This week’s visit by State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to Thailand appears to hold out hope for Thai state and private investors to revitalise their plans for key investments in Myanmar. Among these projects, the most prominent are the Dawei special economic zone and a cascade of hydroelectric dams on the Thanlwin River.
Burma’s State Counsellor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi will meet with Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha to discuss bilateral issues focused on trade and economic cooperation during her visit to Thailand on 23-25 June. Meanwhile, the Thai government has announced yet again plans to put the long-delayed Dawei Special Economic Zone (SEZ) project higher on its agenda.
In 2012, Suu Kyi visited Thailand on her first trip outside of Burma in 24 years. She met with Burmese migrant workers in Mahachai, Samut Sakhon province, which has the largest migrant community in Thailand. At that time, she promised to do her best to improve the country’s economy so that migrant workers would have jobs to return home to in Burma.
Dams and water diversion projects along the Mekong River threaten to overwhelm an ecosystem that supports 60 million people and thousands of species, according to a consensus of scientists, NGOs and governments. But amidst this pending crisis, the main mechanism set up to protect the river is becoming all but irrelevant.
The Mekong now needs more protection than ever, experts say, but the Mekong River Commission (MRC) – an international body that manages Mekong development and water resource use – has been steadily losing power for years, say current and former employees who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Drought: The news has been full of it.
Fish are disappearing from markets from Zimbabwe to Vietnam because of it. Kenyan barristas are making “camelcinos” because drought has made cow milk scarce. And in India, men from some villages are even finding it hard to get wives because the water shortage makes them look like a bad bet.
Across Asia, Africa and Latin America, the rains are not falling – they’re failing.
But drought is no longer just a concern for farmers; it’s increasingly becoming a major humanitarian and political issue, particularly in hydropower-dependent countries.
So, last week I attended a meeting held at Can Tho University entitled ‘Sustainable Uses of Mekong Water Resources’. With Can Tho sitting squarely in the middle of the Mekong Delta, and suffering dreadfully from the current drought, the debate was highly emotional. And often very loud.
Participants acknowledged El Niño and climate change as two variables responsible for the absence of rain. But most of the ire was directed at mainstream dams north of the delta.Mainstream dams. South of the China border, none of these are complete, and just two are under construction. The Laotian dams were certainly focussed upon, but most of the concern was with the Chinese dams. Recently, China has released a considerable quantum of water from their dams, with the stated aim of assisting their drought-stricken neighbours to the south. The reasons for these releases were treated with scepticism.
Asia’s water woes are worsening. Already the world’s driest continent in per capita terms, Asia now faces a severe drought that has parched a vast region extending from southern Vietnam to central India. This has exacerbated political tensions, because it has highlighted the impact of China’s dam-building policy on the environment and on water flows to the dozen countries located downstream.
The right of citizens and communities to protect the environment against harmful development projects is now back in the draft constitution, thanks to fierce pressure by civil society nationwide. So people can relax now, right? Not a chance.
Face it. The military regime is in it for the long haul. Their diktats are the ultimate rules of the land. The community rights clause in the draft will be of no help because it has also been heavily diluted, turning active citizens and communities into state vassals.
Since the beginning of this year, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) has issued a series of orders under the special powers of Section 44 in the interim charter to eliminate legal obstruction and fast-track mega projects. First it was an order to bypass land-zoning laws to speed up the government’s project to create special economic zones in 10 border provinces, which also faces fierce opposition from locals. That was in January.
China’s pattern of regional conduct has come increasingly into focus in recent times. Its behaviour is much less about maintaining the ‘status quo’, and much more about revising the established dynamics and contours in the region to its preferences. This revisionism is likely to become the primary source of tensions and potential conflict in Southeast Asia.
A view of the dam at the Jinghong Hydropower Station on the Lancang River, the Chinese section of the Mekong River, in Jinghong city, Yunnan province, 20 May 2013. (Photo: AAP).
Nowhere are China’s revisionist aims more evident than in the South China Sea and the upper reaches of the Mekong River, which straddles southern China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
One of the country’s top bankers is stressing the need for faster action to transform Thailand into a hub for CLMV countries (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam).
Kevin Tan, CEO of HSBC Thailand, was speaking during an interview on Vietnam’s increasing attractiveness to foreign investors. Vietnam’s gross domestic product grew a whopping 797 per cent between 1995 and 2014, from US$20.74 billion to $186.2 billion. Thailand’s GDP growth was sluggish in comparison, rising from $169.28 billion to $404.8 billion over the same period.
And with big names like Intel, Apple and Samsung now showing interest in Vietnam, it seems the times are against Thailand.
China’s slowing economy would not seem a good time to scrap hydroelectric dam projects. That would seem especially so in southwest Yunnan’s Nu River valley, among the nation’s poorest regions. Yet provincial authorities have decided to put the way of life of villagers and the environment first by calling a halt to small-scale schemes. It is a hopeful sign for those in the area and downstream in Myanmar and Thailand who rely on the waters for their livelihoods.
The valley is a Unesco World Heritage site included for its scenery and biodiversity, accounting for 6,000 different types of plants and half of China’s animal and fish species. Plans in 2004 for a 13-dam cascade to be built in the upper reaches of the Nu were shelved under pressure the following year, but revived in 2013 on a lesser scale with an eye on meeting national renewal energy targets. The province’s Communist Party chief, Li Jiheng, said earlier this month that projects for coal mines and small hydro plants beside the river and on tributaries would not go ahead. In five to 10 years, with vegetation restored, the valley would be a tourist attraction rivaling the US’ Grand Canyon.