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Six Mekong Nations Enter New Era

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 2003/06/15; June 15, 2003.]

By Supalak Ganjanakhundee
The Korea Herald

Multilateral development of the Mekong basin has moved slowly over the past decade because regional countries have lacked the capital to implement myriad ambitious projects. Difficulties inside and among the nations existed, too.

Long underdeveloped because of war and political conflict, the basin needs a huge amount of funds to progress. The 1997-1998 financial crisis caused a cash crunch that further delayed many projects there.

The Asian Development Bank-initiated Greater Mekong Subre-gion (GMS) needs some $14 billion (588 billion bath) for its projects over the next decade. The bank has injected only $1 billion since 1992, when it created the plan.

Other projects, like the Quadrangle Economic Coopera-tion (QEC), which covers the upper Mekong, and the Mekong River Commission (MRC) for the lower basin, are in the same situation.

The Mekong basin physically covers six countries. At 4,800 kilometers in length, the Mekong is the longest river in Southeast Asia, flowing from its origins in Tibet through China`s Yunnan province, Burma, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia before emptying into the sea in Vietnam.

The three schemes - the GMS, QEC and MRC - develop the region in different ways, but all claim the same goal of sustainable prosperity. The GMS focuses mainly on infrastructure building in the six nations, as does the QEC, which covers only China, Laos, Burma and Thailand. The MRC is the single body underpinned by an agreement among Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam for the development and management of natural resources.

Regional countries also have different national development goals. At a lower level, a government`s vision of development does not always accord with the vision of villagers, said MRC chief executive officer Joern Kristensen, in his paper at two-day seminar in Bangkok; it began Thurday, and is co-hosted by The Nation.

"The plans of government agencies may not match the view of civil society groups," he said.

Conservationists and local communities have raised concerns that river clearance to improve navigational channels in the Mekong River in accordance with the QEC plan would destroy native flora and fauna and harm traditional ways of life.

Blasting the rapids could jeopardize the survival of rare species, such as the Mekong giant catfish, which spawns in the rapids, said Chavalit Withayanond, a Thai expert on fresh water resources. The environmental impact assessment for waterway clearance does not even mention any threats to plants or animals.

China`s planned series of dams in the Mekong mainstream also threatens to disrupt the Mekong River`s complex ecosystem, upon which 60 million people depend for fish, agriculture and transportation.

Schemes to develop the Mekong region are seen as supporting China`s goal of opening a southern backdoor to Southeast Asia.

Since the middle of the 1980s, the Chinese government has invested in, and commissioned, its southwestern Yunnan province to harness the Mekong for energy and to use it as a transportation channel to reach the five other riparian states downstream. Beijing financed $5 million worth of improvements in the Mekong River`s navigation channels, and extended loans for road development in Laos to link Yunnan and Thailand.

Supporters, mostly in Thailand, notably after Beijing succeeded in its 15 year quest to join the World Trade Organization, argue that the countries downstream will benefit from China`s infrastructure improvements. These will facilitate trade and tourism with the giant market.

The 2.3 million square kilometer Mekong basin is vast, has enormous potential wealth and a wide variety of natural resources, including a rich agricultural base, timber, fisheries, minerals, and energy, like hydropower, coal and petroleum reserves.

The resource-rich basin, with a combined population of 240 million, could fuel economic growth in a region undergoing greater change than ever. Many countries are attaining modernization and industrial growth through economic liberalism. A shift is underway from farm-based central planning to market-friendly economies.

But the optimists seem to ignore the likelihood that the small countries, such as Laos and Burma, will get fewer benefits from the plan due to their weak political bargaining power and internal difficulties.

The volume of business transactions between the two countries and other regional members is still very low. The road linking Bangkok to Kunming will benefit Thailand and China much more than it helps underdeveloped countries.

Building transport infrastructure is not easy in many sections of Burma. Portions of the road from northeastern Tachilek to northern Mong La that could link Thailand and China via Burma are under control of Wa and Shan ethnic insurgents. Political tensions in Rangoon, together with international sanctions prompted by the conflict between the junta and the opposition, could bar investors from doing business with Burma. Development in the Mekong region is really an uphill task, as all parties have their own objectives that may sometime clash.

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