including WWF and IUCN, have led calls for all Mekong basin states to join Vietnam in acceding to the UNWC for enhanced transboundary cooperation on sustainable dam development. Awareness-raising and technical capacity-building events around this goal have increased in recent years.23,24,25,26

A number of legal studies and policy papers have also been produced investigating the role, relevance, and application of the UNWC within the Lower Mekong Basin. One just published in March 2016 by IUCN entitled ‘A window of opportunity for the Mekong Basin: The UN Watercourses Convention as a basis for cooperation’ is a comparative legal analysis of how the UNWC complements the Mekong Agreement.7 Interest in the UNWC is clearly building across the region, and the time is now to seize upon it to improve water cooperation and processes for sustainable river development.

Hopefully the newly appointed MRC CEO – the first national from a riparian state – will see the value added and be bold in encouraging all member states to support and revitalise the Mekong Agreement and PNPCA framework through adoption of the UNWC.27

Just over 21 years since adopting the feted Mekong Agreement, a renewed opportunity has arisen for all the lower basin states to help strengthen water governance across the Mekong River mainstream and its tributaries. Should all MRC states be politically willing to further clarify and make binding their cooperative commitments within and between each other, the UNWC offers the global legal framework with balanced procedures which, operating alongside the Mekong Agreement and PNPCA, could collectively guide an alternative vision for the Mekong’s future sustainable development; one that all the people in this region may be able to believe in once more, as they did back in 1995.

References:

  1. McIntyre, O. (2011). The World Court’s ongoing contribution to international water law: The Pulp Mills Case between Argentina and Uruguay. Water Alternatives, 4(2), 124.
  2. Barron, L. (2015, January 29). Xayaburi redux at Lao meet. The Phnom Penh Post. Available from:http://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/xayaburi-redux-lao-meet
  3. Rieu-Clarke, A. (2015). Notification and consultation procedures under the Mekong Agreement: insights from the Xayaburi controversy. Asian Journal of International Law. 5(1), 143.
  4. Rieu-Clarke, A., & Gooch, G. (2009-2010). Governing the Tributaries of the Mekong-The Contribution of International Law and Institutions to Enhancing Equitable Cooperation Over the Sesan. Pacific McGeorge Global Business & Development Law Journal.22, 193.
  5. Bearden, B.L. (2010). The legal regime of the Mekong River: a look back and some proposals for the way ahead.Water Policy. 12, 798
  6. Bearden, B.L., (2012). Following the proper channels: tributaries in the Mekong legal regime. Water Policy. 14, 991
  7. IUCN. (2016). A window of opportunity for the Mekong Basin: The UN Watercourses Convention as a basis for cooperation (A legal analysis of how the UN Watercourses Convention complements the Mekong Agreement): IUCN. 27pp.
  8. Kinna, R. (2015, November 24). UN Watercourses Convention: Can it revitalise the Mekong Agreement 20 years on? Mekong Commons. Available from: http://www.mekongcommons.org/un-watercourses-convention-can-it-revitalise-mekong-agreement-20-years-on/
  9. Pech, S. (2011). UN Watercourses Convention and Greater Mekong Sub-region. Consultancy paper by Hatfield Consultants. July 2011. Available from: http://www.unwatercoursesconvention.org/images/2012/10/Mekong-and-UNWC.pdf
  10. Van Duyen, N. (2001). The Inadequacies of Environmental Protection Mechanisms in the Mekong River Basin Agreement. Asia Pacific Journal of Environmental Law. 6, 349
  11. Rieu-Clarke, A. (2014). Notification and Consultation on Planned Measures Concerning International Watercourses: Learning Lessons from the Pulp Mills and Kishenganga Cases. Yearbook of International Environmental Law. 24(1), 102.
  12. Biba, S. (2016, February 1). China drives water cooperation with Mekong countries. TheThirdPole.net. Available at: http://www.thethirdpole.net/2016/02/01/china-drives-water-cooperation-with-mekong-countries/
  13. Xinhuanet. (2016, March 24). Commentary: Lancang-Mekong cooperation to boost regional prosperity. Available from: http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2016-03/24/c_135219925.htm
  14. Chen, H., Rieu-Clarke, A. &Wouters, P. (2013).Exploring China’s transboundary water treaty practice through the prism of the UN Watercourses Convention.Water International. 38(2), 217-230
  15. Waslekar, S. (2016, January 10). Asia’s water can be a source of harmony, not conflict. South China Morning Post.Available from: http://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/1899067/asias-water-can-be-source-harmony-not-conflict
  16. Ganjanakhundee, S. (2016, March 23). China leaves little doubt who is master of the Mekong. The Nation. Available from: http://www.nationmultimedia.com/politics/China-leaves-little-doubt-who-is-master-of-the-Mek-30282244.html
  17. Yee, T.H. (2016, March 22). Beijing sweetens ground for China-led regional initiative. The Straits Times. Available from: http://www.straitstimes.com/asia/se-asia/beijing-sweetens-ground-for-china-led-regional-initiative
  18. Kossov, I. (2016, March 22). No great hopes for China’s Mekong release. The Phnom Penh Post. Available from:http://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/no-great-hopes-chinas-mekong-release
  19. The Mekong Eye. (2016, March 23). NGOs question China’s dam release. Available from:http://www.mekongeye.com/2016/03/24/ngos-question-chinas-dam-release/
  20. The Nation. (2016, March 19). Water diplomacy by China offers drought relief. Available from:http://www.nationmultimedia.com/national/Water-diplomacy-by-China-offers-drought-relief-30281969.html
  21. Zhou, M. (2016, March 23). China and the Mekong Delta: Water Savior or Water Tyrant? The Diplomat. Available from: http://thediplomat.com/2016/03/china-and-the-mekong-delta-water-savior-or-water-tyrant/
  22. MRC. (2016, February 25). MRC Discuss Lessons Learnt from Its Procedure on Water Diplomacy. Available from:http://www.mrcmekong.org/news-and-events/events/mrc-discuss-lessons-learnt-from-its-procedure-on-water-diplomacy/
  23. Brunner, J. (2015, June 24). Why the region needs the UN Watercourses Convention. IUCN. Available athttps://www.iucn.org/news_homepage/news_by_date/?21567/Why-the-region-needs-the-UN-Watercourses-Convention
  24. Goichot, M. (2016, January 14). UN convention could help solve Mekong pact’s weaknesses. Phnom Penh Post. Available from: http://www.phnompenhpost.com/analysis-and-op-ed/un-convention-could-help-solve-mekong-pacts-weaknesses
  25. Kinna, R., Glemet, R., & Brunner, J. (2015, September 29). Reinvigorating the Mekong Spirit.Myanmar Times.Available from: http://www.mmtimes.com/index.php/opinion/16719-reinvigorating-the-mekong-spirit.html
  26. Suy, P. (2015). Group Proposes Signing UN Water Pact. Khmer Times. Available from:http://www.khmertimeskh.com/news/16099/group-proposes-signing-un-water-pact/
  27. MRC. (2016, January 18). First riparian Chief Executive Officer assumes his office today. Available from:http://www.mrcmekong.org/news-and-events/news/first-riparian-chief-executive-officer-assumes-his-office/

Rémy Kinna is an Australian international water law, policy and governance specialist and Principal Consultant with Transboundary Water Law (TWL) Global Consulting (www.transboundarywaterlaw.com) currently based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. He is an Honorary Research Associate with the Institute of Marine and Environmental Law at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and an Expert – International Water Law and Policy with the London Centre of International Law Practice’s Centre for International Water Law and Security. Rémy can be contacted via email (remy@transboundarywaterlaw) or found on TwitterAll views and errors remain those of the author and do not represent those of the states, organisations and individuals mentioned in this piece. The author would like to sincerely thank Kathryn Pharr for her editorial work and Dr Alistair Rieu-Clarke for his feedback on an earlier version of this piece.

This article was originally printed here on the World Water Forum website.  It is reposted with permission from the author and the World Water Forum.

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From Savannakhet to Somerset: United by controversial EDF megaprojects

Two controversial energy infrastructure megaprojects located on opposite sides of the world, one in Western Europe and the other in Southeast Asia, are linked in more subtle ways than the most obvious bond i.e. they share the same main project developer. Hinkley Point C (HPC) nuclear power station, proposed to be built in the English county of Somerset and the Nam Theun 2 (NT2) Hydropower Project in operation since 2010 in central Laos are both megaprojects awarded to the French state-owned power utility, Électricité de France (EDF) as the main developer and shareholder in the respective project consortia.

Both projects are touted by their proponents as low-carbon energy alternatives to fossil fuel burning power plants that are designed to economically supply perceived unmet energy demands; both represent the biggest infrastructure projects the respective host nations have built at the time of construction; both projects have considerable externalities not being shouldered by the developers due to taxpayer subsidised risk guarantees; and both are mired in complex multi-stakeholder debates over their socio-economic and environmental sustainability credentials.

Beyond these similarities, both HPC and NT2 share a common pattern of politicisation at the highest levels of government, both at home and abroad, as vested interests clamour for each project to proceed at whatever the cost (both financially and politically). This situation inevitably leads to some serious political and economic distortions and inherent risks that emerge with time, that could have been avoided had less high profile, cheaper, smaller, more accountable, devolved and transparent energy projects been developed. Thus, it might be an interesting exercise to compare these two megaprojects and see if any wider lessons can be drawn from the common linkages discernible, despite the significant physical distance and domestic development context that separates them.

Nam Theun 2 – a dam too far for EDF and the Banks?

As the historically older case, this hydropower project had an extended period of gestation between initial development plans being proposed and eventual construction many decades later. A pre-feasibility study was first conducted in 1986, although basin planners with the multi-lateral river basin organization, the Mekong Committee, had already identified the dam site as holding potential for hydropower generation in the 1960s[1]. With the Indochina War being expedited across Laos (as “the other theatre”) and eventual 1975 regime change in Laos ushering in a one party communist state, geo-political conditions were not conducive for the project to be resurrected until the early 1990s, when the plans were dusted off once more by international actors.

The 39 m high Nam Theun 2 dam under construction in 2008. Much of the work was sub-contracted out to Thai construction companies and the cement was sourced from over 600 kms away in Saraburi, Thailand (Source: International Rivers)

The 39 m high Nam Theun 2 dam under construction in 2008. Much of the work was sub-contracted out to Thai construction companies and the cement was sourced from over 600 kms away in Saraburi, Thailand (Source: International Rivers)

It took ten years in the appraisal and preparatory stage from 1995 before final approval by the World Bank’s Executive Directors in lending countries was granted, thereby rubber-stamping the proposed social and environmental safeguards to mitigate and compensate for project impacts. This approval followed a year long period of “public consultations” and “participatory workshops”, conducted both internationally and domestically (though it was widely acknowledged that no meaningful participation was possible in the Lao context). In no reasonable sense could the developer claim to have gained broad public acceptance or employed a “fair, informed and transparent decision-making process”, according to World Commission on Dams principles, given the depth of opposition expressed by civil society globally.

I attended the Bangkok leg of the “technical consultations” held in August 2004, at which numerous civil society actors and dam-impacted villagers from Thailand, including a handful of impactees from the World Bank-funded Pak Mun dam, gave a series of heartfelt and well-reasoned arguments why it was an ill-conceived idea to build the NT2 dam project. The Pak Mun dam in Northeast Thailand became infamous for the multiple impacts it caused to fisheries and aquatic resources based livelihoods, sparking local protests and wider social conflict that still simmers today. But the Bank officials brushed off the objections with their own technocratic arguments as to why constructing the project was Laos’ only option to deliver it from abject poverty through electricity revenue generated and develop economically based on a rational utilisation and export of its natural resource asset base. At all the other consultations worldwide, voices of opposition outweighed those in support both in terms of numbers and credibility of the arguments presented. However, it was clear the decision to proceed had been taken long before the consultations were held and the World Bank was more interested in issuing a “blank cheque” to the developers, as maintained by David Hales of the Worldwatch Institute who chaired the public workshop on NT2 in Washington in September 2004.

The NT2 Hydropower Company (NTPC) that built, owns and operates NT2 is itself a consortium of three main shareholders, namely EDF International (40 %), the Electricity Generating Public Company of Thailand (EGCO) (35 %), and the government of Lao PDR’s Laos Holding State Enterprise (25 %). NTPC sell 90 % of the power generated from the 1,070 MW installed capacity plant to the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT), with the remainder consumed domestically in Laos.

Construction officially began in November 2005 and NT2 was commissioned in March 2010, having cost about $1.45 billion, with funding derived from multiple sources, including France’s Coface, Sweden’s EKN, Norway’s GIEK, the ADB, Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency, the World Bank, the French Development Agency, the Export-Import Bank of Thailand, Nordic Investment Bank, nine international banks and seven Thai banks. The Lao government’s equity share in NTPC was financed chiefly by a loan from the European Investment Bank (EIB) and Asian Development Bank (ADB), with the multi-lateral banks providing political risk guarantees to the developers and private lenders, in effect, thus placing the main burden of risk on taxpayers in the contributing countries and into the future, with the Lao people.

Due to its size, prestige and symbolic nature, NT2 neatly embodied for all representatives of the temporarily thwarted dam building industry (domestically and internationally) a significant step towards the realisation of the popular narrative created that Laos could become the “Battery of Asia” or “Kuwait of Southeast Asia”, if the slumbering nation could only maximise the development of its hydropower potential. Technically, the dam project appears to have performed reasonably, but socially and environmentally the dam has been a predictable disaster, with the impacts falling particularly heavily on the downstream riparian people living along the Xe Bang Fai river in Khammouan and Savannaket provinces.

The downstream channel constructed below the power station takes 350 m3/s of turbinated water down to the Xe Bang Fai river, adding significantly to its normal background flows and seriously impacting the aquatic ecology and river-dependent livelihoods (Source: Aurecon Group)

The downstream channel constructed below the power station takes 350 m3/s of turbinated water down to the Xe Bang Fai river, adding significantly to its normal background flows and seriously impacting the aquatic ecology and river-dependent livelihoods (Source: Aurecon Group)

A significant, but invariably overlooked, historical feature of NT2 and the manner in which funding approval was granted by the multi-lateral banks, relates to the highly politicised nature of the campaign pushing for its development,  that included being able to harness the support of national leaders at critical moments. At one point in late 2004, it seemed like commitment was wavering from several crucial parties to backing the project, including some ambivalence on the French and American sides as to whether this was a worthy project to be involved in, given the patently high social and environmental impacts that would result and rising voices of opposition. Seemingly in a carefully calculated bid to sway any doubters of the project’s strategic importance, proponents started playing the “China card”, suggesting that if the Western institutions failed to back it, then China would fill the gap in a trice and takeover the project. This scare tactic seemed to do the trick, because French President Jacques Chirac was understood to have intervened and secured European loans and grants to secure EDF’s central involvement, a fact tacitly acknowledged by the French Ambassador to Laos at the project’s powerhouse construction inauguration ceremony in November 2005. The ceremony was also attended by the Lao Prime Minister, Bounnhang Vorachit and then Thai PM, Thaksin Shinawatra, representing the country likely to benefit most from the project in terms of immediate construction contracts, subsidised imported energy and externalisation of socio-ecological costs. Building large dams in Thailand has been controversial since the early 90s, thanks to an active civil society and relatively free media.

The Nam Theun 2 Hydropower Project (NT2) in central Laos and relative position of Savannakhet, where the bulk of the project’s power leaves Laos for the Thai market (Source: Baird and Quastel, 2015)

The Nam Theun 2 Hydropower Project (NT2) in central Laos and relative position of Savannakhet, where the bulk of the project’s power leaves Laos for the Thai market (Source: Baird and Quastel, 2015)

There were strong suspicions amongst civil society observers and energy analysts that the World Bank doctored its figures and used incorrect assumptions in order to make the economic argument for the dam stack up, prior to final appraisal in March 2005. Civil society critics had always argued that there was no credible economic case for the NT2 project going ahead, above and beyond its poor social and environmental score sheet, as the amount of electricity it was supposed to produce for export could easily be covered by demand side management in the Thai energy market. At least 153 NGOs recorded their opposition to the dam project going ahead during the evaluation phase.

In 2011, the World Bank published a report entitled “Doing a Dam Better: the Lao People’s Democratic Republic and the story of Nam Theun 2”, in which it is claimed the story of NT2’s development would provide “valuable insights and lessons that can be applied in future projects of similar size, scope, and complexity”. It was also held up as “strong evidence” of the Bank’s re-engagement in and commitment to supporting the large hydropower sector, after a decade-long hiatus prior to and after the seminal World Commission on Dams (WCD) report. Thus, the NT2 project fulfilled many functions for the dam lobby, not only in terms of Laos but worldwide, as a harbinger of renewed lending for “high risk, high reward” hydraulic development projects. And sure enough, it did open up a flood of cheap finance, subsidies and externalisation of risk for the ever-thirsty industry across Asia, Africa and Latin America.  The World Bank’s storyline of success with the project has continued since, despite the many reports issued that challenge this stale narrative with compelling evidence, including those from the project’s own Panel of Experts (PoE), but also numerous civil society studies conducted.

The project is expected to generate total revenue of $1.9 billion over the course of its 25 year concession period, of which some 25 % should, in theory, make it into Lao government coffers to help fund rural poverty alleviation programmes. However, because the project’s financial arrangements are so murky, particularly on the Lao government side, there is no guarantee in place that the funds generated will be spent where they were originally intended. Due to a culture of intense secrecy and unaccountability within the heart of Lao state governance, it is uncertain to what extent dividends, taxes and royalties from NT2 have been directed towards social security, education or health programmes. Without an independent audit, suspicions remain that revenues are just co-mingled with other public resources or even mis-appropriated, calling into question any claims by the Banks of a “model project” in water or energy governance. Tellingly, a spate of subsequent hydropower projects in Laos have ignored the long list of “safeguards” touted as the new standard by the NT2 proponents and fast-tracked dam construction without even basic public consultations. In Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perception Index, Laos was ranked 139th out of 168 nations worldwide.

Children bathe in the dam’s 450 km2 Nakai reservoir near a resettlement village. Despite assurances by the developers to remove all vegetation prior to flooding, much of it was left and is slowly rotting in the water (Source: FIVAS)

Children bathe in the dam’s 450 km2 Nakai reservoir near a resettlement village. Despite assurances by the developers to remove all vegetation prior to flooding, much of it was left and is slowly rotting in the water (Source: FIVAS)

Meanwhile, most of the goals of the social and environmental mitigation programme remain unmet, while many of the impacts identified by critics (and some additional ones) have been borne out in practice. Resettled families have not been made demonstrably better off and many are still reliant on dwindling material handouts from the NTPC and Lao government to survive, while downstream along the Xe Bang Fai recipient river in Khammouan and Savannakhet provinces, fish populations have crashed and riverside vegetable gardens lost amongst a catalogue of impacts, impoverishing the livelihoods of the tens of thousands of people that once relied on them. Rainy season flooding has been exacerbated by the power station additional flows, further eroding the sustainability of local livelihoods through destruction of rice crops. Meanwhile natural forests have been destroyed and wildlife decimated in the “protected area” in the headwaters of the NT2 reservoir, despite the assurances of the dam proponents that the project’s development would ensure their protection.  As Professor Thayer Scudder, an eminent global expert on the social impact of dams, Commissioner for the World Commission on Dams and one of the three person Panel of Experts for the NT2 project, commented in a New York Times article in August 2014, after nearly two decades spent closely monitoring the dam’s development process, “Nam Theun 2 confirmed my longstanding suspicion that the task of building a large dam is just too complex and too damaging to priceless natural resources”.

 

Hinkley Point C – more economic madness?

Nuclear power was first developed in the United Kingdom during the 1950s and 60s with the somewhat cornucopian promise of abundant clean, cheap and reliable energy for present and future generations to benefit from. The British public generally believed the claims made by the industry and politicians, so little overt opposition to nuclear energy (unlike nuclear weapons) appeared until the first large-scale nuclear accident occurred at Three-Mile Island in 1979 followed six years later by nuclear meltdown disaster at Chernobyl. These events and various setbacks within the industry prompted a much wider debate about the technology with a resulting fall in public support. At its peak in 1997, nuclear power generated 27 % of the nation’s electricity, but this has subsequently declined to about 18.5 % (in 2012) from 15 nuclear reactors, as the original fleet of power stations has been gradually retired for decommissioning and not been replaced. Based on rhetorical concerns about future energy security and pressures to reduce national emissions of carbon dioxide, the UK government announced in 2008 that it had given the go-ahead for a new generation of nuclear power stations to be constructed, with eight potential sites announced the following year, one of which was Hinkley Point.

This move proved controversial, with many NGOs, including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the World Wildlife Fund opposing the shift back to nuclear power solutions, on the basis of uncertain cost-benefit appraisal, the opacity of the planning process and environmental concerns. By marked contrast with NT2, nuclear plants like HPC do not require the resettlement of 6,500 households nor do they have the same direct negative impacts on the livelihoods of tens or hundreds of thousands of people, so the short term social and environmental impacts could be said to be more limited and manageable. However, the long term environmental and health impacts and risks posed are less favourable, due to the problems of nuclear material transport to and from site, safe disposal of radioactive waste and plant decommissioning issues passed on to future generations to resolve.

After a long period in the consultation and planning stages, a third reactor is scheduled to be built alongside two existing plants at the Somerset coastal site, namely Hinkley Point A (Magnox reactor) and B (Advanced Gas-cooled Reactor). The landscape-dominating plants occupy a low-lying, rural spot barely above sea-level next to the Bristol Channel, famed for having the second highest tidal range in the world after the Bay of Fundy, eastern Canada. This fact is material, when considering the United Kingdom’s energy futures in an era of awareness of the need to build alternative, safe and sustainable energy sources to mitigate predicted climate change. The UK government is legally committed to a gradual decarbonisation of the nation’s energy production mix up to 2050.

A view across Bridgwater Bay to the Hinkley A and B power station site. HPC will be developed alongside, at an estimated cost of £ 18 billion (David J.H. Blake)

A view across Bridgwater Bay to the Hinkley A and B power station site. HPC will be developed alongside, at an estimated cost of £ 18 billion (David J.H. Blake)

While the original A plant closed in 1999 and is being decommissioned, Hinkley B is still operating under EDF ownership and is not expected to cease operations until at least 2023. The entire site is vulnerable to future increases in sea levels, something that was not well understood when Hinkley A and B were built, but should be a high priority for HPC planners. In 1607, a major tsunami is recorded as engulfing much of this coastline and killing an estimated 2,000 people, but neither this historical event nor future predicted sea level rises of at least two metres by the end of this century and more severe weather events precipitated by climate change seems to have dampened the appetite of the proponents to push ahead with HPC, regardless of potential risks. When I visited the site in early April 2016 at high water on a spring tide, the sea was already lapping over the first line of concrete defences around the existing reactors (see picture). I can foresee extra marine erosion and flood protection measures, adding further to the costs of the project in the foreseeable future.

The coastal perimeter of the HPC site is threatened with coastal erosion, expected to worsen in future under conditions of rising sea levels, stormier weather and an underlying soft geology (David J.H. Blake)

The coastal perimeter of the HPC site is threatened with coastal erosion, expected to worsen in future under conditions of rising sea levels, stormier weather and an underlying soft geology (David J.H. Blake)

HPC was originally proposed by the government as an ideal solution to “keeping the lights on” in a climate change challenged world, able to supply 7 % of the UK’s present energy needs at a single location, through a 3,200 MW installed capacity and reliably high plant load factor[2]. The trouble is, the European Pressurized Reactor (EPR) design EDF have proposed to use is thus far unproven technology and at the four other sites where a similar nuclear reactor type is being constructed in France, Finland and China, the projects have been dogged by unforeseen technical problems leading to steep cost and time overruns.

During a spring tide in early April 2016, the sea breached the first line of sea defences near the plant. In 1607, this coastline was struck by a major tsunami that swept many miles inland and drowned thousands (David J.H. Blake)

During a spring tide in early April 2016, the sea breached the first line of sea defences near the plant. In 1607, this coastline was struck by a major tsunami that swept many miles inland and drowned thousands (David J.H. Blake)

As a political party, the incumbent Conservatives have traditionally offered strong support for nuclear power, although up until a few years ago the leadership insisted that it should not be subsidised by the taxpayer but subject to normal market forces and open competition. However, this stance shifted under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government (2010-15), when ministers decided that the UK should pursue a nuclear-fuelled future, with the provision of state subsidies to sector investors, riling both free-marketeers and renewable energy campaigners alike. This policy position remained unchanged even after the sobering wake-up call of the potential dangers surrounding nuclear power delivered by the March 2011 Fukushima disaster. Yet the British public have proven far less averse to nuclear power than the German population, perhaps partly because the former have been fed a regular line from the government that without further nuclear development the UK may be looking at future brown-outs. Such a fear-invoking narrative was recently admitted to be a myth by the government’s own Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, when Amber Rudd publicly stated that the nation’s lights would not go out if it was not developed, as had been claimed by her predecessors.

Such admissions are grist to the mill for the national and local civil society opposition to Hinkley, movements like Stop Hinkley which have doggedly campaigned against the project for many years, long before HPC was proposed. Although such citizen groups are ideologically opposed to nuclear power development in principle, their economic arguments against the project have been given added weight in recent years by a number of studies by financial and economic analysts, such as Liberium Capital which described the strike price as “economically insane” and “as far as we can see this makes Hinkley Point the most expensive power station in the world.”

Despite the generous government guarantees provided by a strike price (at £92.50 per MW/h) for the electricity produced of over twice the current wholesale price for electricity in the UK, the parlous state of EDF’s finances and massive debt mountain mean that HPC is a risky proposition for the utility. Its own workers’ union opposes the project and in February 2016, Thomas Piquemal, EDF’s chief financial officer resigned, warning that building HPC could ruin the company. As a result, the French government has said it plans to provide financial support to EDF, a move that will likely fall foul of EU legislation to ensure fair competition in the energy market and disallow unfair state aid to individual companies, something that the UK government is already being challenged on in the European courts by the Austrian government. With national pride and the reputation of French nuclear technology potentially at stake (EDF is also looking to invest in China and other countries), a decision from the French government on whether to bailout EDF has been delayed time and again, and a decision is not now anticipated until at least September 2016.

One remarkable point of difference between NT2 and HPC is that with the former, China was portrayed by some as a threat to EDF and Western venture capital’s regional interests, had it been allowed to gain a stake in the dam project. With the benefit of hindsight, China was poised to build dozens of other dams in Laos, with or without EDF’s involvement. But now China is actively courted as a nuclear investment partner, both for the injection of funds it can offer, but also, potentially for its technological expertise. Indeed, the China General Nuclear Power Corporation has taken a one third stake in HPC, with the deal inked just hours before the state visit of President Xi Jinping to London in October 2015. Much to the chagrin of human rights groups, the President was afforded the red carpet treatment for his visit, with PM Cameron and Chancellor Osborne hoping HPC would be the springboard for further Chinese investment in nuclear power stations in Essex and Suffolk.

With the latest twist in the Hinkley saga looking like a legal challenge will be launched against the UK and French governments, one Southwest region Green MP referred to HPC as an uneconomic “white elephant” which is being pushed regardless, because there is “now a political battle where the stakes for both the UK and France are just too high to admit failure”.

Both NT2 and NPC would qualify as prime examples of what Danish economist Bent Flyvbjerg refers to as “Machiavellian Megaprojects”, which are shown to follow a time-honoured formula:

(underestimated costs) + (overestimated revenues) + (undervalued environmental impacts) + (overvalued economic development effects) = (project approval)

As Flyvbjerg stresses in his analysis of such megaproject development by a relatively few societal elites, the monomaniacal pursuit can frequently lead to the deception of “parliaments, the public and the media about the costs and benefits of the projects”.

It seems there is more linking the development paradigm of Savannakhet and Somerset than citizens in both the U.K and Laos may fully appreciate. There is still a glimmer of hope, however, that commonsense may prevail in London and Paris, and the HPC case of folie de grandeur may be stopped in its tracks. In the case of NT2, Laos has now been locked into a project with multiple negative social and environmental consequences, many irreversible such as permanent loss of valuable terrestrial and aquatic biodiversity, that will ultimately cost its citizens and the wider Mekong basin populations dearly into the future.

[1] Interestingly, in the address given by Pierre Lellouche, Minister of State with responsibility for Foreign Trade at the Nam Theun 2 project’s inauguration ceremony on 9 December 2010, he claimed that the site was first identified back in 1927 by an engineer, presumably of the French Indochina colonial government.

[2] The plant load factor is the ratio between the actual energy generated by the plant to the maximum possible energy that can be generated with the plant working at its rated power over the duration of a year.

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Regaining Thailand: An Inevitable Challenge for US Policymakers

This article focuses on the political situation in Thailand and the current state of U.S.-Thai relations. Due to the recent Thai military coup in 2014, the relationship between the United States and Thailand has deteriorated in various aspects to the extent that the ex-ASEAN frontrunner seems to have lost its position as a vibrant democracy and human right advocate and a relatively strong U.S. ally in the Asia-Pacific region. Although it will be an inevitable challenge for U.S. policymakers, to assist Thailand in regaining such position, it is believed that the United States must reverse its policy on the cutbacks in cooperation with Thailand and work with Thai authorities in an attempt to stabilize the political situation and consequently restore democracy to the country.

In elaboration of the above standpoint, this article is divided into three sections. The first section provides background to how the Thai military coup has come to power and of the present state of U.S.-Thai relations followed by a section which describes the significance of Thai political situation to the United States. The last section will be an illustration on a step-by-step procedure recommended to be taken by the United States in order to take Thailand back to its former self as a democratic nation and a U.S. ally.

Background Information

In May 2014, General Prayuth Chan-ocha seized power in what is now Thailand’s fifth military coup under its current monarch of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Although coups have been frequent in Thailand’s turbulent modern history, the crucial timing and the severity of the junta’s subsequent actions suggest a subterranean ratcheting up of tensions. The backdrop of the coup was six months of street protests by “yellow shirts” which paralyzed the democratically elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra, the youngest sister of the former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Thaksin Shinawatra is undoubtedly considered a controversial figure in Thailand. During his administration, his populist policies worked in favor of his supporters mostly the lower-class who make up the majority of the Thai population. Despite various attempts by the elites to rid Thaksin of his influence, it was him and his allies that had always won elections on consecutive occasions over the past. Coming with the party’s gain in its popularity among the destitutes was the ascending despite from the the urban middle class, elites and especially the royalists who saw the party and its leader’s popularity and policies as cunning approaches to consolidating power. For the royalists, Thaksin’s legacy and influence was also seen as a threat to the monarchy, who has always maintained outright supremacy in modern times.

A loose group comprising royalists, ultra-nationalists and the urban middle class who disliked Thaksin is known as the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) or the “yellow shirts”. It is well known for its constant rallies of political movements against Thaksin and his allies in politics including his own sister the last democratically elected prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra. They were behind the huge street protests that led up to both the 2006 military coup, which ousted Thaksin and sent him into exile overseas, as well as the recent one, which deposed his sister from the state’s premiership in similar ways. They are renowned for opposing stance against the “red shirts,” who sided with Thaksin and protested against unelected governments that toppled over him and his successors. For the “yellow shirts” and royalists, the coup was therefore seen as  a showcase of their own achievement after repeated prolonged efforts to eliminate prospects of Thaksin and his successors’ repeat victories in general elections and their returns to political power.

Upon taking power, Prayuth promised to Thai people in what described as return of “sustainable happiness” and laid a “roadmap” to returning the country the democratic ruling

whilst in reality all he and the junta has been committing seems to be of undemocratic nature and against its originally proclaimed plan. To name a few, Prayuth has suspended the democratic constitution, imposed martial law, and dialed back civil liberties such as freedom of speech and assembly. Over the past year, more than 1,000 politicians, academics, and journalists have been detained or sent to Thai military facilities for what is called “viewpoint adjustments”, while Yingluck has been put on trial for criminal negligence over alleged graft in a rice subsidy scheme. In April 2015, the junta released the first draft of its new constitution, the real aim of which was branded undemocratic in that it appeared to work against return of  electoral power once wielded by Thaksin Shinawatra to the Thai population. The draft was so unpopular and untrustworthy that it was rejected by the National Reform Council and surprisingly faced opposition from both the Phua Thai and Democrat Parties, the longstanding rivals in Thai politics. In January 2016, the second constitutional draft was launched to the public amidst fear of Meechai Ruchupuan, the official in charge of drawing it up, that it might not resolve long-running troubles and even produce weak civilian governments under the hidden influence of the military. Criticism of the new draft has demonstrated significant flaws in its content which once again bleak the potential of real democracy being returned to the nation. Notwithstanding masses of criticisms, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha remained adamant that the referendum for the draft constitution be held in mid-2017 even without solid guarantee.

As the United States’ oldest ally and a strategic hub to U.S.’ interests in the Asia-Pacific, Thailand’s regressive path cannot be ignored. Thailand is at present a military regime that lacks guarantee of when it will return to civilian rule. Further, it must be noted that elite interests are divergent from the United States’. While the United States, in collaboration with the Asia Pacific region, are expected to strive for bringing back the democratic state in Thailand, the royalists are dreading return of an electoral democracy that brought Thaksin and his successors into power over the past decade. Moreover, they become increasingly hostile with the United States’ signs of growing disapprovals and reactions shown in their curtailment of cooperation with Thai authorities. After Kristie Kenney, the US Ambassador to Thailand, criticized the coup, Thai royalists began a social media campaign calling for the ambassador to be recalled to Washington. Khunying Songsuda Yodmani, the daughter of former pro-US military dictator Thanom Kittikachorn, blasted the United States for ‘meddling’ in Thailand’s affairs and called on the U.S. State Department to “respect its allies and treat them as equals rather than its colonies.”

In the areas of defense and security, the Obama administration suspended more than $4.7 million worth of the unspent FMF and IMET assistance for Thailand. It cancelled high-level engagements, exercises, and a number of training programs with the military and police. Every year, the United States participate in the Cobra Gold, the largest Asia-Pacific military exercise held in Thailand. In the past, the exercise involved many thousands of U.S. and Thai troops and included high-end military operations. In 2015, however, the U.S. military scaled down the Cobra Gold, reducing U.S. troops to just 3,600 and cancelling a large-scale, live-fire exercise associated with amphibious landing. This is not surprising as under prohibitions in U.S. laws, American forces are limited in what exercises they are permitted to conduct with a nation that had overthrown a democratically elected government.

Nevertheless, Thailand, trying to prove its prevailing independence from Western sanctions is embarking on its journey to pursuing bilateral ties with China. To begin with, Thailand’s military junta favors China’s stance on the country’s internal situation. According to the conservative Thai newspaper Naew Na, sources in the Ministry of Defence noted that, “China regarded Thailand’s political problems as an internal issue, and that China would not interfere.” Due to the lack of ideological differences between Thailand and China’s current regimes, Thailand has been working more closely with China. On June 6, 2015, General Prayuth Chan-ocha announced that Thailand was now a “partner of China at every level.” Moreover, in January 2015, China’s Defense Minister Chang Wanquan embarked on a visit to Thailand aimed at boosting Sino-Thai defense relations. For Thailand, securing relations with China is the ruling junta’s way to show Washington that there are alternate partners who are willing to do business with, without fretting about the legitimacy of its rule.

Economically, Thailand’s ruling junta is boosting ties with China as a way to reverse its sluggish growth. In December, Thailand welcomed Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, the most prominent foreign leader to visit the country since the military seized power on May 22. It was a good opportunity for Thailand to show that Thailand’s political problems are not obstacles to trade, especially since the West has reduced trade ties with Thailand following the coup.

Why Does This Matter?

As the oldest ally to the United States in the Asia-Pacific, Thailand acts as a crucial determinant to the U.S. pivot to the Asia-Pacific region. While U.S. relations with most countries in Southeast Asia are warming, the United States’ ties with its oldest partner in the region are a critical outlier.

Although it is true that the military junta purposefully took control of Thailand, it must be understood that there is a looming royal succession coming up due to the ailing 87-year-old Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s ill-health. For now, the Thai military has assumed political control to ensure it manages the royal succession, whenever that takes place. King Bhumibol guided his people through the tumult that was the second half of the 20th century until today. His death will shake Thailand like nothing has in its modern history, and the Thai military wants to be firmly in charge when that happens, and it is that simple.

In responding to Thailand’s political crisis, the United States must walk a tightrope, balancing consistency in U.S. foreign-policy tenets supporting democracy, human rights and freedom of speech with readiness to deal with deep-rooted consequences of Thailand’s political transition that may arise in the near future. It risks losing serious geopolitical ground if it fails to manage this difficult chapter in Thailand’s political evolution.

Whether or not the junta succeeds in this aim, Prayuth’s “democracy with Thai characteristics” may struggle to bridge his country’s deep political and social divides. American academic David Streckfuss has described his rule as a throwback to Thailand’s “golden age of military dictatorship” during the Cold War. Particularly, it overlooks the rising political expectations of the Thai people. “This is not the same Thailand as 1958, 1976, or 1991,” Streckfuss writes. “And neither are the Thai people the same. Democracy in Thailand may not be inevitable, but its chances are considerably higher than successfully putting the genie of political consciousness back in the bottle.” In other words, Prayuth may find the Thai people growing restless provided that not much has been done to bridge the divides. Meanwhile, the United States has an interest in seeing democracy return to Thailand as rapidly as possible. The U.S. must therefore act as a mediator ready to handle the consequences that may arise from Thailand’s political crisis.

What Should The United States Do?

For now, it is unlikely that Thailand will have real elections until the succession has taken place, which could be several years from now. Moreover, the draft constitution currently being circulated falls short of what would be considered as democratic. The presented charter contains provisions for a new senate where the junta would appoint all 250 members and leave six seats open for the heads of the armed forces. This appointed senate would also check the power of lawmakers during the five-year transitional phase, which allows the junta, and not civilians, to both determine both the senate body and the laws. Further, the new prime minister could be selected if over 250 members of parliament support the motion and if it subsequently approved by a joint session of the lower house and the appointed senate. This would allow the junta-controlled senate, and not the citizens to choose their leader, and would arguably allow junta leaders like Prayuth to prolong his premiership. In addition, the revamped constitution may allow a planned National Strategic Reform and Reconciliation Committee – nicknamed the “crisis panel” – to seize all executive and legislative power from the government and parliament in an emergency. An unelected “outsider” could become prime minister, endorsed by parliament, if a “crisis” arises, and critics fear that pro-junta outsiders will be boosted to become premier. Additionally, the Constitutional Court will continue to decide the fates of politicians who fall afoul of the charter’s laws or if a “crisis” remains unresolved. During the past decade, that Constitutional Court ruled against several elected politicians, effectively ending their careers. Essentially, this constitution will provide the junta a supreme right to prevent the sort of electoral democracy that brought Thaksin and his allies to power, contrary to popular 1997 constitution that the junta canceled after a 2006 coup.

The U.S. government must be strategic. Taking lesson from the hostilities that the Americans faced after the previous U.S. ambassador Kristie Kenney staked out hardline against the coup, Washington must urge the current ambassador to Thailand Glyn Davies to be cautious, moderate and take a more nuanced approach towards protecting U.S. interests. Meanwhile, Davies must be urged to continue negotiating with Thai authorities. His team should consult with the military and various stakeholders, in order to deepen understanding of U.S. concerns and listen to perspectives of the key players in the political drama that has engulfed the kingdom. Further, to restore democratic hopes, Davies’ team must also pressure the junta to amend the new draft through diplomatic pressures and negotiations. It must uphold the principle that the constitution follows international guidelines, respects the choice of citizens and not the military officials over their premier. At this point, there were numerous politicians and civilians who were detained over their criticisms of the new draft; the U.S. government must assert the fact that their opinions must be respected. Beyond that, it should pressure the Thai government to end the use of military tribunals to try civilians, and amend or revoke the penal code article 112 on lese-majeste and release those who are convicted under that article.

Thailand’s relations with China have long been strong and it seems that Beijing incrementally steps up its ties with the Thai military every time Washington pulls back. Washington must therefore find ways to demonstrate that it remains a friend of Thailand and not turn its back on the country when politics enters a rough patch. One idea would be to establish a private eminent persons’ group of senior former U.S. foreign-policy officials, experts and business leaders that could meet influential Thais on a regular basis to discuss the future of Thai-U.S. relations, for example, five years down the road.

In the areas of defense and security, Washington can reverse its cuts to military cooperation, but with limits. First, it can continue its full complement of joint military exercises. Second, the U.S. should prepare to hit the ground running with resumption of full military-to-military contact, to include the doubling of IMET assistance. Nonetheless, Washington should also condition that Thailand will only receive full military cooperation if it is progressing towards the democratic path and take into account the human rights of its citizens, through Ambassador Davies’ use of continued diplomatic pressure and negotiations. This way, the U.S. will be able to both improve its ties with Thailand and at the same time ensure that Thailand is walking the right way.

Bangkok hosts one of the largest U.S. embassies in the region, and this serves as the base for a raft of U.S. activities in Southeast Asia including regional headquarters for narcotics addiction, U.S. Agency for International Development, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. If the military continues to delay elections and tighten control on civil society, it would not be safe for these institutions and operations to be solely based in Bangkok, as it would allow the junta to jeopardize U.S. interests, institutions and operations. However, rather than completely relocating these activities, which would strain U.S.-Thai relations even further, a good option will be to disperse these interests throughout Southeast Asia, which would not only protect U.S. interests, but would also allow it to better deal with Thailand. For example, the U.S. could enlarge its embassies throughout the region and establish second offices for these activities in countries such as Vietnam and Singapore, for a different set of reasons. U.S.-Vietnam relations in recent times have been improving and strategic; establishing offices in Vietnam will not only allow the U.S. to handle more closely mainland Southeast Asian issues, but will also increase its leverage over the ongoing disputes with China in the South China Sea, a sea crucial to maritime trade. As for Singapore, the island nation’s political stability, development and hub location in Southeast Asia allows it to serve as a haven for U.S. interests to be well-maintained and not be threatened.

Moreover, an important way to regain Thailand is by increasing engagement with nearby countries, which has already been happening. For example, the U.S. could work towards the development and democratization of Thailand’s neighboring countries Lao, Cambodia and Myanmar, in case it will have any spillover effects to Thailand in the future. Having recently gone through a dramatic political transition from a military dictatorship to a democratic regime, working with Myanmar will give hope. Another very important country the U.S. should work very closely with is Indonesia, a regional leader, stable democracy and home to the headquarters of ASEAN, the political and economic organization of ten Southeast Asian countries. First, more diplomatic activities in Indonesia will allow the United States increased presence over ASEAN regional institutions to influence the dynamics and affairs of Southeast Asia as a region. Second, with Indonesia on its side, the U.S. will be able to utilize Indonesia’s power in Southeast Asia to push Thailand and other countries in the region to embrace democratic transitions and human rights. It would not be a quick process, but working with neighboring countries will gradually press Thailand to democratize in the long-run.

After all it is worth noting that there exists remarkable prospect of Thai’s current political status being overlooked by the United States amidst the rising of some neighboring countries on the ASEAN political and diplomatic platform. There also arises a concern that this may steer away the United States’ attention from assisting Thailand in gaining back democracy and basic human rights. Among a few countries is Myanmar which has recently gone through a massive political upheaval from the dictatorship to democratic regime and coming with their newly-acquired democracy is evidence of China’s attempt to secure the top alliance position via its economic collaboration plan and policies with the country. Confining its attention to a small group of the Asia Pacific countries may do the United States more harms than goods. Hence it is crucial that the United States never loses sight of maintaining a good balance of power through its public relations and diplomatic exercises throughout the Asia Pacific region.

This op-ed, written by a concerned Thai citizen, is posted anonymously.

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Regional Roundup for Week of 1.3.2016

Happy 2016 from East by Southeast! We’ve been on holiday for the past month, but have a full slate of posts starting this week. Tomorrow we will release our predictions for what is sure to be dynamic year in China-Southeast Asia-US relations. We want to take a moment to thank our news digest mafia comprised of Brooke Rose, Julia Zielinski, Rachel Tritsch, John Juenemann, and Becca Slotkin for  their diligence and insight in putting together weekly digest. And a big thanks to you, our loyal reader for caring about what’s happening on East by Southeast.~Brian and Will, the editors.

EXSE FOCUS

A ‘Special’ US-ASEAN Summit in Sunnylands in 2016? – The Diplomat A look at the significance of an upcoming meeting between the two sides next year.//no need for a question mark here, the summit is on for February 15-16, so who will show up for Myanmar? Remember the last time Obama hosted a head of state at Sunnylands? This says the US-ASEAN relationship is as important as the US-China relationship.

Nu River Saved, Jack Ma Buys Preservation Land – ChinaFile A great piece of news came from China on the night of December 16, that the Yunnan provincial government in southwest China has announced its decision to not develop hydro-electric projects on the Nu River, also known as the Salween (link in Chinese).//this has been spoken about for nearly a year, but hearing the news in official statement brings elation. Shout out to a key NGO for their work in proving the Nu River valley is actually a fault line between the Hengduan mountains and a Himalayan plate. No informed government would approve building dams on a fault line, not even China’s. 

Mekong residents to fight dam ruling – The Nation THE Administrative Court yesterday dismissed complaints over the Xayaburi Dam against five state agencies. However, the 37 plaintiffs, from eight Mekong provinces, say they will appeal further.//This could be the green light for construction of the Don Sahong Dam which was supposed to break ground in November. 

China’s Economy Starts 2016 at Slowest Pace in Years – NYT China, the world’s second-largest economy, looked set for a weak start to 2016 after activity in the manufacturing sector contracted for a fifth straight month in December.

Related: Deutsche Bank Joins Retreat From China – NYT 

Related: Opinion is divided on state of Chinese economy, but not on its importance – The Guardian 

Related: China Unveils Economic Strategy for 2016 – The Diplomat 

Related: China’s Planning Addiction – Project Syndicate

Shenzhen Landslide Casts Shadow Over China’s Success Story – NYT The frenzy in the southern city highlights the difficulties that Beijing faces as it tries to manage real estate and construction, crucial engines of the economy.

Related: Migrant Workers in Shenzhen Bear Brunt of Landslide – NYT 

Related: China Detains 12 People Over Shenzhen Landslide, Police Say – NYT 

Related: Shenzhen official who rubber-stamped waste dump that triggered massive landslide takes his own life – SCMP 

Related: Is the Shenzhen landslide the first of many more? – The Guardian

China Passes Antiterrorism Law That Critics Fear May Overreach – NYT Opponents who had seen a draft version said it grants broad new powers that could be abused to monitor peaceful citizens and steal commercial secrets.

   Related: China’s New Anti-Terrorism Law – The Diplomat

Microsoft to Notify Users of Government Hackings – NYT The company joins Google, Facebook and others in disclosing when users of email and other services have probably been targeted by hackers working on behalf of governments.

Related: Microsoft to start notifying victims of ‘state sponsored’ hacking – The Guardian 

Related: China’s Cyber Turn: Recognizing Change for the Better – The Diplomat

REGIONAL RELATIONS

China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank Enters Into Force: What Next? – The Diplomat The AIIB’s Articles of Agreement entered into force, taking the China-led development bank one step closer to operational status.

Related: Philippines to (Finally) Join China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank – The Diplomat

China says countries will follow Britain’s lead to become best friends with Beijing – The Guardian More western countries will follow Britain in improving ties with China, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi has said, describing relations with London over the past year as a “bright spot” in China’s diplomacy.

Related: Justin Trudeau and Canada-China Relations – The Diplomat

The DPP’s Agenda for Contributing to Regional Stability – The Diplomat Claims that the DPP lacks clarity on sovereignty issues are disingenuous.

Related: China, the U.S. and the Coming Taiwan Transition – The Diplomat 

Related: Taiwan’s opposition leader highlights risk of close ties with China as election looms – SCMP

 Philippine ‘Freedom Voyage’ Lands on Disputed Island in South China Sea – The Diplomat Defying China and the Philippine government, an activist group lands 47 people on Thitu Island.

Related: Vietnam Reveals New Drone for Patrolling the South China Sea – The Diplomat 

Related: Who Is Militarizing the South China Sea? – The Diplomat

SUSTAINABILITY AND RESOURCE MANAGEMENT

China and Climate Change: Three Things to Watch After Paris – The Diplomat China has made its promises. Will it now deliver?

Related: China Pipelines Sold Far Below Cost – Radio Free Asia

Related: China’s Nuclear Power Debate – The Diplomat 

Related: Ex-premier Li Peng’s daughter Li Xiaolin quits top power job – SCMP 

Related: China’s west tries to harness more of its wind power – Chinadialogue

In the Dirtiest Cities, Air Pollution Forces Life Changes – NYT Residents of some of the world’s most heavily polluted cities shared their experiences dealing with the daily challenges and consequences.

Related: Toxic smog brings nightmare ‘white Christmas’ to Beijing – Thanh Nien Daily 

Related: Hiding in Plain Sight as Beijing Disappears Into Blanket of Smog – NYT 

Related: Companies in South China See Opportunity in Beijing’s Smog – NYT // The difficulty China has had landing its economic struggles of the past several months is not aided by the country’s past ‘development at all costs’ strategy and disregard for its environment.  As banks and other companies begin to second-guess their investments in the once growing power house, China’s financial ministers have the crucial role of determining how they will use the seven percent yearly GDP goal as a means of stabilization and not stagnation resulting in backwards progress. 

Related: Forecasting China’s smog seen as business opportunity for IBM and Microsoft – The Guardian // Of course, every situation offers the opportunity for exploitation via entrepreneurship…

Cambodia PM Stands by Hydropower, Dismisses Critics as ‘Extremists’ – The Irrawaddy Magazine Cambodia’s prime minister defended his government’s energy policy on Wednesday and hit back at environmentalists opposed to hydropower plants by suggesting their electricity be cut off and they should use resin torches instead.//I’d pay to see Hun Sen and Gen Prayuth throw down in a shouting match focused toward NGOs and journalists. 

Locals in deep South fight plan for coal-power plant – The Nation People in Pattani province and neighbouring areas yesterday have set up a network to take action against the construction of a coal-fired power plant in Songkhlaâs Thepha district.

Related: Pollution fears: Malaysia may suspend bauxite mining, threatening supplies to China – SCMP

Related: Smog, drought, litter bugs and unpopular coal-fired plants take centre stage – The Nation

 Myanmar told to embark on wind energy – Investvine Myanmar in its quest to increase power production could adapt renewable energies such as wind energy and at the same time enticing investors in the green energy sector to the country…

Convoy of Lao Trucks Transports Logs to Vietnam, Despite Ban on Timber Exports – RFA Laos has continued to transport logs from its forests to Vietnam, despite a government ban on timber exports that took effect in August…

CHINA

China: Trapped Miners Found – NYT Rescuers on Wednesday found eight surviving miners who were trapped for five days after a mine collapsed in eastern China.

Related: Dozens Are Feared Dead After a Landslide in Myanmar – NYT

China Plans a New Silk Road, but Trade Partners Are Wary – NYT Beijing’s effort to revive ancient trade routes is causing geopolitical strains, with countries like Turkey increasingly worried about becoming too dependent on China.

Related: Between Bullying and Flattery: A Theory on Chinese Politics – The Diplomat 

Related: China’s Xi vows to push reforms while expanding global role – Thanh Nien Daily

China Says It Is Building Its Second Aircraft Carrier – NYT This vessel, unlike the first, will be produced entirely using the country’s own designs and technology, the Defense Ministry said.

Related: Investigators Blame Violent Weather for Yangtze Cruise Ship Disaster – NYT 

Related: China’s Economic Miracle, As Seen Through Its Trains – The Diplomat

Related: Chinese Company Wins Contract for Deep Sea Port in Myanmar – The Diplomat 

Related: 12 Things to Know about the Impact of Infrastructure in Asia – ADB

China’s new two-child policy legislation formally comes into force – SCMP Married couples in China will from Friday be allowed to have two children, after concerns over an ageing population and shrinking workforce ushered in an end to the country’s controversial one-child policy.

Related: China passes first domestic violence law – The Guardian 

 China appoints new military top brass in overhaul aimed at boosting professionalism – SCMP China has appointed three new commanders to head the land forces of the People’s Liberation Army and the new Rocket Force and Strategic Support Force, as part of the military overhaul to promote talented officers.

Related: China’s sweeping military reforms to strengthen grip of Communist Party, says army newspaper – SCMP

China Telecom boss Chang Xiaobing quits amid corruption crackdown – The Guardian Head of one of biggest state-owned companies steps down days after being detained for ‘severe disciplinary violations’.

Related: Xi Jinping tells Chinese leadership that families must set example on corruption – The Guardian 

Related: Feng shui-loving government official thrown out of the Communist Party in China – SCMP 

Related: Beleaguered Kunming metals tycoon missing – GoKunming

 Conviction of Pu Zhiqiang Affirms China’s Resolve to Muzzle Rights Lawyers – NYT Mr. Pu is one of the leading figures in an independent legal movement that has managed to blossom over more than a decade despite numerous obstacles.

Related: Friends fear for Chinese Christian lawyer spending Christmas behind bars – The Guardian

Related: China’s Christians Told To Keep a Low Profile This Christmas – Radio Free Asia

Fifth man working for publishers critical of Chinese government goes missing – The Guardian Lee Bo, the chief editor of a Hong Kong firm known for producing books on Chinese politics has become the company’s fifth employee to go missing.

Related: China Frees 2 Brothers of U.S. Reporter for Radio Free Asia – NYT 

Related: ‘Rule the party strictly!’: Chinese president ‘Big Daddy Xi’ makes rap debut – The Guardian 

Related: Weibo warriors – The Economist: China  

Related: French journalist accuses China of intimidating foreign press – The Guardian

 Zimbabwe to make Chinese yuan legal currency after Beijing cancels debts – The Guardian Zimbabwe has announced that it will make the Chinese yuan legal tender after Beijing confirmed it would cancel $40m in debts.

 China’s Navy takes part in joint exercise off Australian coast – Thanh Nien Daily Australia walks a diplomatic tightrope between the U.S. and China.

Related: The Emerging China-Kazakhstan Defense Relationship – The Diplomat

Related: Mystery Cloaks a North Korean Pop Band’s Canceled Beijing Dates – NYT

 The Politics of Tibet’s Poisonous Religious Divide – The Irrawaddy Magazine The doctrinal schism that the Chinese Communist Party is using to hound the Dalai Lama arose long ago in the internecine politics of his own school of Tibetan Buddhism.

Related: How China’s Communist Party Waged Class Struggle in Tibet – Radio Free Asia

 China to provide subsidies to replace government housing – Jakarta Post China’s housing minister said on Monday that governments will stop building rental housing units to accommodate migrant workers and people displaced by demolitions or renovations of urban residences or shantytowns.

Related: Related: China’s president warns that economic stimulus is ‘not the answer to nation’s challenges’ – SCMP

SOUTHEAST ASIA

 Asean launches EU-style economic bloc – but will it work? – SCMP Southeast Asian nations officially launched an EU-inspired economic bloc Thursday aimed at boosting the region’s trading clout and attracting more investment, but analysts said a true single market was still a long way off.//No.

Related: An ASEAN devoid of its community – New Mandala 

Related: SE Asia stocks: most markets set for losses in 2015, Vietnam outperforms – Thanh Nien Daily

After Victory in Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi Quietly Shapes a Transition – NYT Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi has kept the country guessing on details of the transfer of power to her democracy movement from the military establishment.

Anti-Smuggling Teams Abolished: Commerce Ministry – The Irrawaddy Magazine The government’s mobile task force teams, which aimed to clamp down on the country’s thriving illegal border trade, have been abolished, the Ministry of Commerce announced on Wednesday.

Kachin IDPs Endure Bitter Cold Snap on Sino-Burma Border – The Irrawaddy Magazine About 1,800 Kachin internally displaced persons (IDPs), living in makeshift shelters along the Sino-Burma border, are enduring freezing conditions with minimal supplies, aid workers said.

Thailand: 2 Sentenced to Death for Murders of British Tourists – NYT The verdict follows an investigation and trial that were mired in controversy, including allegations of police incompetence, mishandling of evidence and torture of the suspects.

Related: Thailand defends investigation into Britons’ murder after Myanmar protests – The Guardian

Thai junta tightens grip on justice system with ‘black site’ for civilian suspects – The Guardian The Thai junta has set up a “black site” at a Bangkok army base to hold people deemed threats to national security in what lawyers and rights groups say is an unprecedented expansion of the military’s control over the criminal justice system.

Related: Thailand’s junta releases poll showing 99.3% of citizens happy with its performance – The Guardian

Suspected Muslim rebels in southern Thailand attack government office and shoots official in head – SCMP Suspected Muslim insurgents attacked police and a government office in Thailand’s deep south on Tuesday, killing one official as they seized hostages, police said.

King’s dog Tongdaeng dies of old age – The Nation Tongdaeng (Copper) died peacefully while sleeping…//no longer will people have to humiliate themselves by bowing to a dog. Unless the thing had pups.

Related: Madness and loyalty in Thailand – New Mandala

Cambodia textile factory offers new model to improve workers’ lives – The Guardian South-east Asia’s garment industry has a bad name but decent wages, childcare and labour rights are high priorities for one company breaking the mould…peppered with references to sustainability, empowerment, development and opportunity.

Lawyer of Two Cambodian MPs Files Second Complaint Against Their Attackers – Radio Free Asia The lawyer of two Cambodian opposition lawmakers who were brutally attacked by a group of protesters outside the National Assembly in late October filed a second complaint with the Phnom Penh municipal court on Monday against the masterminds of the assaults.

Hun Sen’s Son Sets Sights on Cambodia’s Top Office – Radio Free Asia Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s youngest son said Wednesday that he intends to succeed his father in the authoritarian Southeast Asian country’s top office, although he did not specifically mention his plans for the next general elections in July 2018.//Kind of like Rand Paul, but not kind of like Rand Paul. The Cambodian People’s Party continues to remind us that it’s a communist party at heart. Princelings abound in Asian politics – and blood matters – think Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, China, Cambodia, Laos, among others…

Bangladeshi fisherman testifies in human trafficking case hearing – The Nation PUBLIC prosecutors yesterday brought a 23-year-old Bangladeshi fisherman to testify in the first session of the advance hearing into the human-trafficking case involving Rohingya and other migrants at Bangkokâs Ratchadaphisek Criminal Court.

Malaysia Passes Controversial National Security Law – The Diplomat On December 22, the Malaysian Senate passed a controversial national security bill that the government says will strengthen its ability to counter rising threats and critics have slammed as a blow to democracy and human rights.

This week’s digest was composed by Julia Zielinski with analysis and bad humor from Julia Zielinski and Brian Eyler.

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Regional roundup for week of 8.3.2015

The same week that the US and Vietnam celebrated its 20th year of bilateral normalization, China conducts massive live fire drills in the South China Sea.  None of this orchestration is coincidental and the moves of this grand chess game are becoming more apparent.  But where is it leading us and should we trust the chess masters to steer us all in the right direction.  Next month’s visit of Xi Jinping to Washington will be a test and further revealing of intentions – at least we hope.  

EXSE FOCUS 

 

 China Blames U.S. Military Actions for Tensions in the South China Sea – NYT The dispute over one of the world’s busiest trade routes has emerged as a serious point of contention between the two countries ahead of several crucial meetings.//History will show clearly that China started the new normal of one-upsmanship here.  While China’s capabilities manifest in front of our eyes via satellite image and new combat drills, the important issue to focus on is China’s intent and searching for an answer to why China is willing to risk its relationship with smaller neighbors over upsetting the status quo – and bringing the US more deeply into the dispute.  The fall conclusion to the Philippine arbitration case at the Hague will be a true litmus test for China’s adherence to the UNCLOS treaty of which it is a signatory and Xi’s promotion of rule of law.  

Related: Beijing Strikes Back: U.S. ‘Militarizing’ South China Sea – The Diplomat

 China conducts South China Sea live drill ‘to improve at-sea combat ability’ – The Guardian Xinhua news agency says dozens of missiles and torpedoes, as well as thousands of shells and jamming bombs, were fired during the drill.  China’s navy has carried out a “live firing drill” in the South China Sea to improve its maritime combat ability, state media has reported as tensions flare over the disputed waters.

Related: China’s Navy Tests ‘Maritime Combat Ability’ in the South China Sea – The Diplomat

Related: China Is Building a New South China Sea Fleet for its Maritime Militia – The Diplomat

Related: Vietnam Slams Chinese Naval Drill in South China Sea – The Diplomat

Related: For the ASEAN-China South China Sea Code of Conduct, Ninth Time Isn’t the Charm – The Diplomat

Related: Cambodia: A New South China Sea Mediator Between China and ASEAN? – The Diplomat

Related: The Philippines-China Arbitration: What Next? – The Diplomat

 Myanmar Frees Loggers From China Amid a Broader Amnesty – NYT After a strong pushback from Beijing, more than 150 citizens who were sentenced to life in prison were suddenly released.//Hidden inside a general amnesty of more than 6000 prisoners, the illegal loggers get out of jail free.  This happened on the first day of work for China’s new ambassador to Myanmar.  Not a coincidence.  The amnesty plays nicely to show the central government’s benevolence prior to November elections.  

Related: Release of Chinese loggers a welcome step in right direction by Myanmar – South China Morning Post

Related: Myanmar jails scores of Chinese loggers, Beijing incensed – GoKunming

Related: Trial of Chinese loggers in Myanmar raises questions about bilateral relations – East by Southeast

At the 2022 Winter Olympics, No Snow Is No Problem for the I.O.C. – NYT It’s a sad day when the International Olympic Committee cannot even meet one of the lowest bars for a potential Winter Games host city: snow.//If the Chinese government can shoot silver nitrate into the sky to make it rain, it can also produce snow. Foreign tourism to China has plummeted more than 70% at key tourist areas since the airpocalypse newsfest began a few years ago.  I think some good news coming out of China and news that focuses on hard working athletes is useful.  Now if I go to cover the Olympics in 2022, will I still need a VPN to get me onto my @aikunming Twitter account?  

Related: The Observer view on the future of the Olympics | Observer editorial – The Guardian

Related: Beijing promises to overcome lack of snow for 2022 Winter Olympics – The Guardian

Related: 2022 Olympics Leave China Beaming From Its Growing Clout – NYT

Related: Rights Advocates, and a Monk, Oppose Beijing’s Winter Olympics Bid – NYT

How the International Community Changed China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank – The Diplomat The AIIB today is very different from the AIIB China envisioned before March 2015.  This is reflected in a series of issues including the membership, capital contribution, veto power, and the linkage between AIIB and China’s own economic agenda, as well as its governance and standard issues.//Keep watching – too early to tell.  (aren’t we getting tired of saying this about Xi’s China? 

  

REGIONAL RELATIONS

Issues Mount as Negotiators Gather to Wrap Up Trans-Pacific Trade Pact – NYT The challenges make the prospect of closing a deal on the Trans-Pacific Partnership by the end of the week highly uncertain.//Vietnam at this point is in full support of the TPP.  Just a matter of timing.  

Related: US Upgrades Malaysia in Trafficking Report: Boost for TPP, Blow to Rights? – The Diplomat

Related: How the TPP Will Protect the United States’ ‘Third Offset’ Strategy – The Diplomat

Related: What the Trans-Pacific Partnership Means for Southeast Asia – The Diplomat

Related: Final push for Pacific trade pact – Thanh Nien Daily

 Burmese Consulate Opens in Chiang Mai – The Irawaddy The new Burmese consulate in Chiang Mai officially opened on Wednesday, with Burma’s foreign minister Wunna Maung Lwin and ambassador to Thailand Win Maung in attendance.//Good move.  Passing through Mae Sot will be much easier now and after AEC begins at the end of the year the consulate will help to facilitate increases in people flows.  Remember most of traffic coming through Kachin State and Shan State pass through Chiang Mai. 

Thailand, Myanmar agree on mutual visa-free travel – Investvine Thailand and Myanmar signed an agreement on July 28 to allow citizens with ordinary passports to make visa-free visits of up to 14 days, provided they arrive on an international flight. // Another step on the path towards increased economic opportunity and freedom of travel for Southeast Asia, another step for ASEAN.

 John Kerry to visit Vietnam next month – Thanh Nien Daily He will meet with senior Vietnamese officials to discuss bilateral and regional issues, a release said.//The US State department is working much harder on the US-Vietnam relationship and other regional bilateral relationships (Indonesia and Philippines to be exact) than it is on the US-China relationship. 

 Thai boats caught smuggling oil in Vietnam waters – Thanh Nien Daily They said they had sold diesel oil illegally to Vietnamese boats many times.

 

SUSTAINABILITY AND RESOURCE MANAGEMENT

 Climate change threatens China’s booming coastal cities, says expert – The Guardian With an ageing society and more people living by the coast, China faces a challenge coping with climate change, reports China Daily.  A recent study led by Georgina Mace, ecosystem professor at University College London, indicated that governments across the world have failed to grasp the risk that population booms in coastal cities pose as climate change continues to cause rises in sea levels and extreme weather events. // Glad to see the importance of sustainable development and infrastructure is making the news, but this study’s conclusion shouldn’t come as a surprise…  Other news states China’s continued struggle with smog in many cities, especially on the east coast.  This alone affects the health of millions annually.

Related: Climate change threatens major building projects, says Chinese expert – The Guardian

Related: China’s climate migrants – Chinadialogue

Related: Financing for resilient development: how to deal with the rising costs of climate change – Chinadialogue

 The Hidden Costs of China’s Shift to Hydropower – The Diplomat Beijing hopes hydropower can wean China off dirty fossil fuels, but new dams will mean a big environmental toll.//Especially since anecdotal evidence suggest for every dam built in Southwest China a back-up coal thermal plant is built to help with peak demand.  

Related: China’s shift from coal to hydro comes at a heavy price – The Third Pole

Need a weatherman – The Economist ROW after giant row of wind turbines marches towards the snowy peaks of the Tian Shan range, harvesting energy from the air.  If it can integrate large-scale wind generation into its electricity network, China will be an example for other countries.

Related: China’s Green Leap Forward – The Diplomat

Former deputy environmental protection minister accused of corruption in China – South China Morning Post A former deputy environmental protection minister in China is under investigation for alleged corruption.

 Talks stall on gas line between China and Russia – South China Morning Post Talks on a new deal to supply natural gas from Russia to China have stalled due to differences on pricing and disagreements over the construction of a pipeline, according to Russian media.

 ADB, Experts Discuss Ways to Protect Groundwater Resources in PRC – ADB  – The Asian Development Bank sponsored a 2-day forum in Beijing to discuss various innovative measures and technologies to protect groundwater resources in the country.

 Vietnam’s rush to develop risks damaging its natural attractions – The Guardian New resorts, cable cars and casinos threaten unspoiled landscapes as tourism sector struggles to balance modernisation and development with conservation.  Worst of all is the destruction of the thing that makes Vietnam’s towns and cities interesting to many foreign visitors.

 Vietnam Floods Kill 17 and Threaten to Pollute Ha Long Bay – NYT Environmental groups said that waste from coal mines could damage the northern bay, a Unesco World Heritage site famous for its steep limestone islands.//Are Vietnam’s EIAs considering seasonal changes in weather patterns and how strong rains/flooding impact a site and surrounding area?

Related: Deadly rains deluge Vietnam mines, spark contamination fears – Thanh Nien Daily

PM tells officials to keep saving water despite easing drought – The Nation PRIME MINISTER Prayut Chan-o-cha has instructed officials working on solving the water shortage to keep sticking with water-saving measures, even though more water has been flowing into major dams, Deputy Government Spokesman Maj-General Sansern Kaewkamnerd said yesterday.

 

CHINA

Ethnic Tensions in Xinjiang Complicate China-Turkey Ties – NYT Bilateral trade is growing between Beijing and Ankara, but anti-Chinese sentiment in Turkey appears to be growing as well.//This is the sleeper movie of the year folks. Keep watching. 

Related: Can China-Turkey Relations Move On? – The Diplomat

Tibetan Who Called for Dalai Lama’s Return Is Said to Be Freed From Chinese Prison – NYT Runggye Adak was jailed for eight years after calling for the spiritual leader’s return to Tibet in a speech at a major festival.

Related: China Releases Tibetan Nomad Jailed For Eight Years For Lithang Protest – Radio Free Asia

 U.S. Decides to Retaliate Against China’s Hacking – NYT The Obama administration decided a response was needed after the Chinese stole data on 20 million Americans from the Office of Personnel Management.//What’s the response?   

Related: United Airlines hacked by China-linked group believed to responsible for previous US attacks – South China Morning Post

Related: Spying claims denied by China – The Jakarta Post

 China vs. Its Human Rights Lawyers – NYT The current crackdown shows how the Communist Party fears its legitimacy to rule could crumble.

Related: How the US Outplayed China in the South China Sea – The Diplomat

Related: Pro-Beijing lawyer Kennedy Wong faces ICAC bribery charges – South China Morning Post

Shares in Mainland China End Worst Month in 6 Years – NYT The main indexes in Shanghai and Shenzhen finished July with declines of 14.3 percent each, despite government intervention in the markets.

Related: Chinese shares are falling, but the real fear is that the economy itself is slowing – The Guardian

Related: China’s large manufacturers stall as demand weakens at home and abroad – The Guardian

Related: Can Xi Jinping Turn China’s Economy Around? – ChinaFile

 Letting China’s Bubble Burst – Project Syndicate As China’s capital markets expand, they are outstripping policymakers’ capacity to manage prices and valuations. The only practical way forward is for the authorities to focus on regulatory and institutional development, while following through on their commitment to permit markets to self-correct.

Related: Xi Jinping’s Greatest Challenge – The Diplomat

Related: Q. and A.: Christopher K. Johnson on the Heavy Thumb of Xi Jinping – NYT

Ex-Military Leader in China Is Subject of Graft Inquiry – NYT Gen. Guo Boxiong was placed under investigation, becoming the most senior military official brought down in President Xi Jinping’s campaign against corruption.

Related: With Latest Ouster, China Steps Up Fight Against Military Corruption – The Diplomat

Related: China’s President Xi Jinping promotes 10 senior military officials to full general – South China Morning Post

 ‘The China Challenge,’ by Thomas J. Christensen – NYT A former State Department official urges Americans to accept China’s rise to power.

Related: Debating China Policy: High Stakes, Hard Choices – The Diplomat

 Will China Have a Mini US Navy By 2020? – The Diplomat Much has been written about China’s ongoing efforts to become what President Xi Jinping called a “great maritime power” and how the United States should respond. In light of this, it is useful to think about the future trajectory of the of the increasingly modern and powerful People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), which has been charged with both defending China’s sovereignty in ‘near seas’ (eg. Taiwan) and protecting Chinese interests in the ‘far seas’.//The rhetoric on this is shaky.  In DC, it’s often said that by 2020 or 2030 China could have a military that qualitatively could compete or outshine the US.  And those comments are said by congressmen who have big navy yards in their bailiwicks.  

 

SOUTHEAST ASIA

 Thailand Charges 72 With Human Trafficking Crimes Ahead of U.S. Report – NYT The indictments come days before the State Department is expected to release an analysis of international efforts to fight such smuggling networks.

Related: Thailand dismisses US criticism over human trafficking and slavery – The Guardian

The Trouble with Thailand’s Economy – The Diplomat Anemic performance is denting confidence in the ruling junta.  When Thailand’s coup-makers quickly disbursed over $3 billion owed to farmers from the ousted government’s politically hamstrung rice price subsidy scheme, it appeared that the country’s new military rulers had the will and means to break the bureaucratic inertia that had stalled fiscal spending under successive elected administrations.

More than 26m stimulant pills seized in Burma, police say – The Guardian Counter-narcotics officers said amphetamine hydrochloride tablets worth £68m have been found in 89 bags in a vehicle in Rangoon.  Myint Aung, a counter-narcotics officer, said police discovered 26.7m stimulant tablets on Sunday after inspecting a parked vehicle in the northern suburbs of Burma’s largest city.

The Future of Democracy and Human Rights in Myanmar – The Diplomat The Diplomat talks with Delphine Schrank about Myanmar’s trajectory. She recently spoke with The Diplomat’s associate editor Prashanth Parameswaran about the future of democracy and human rights in Myanmar ahead of upcoming historic elections expected this November. // Would democracy be enough and effective in improving Burma’s ethnic conflicts?  With the state’s shaky election history, it will be interesting to see whether power is passed according to the vote or if corruption or incumbent interruption will pollute results.

Related: Myanmar Ruling Party Expects Tough Fight in Coming Elections – Radio Free Asia

Related: Human Rights Defenders Continue to Suffer in Burma – The Irawaddy

Related: Visions of Myanmar, old and new – New Mandala

Related: The Dangerous Rise of Buddhist Chauvinism – Project Syndicate

 Ethnic Leaders Renew Push for All-Inclusive Ceasefire Ahead of Early August Talks – The Irawaddy Ethnic leaders will not sign on to a nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) if it excludes certain armed groups, senior ethnic representatives reiterated Wednesday after four days of talks on the draft text in northern Thailand.

 Kuala Lumpur’s budget passenger terminal is sinking, airline says – South China Morning Post Kuala Lumpur International Airport’s new budget passenger terminal is sinking, with cracks appearing in the taxiway and water forming pools that planes must drive through.

 Cambodian Authorities Assist 14 Montagnards Who Requested Return to Vietnam – Radio Free Asia Officials in northeastern Cambodia’s Ratanakiri province on Friday assisted 14 ethnic Montagnards who asked to be repatriated across the border to Vietnam after they left Thailand, citing financial hardship because they were unable to find work.

 Cambodia’s Armed Forces ‘Belong’ to The Ruling Party: Four-Star General – Radio Free Asia Cambodia’s armed forces belong to the country’s ruling party and must prevent a “color revolution” from overtaking the Southeast Asian nation, a four-star general said Wednesday, drawing criticism from an opposition official who called his understanding of the military’s role “limited.”

This week’s news digest was compiled by Julia Zielinski with analysis by Julia Zielinski and Brian Eyler.

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Silence of the Dammed

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In the ongoing controversy over the costs and benefits of hydropower in the Mekong River basin, there is much debate among governments, private business and civil society especially in Thailand and internationally. But one voice seems to be always silent in this debate: that of the local communities of Laos in whose country at least two mainstream Mekong dams are being built or planned and who will face the brunt of the projects’ impacts.

We never get to hear or see an informed opinion from local communities in Laos about the dams under planning and construction although many of these communities would face being displaced or resettled and lose their fisheries and other river-based livelihoods.

Laos is often perceived as a peaceful, Buddhist country with verdant mountains, rivers and a rural (and laid-back) way of life. While this may be true on the surface, it is a daily fact of life for Laotians that the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) maintains control over the country’s press and civil society.

This also gives the impression that Laos has for the most part a passive citizenry that is least interested in politics. During three years of my field research in Laos, however, I found many Laotians I met always enjoyed talking about politics with me. They have access to Thailand’s radio and television channels, and understanding Thai language is not a problem. Its just that the politics that they could freely talk about was about Thailand not Laos.

It is not surprising then that the debate about hydropower in Laos is met with silence among Lao people, especially communities, and the people who do voice their opinions are usually those in government or the hydropower business.

Missing voices in Don Sahong

I interviewed people about 10 km from the site of the Don Sahong Hydropower Project (DSHP) located on the Mekong River’s mainstream in the Siphandone area of southern Laos, less than two kilometers upstream of the Laos-Cambodia border.1

The Don Sahong Dam threatens the rich subsistence and commercial fisheries in Laos and could pose impacts also in Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam. It also threatens the last remaining population of the Irrawaddy dolphins in Laos whose habitat is the Siphandone area. Moreover, the planned water diversion from the Khone Phapheng waterfalls could undermine the area’s tourism.

The dam builders and government officials have organized many public information activities about the dam and social or environmental assessment studies to evaluate the potential impacts of the DSHP.

I asked my interviewees – the local people in the area – whether they were involved in these studies. Most said they have never engaged in these studies, and did not know about the DSHP’s expected impacts.

“Laos has only one communist party”. Local people always repeat this sentence several times, before somebody clarifies watchfully: “Nobody is allowed to express their opinions against the party. Whether we like the Don Sahong dam or not, it will be constructed..

When I asked them if they know about the potential impacts of the dam, a fisher replied: “I cannot foresee what will happen if the Don Sahong dam is completed. The officials said nothing is going to harm our life. However, I am worried about the reduction in fishing.”

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Dam developers have announced no-fishing zones around the Don Sahong dam site although local fishers have used these areas for their livelihoods for more than a hundred years. (Photo by JeeRung.)

To my surprise, many did not even understand the concept of a dam. One sixty-five year old woman said: “I do not know what is a dam. Will a dam be built here? I asked my children to explain the meaning of a dam.” Another fisher asked: “What is the Don Sahong dam? I never heard any news if it will be located here?”

“Public information activities”

The public information activities being held by the DSHP developer are not like a “public hearing” process where citizens can freely debate the merits and demerits of the project, ask for information, provide alternatives, raise concerns, etc. In fact, the DSHP’s public activities does not include the free, prior and informed consent from potentially affected people before going ahead with the project. Moreover, the available documents such as EIA, mitigation and other plans are not made available in the local language.

I conducted in-depth interviews with local people who had an opportunity to participate in the DSHP’s public information activities. Most interviewees said the information they received were about the dam’s positive impacts provided by the dam developers, but there was no information about the negative impacts. The summary of these efforts at misinformation by the dam proponents are provided in the table below.

photo 3 silence-of-the-dammed-table

Restrictions on media and other freedoms, weak civil society

There are few local civil society or nongovernmental organizations (CSOs/NGOs) dealing with issues of hydropower projects and monitoring them in Laos. Moreover, any emergent grassroots-level NGO working on public policy monitoring are viewed with government suspicion as politically subversive troublemakers. Although a few international CSOs especially based outside Laos have voiced critical views about the Mekong hydropower projects in Laos, their views are ignored by official state policy.

The citizenry of Laos (apart from state officials and some influential groups) has only minimal access to information about pending legislation, changes in regulations, or government policy. There are no established mechanisms for government consultation with civil society groups.

Lao people are also subject to severe restrictions on freedom of expression. The government controls all print and electronic media through the state news agency, Khaosan Pathet Lao. All media content is vetted by the Ministry of Information and Culture. A press law announced in 2001 that would allow limited private media ownership has not yet been adopted. If enacted, it would still impose strict controls, including the power to close publications deemed to be “anti-government”.

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Once Don Sahong is completed, the Don Sadam secondary school will be taken for the site of the hydropower transmission station. (Photo by JeeRung.)

Freedom of speech is restricted by provisions in the penal code that forbid “slandering the state, distorting party or state policies, inciting disorder, or propagating information or opinions that weaken the state.”

Article 59 of the penal code sets a prison sentence of 1 to 5 years for anti-government propaganda. Journalists who do not file “constructive reports” or who attempt to “obstruct” the work of the LPRP may be subject to jail terms of 5 to 15 years. Previous violators are believed to have incurred prison sentences of between 1 and 5 years2. The authorities usually harass the English-language press when it does not toe the official line.

The act of expressing views opposite to the official view of the state administration or public policies in public spaces is considered taboo. Lao authorities have consistently suppressed political antagonists, cracked down on those expressing critical opinions with arbitrary imprisonments and sometimes enforced disappearance3. The most high-profile case has been the “disappearance” of Magsaysay award winner Sombath Somphone. He was last seen in Vientiane in December 2012. Through these measures, Laotian authoritaries have instilled a fear among the populace of free expression of views.

Given this situation described above, it is not surprising that we do not hear about or see the genuine participation or expression of critical views by local communities in Laos regarding the Mekong hydropower projects.

Show 3 footnotes

This article written by JeeRung was originally posted here on the Mekong Commons site.  It is reposted with permission of the author and Mekong Commons.

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Seismicity & Sediment Flow in the Mekong River Basin

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

 

Tectonic setting

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

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

 

Sediment regime

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

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

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

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

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

 

Seismicity: Predicting earthquakes in the northern Mekong Basin

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

Conclusion

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

 

References:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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