Bangkok, Thailand, November 9, 2017
The battle over the Mekong River has resumed, and it will end badly for one side. Despite continuous government efforts to delay, a decision will have to be made shortly. There are no shortage of supporters for both views, but the battle lines are clear. On one side, the Chinese government wants to blast a Mekong River channel for the largest riverboats of its comprador businesses. On the other, Thai environmentalists and conservationists oppose this.
The dispute over development of the river actually centres on a very short stretch of the Mekong in Thai territory. A collection of shoals, reefs and islets off Chiang Rai province is the only serious block for 500-tonne Chinese riverboats past Thailand and all the way down to Luang Prabang in Laos. Beijing is once again applying economic and diplomatic pressure on Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and the government. Gen Prayut doesn’t want to make any decision but probably will have to in the coming weeks.
China wants to blast the 1.5km Khon Pi Luang to clear the “rapids” off Chiang Khong district in Chiang Rai. Conservationists and civil rights activists, who have formed a coalition of sorts, want it left strictly alone. It is one of the most scenic stretches of the entire Mekong. Hundreds of villagers make their living there. And the No.1 concern of the government is that taking out the islets of Khon Pi Luang will change the river’s geography and actually reduce Thai territory.
On Monday, the chief executive officer of the secretariat of the Mekong River Commission (MRC), whose member countries are Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, plumped for clearing the pesky Thai islets and reefs. “Improvement” of Mekong navigability, wrote Pham Tuan Phan in this pages, wouldn’t be a big deal. He wrote of laser-accurate shaving of some of the problematic islets and reefs. It would be “barely a surgical intervention” to remove and relocate some rock outcroppings. Some fish would have to die, he said, but not as many as fishermen already kill.
It is perhaps the most unpersuasive argument yet heard. At least the Chinese engineers planning the channel excavation use proper words like “dynamite” and “dredging” to describe their project. After many months of back-and-forth on this disputatious proposal, Mr Phan’s failure to describe exactly what the MRC and China, who is the MRC’s “dialogue partner”, want was disappointing.
The conservationists are as persuasive for their side as China is in arguing that the Mekong must be used to promote international trade. The ad hoc Rak (Love) Chiang Khong Group argues, quite correctly, that the ecology of the river would be forever changed if plans to clear the Khon Pi Luang go ahead. Multiple dams in China already control the water flow in the river, and making the Mekong a China free-trade waterway seems as drastic as it is unfair.
The Thai government is clearly leaning to Beijing’s side in this important dispute. Only the security question has so far delayed the laying of dynamite. Studies are supposedly being conducted well out of sight of the public to judge the effect of China’s proposed blasting on the course of the Mekong and how it would affect the Thai border.
As usual with the military government, those who matter are not even consulted. Neither Chiang Khong residents nor knowledgeable national voices — including the activists — have mattered to the government. The proper course is therefore for the military regime to announce clearly it will not permit any Mekong blasting.
Gen Prayut must turn the issue over to the next, civilian government. This might annoy China, but Beijing’s businessmen can wait. In dealing with nature, including the Mekong, the proper decision is to adapt, not meet problems with dynamite.