Dams and Clashes

Good news on the status of the Xayaburi Dam. But clashes between Thailand and Cambodia dampen the regional mood.

Luke Hunt

Poles apart, two very different issues have resurfaced in Southeast Asia to meddle in regional politics. One offers environmental hope along the Mekong River, the second threatens despair and war along Cambodia’s border with Thailand.

The first occurred at a meeting in Vientiane with surprising results. A Vietnamese delegation scored a victory for common sense and regional food security by pressing the Mekong River Commission (MRC) into bumping a decision on the fate of the $3.5 billion Xayaburi Dam up to ministerial level.

That move thwarted a widely expected decision to proceed with the dam and could pave the way for a 10-year moratorium on dam construction along the mainstream of the Mekong River.

Few had expected it, but events in the Middle East may have prompted chief supporters of the dam – Laos and Thailand into a rethink. Why? Riots and unrest that toppled autocratic governments in Egypt and Tunisia found their roots in sharply rising food prices, particularly flour. Independent reports are predicting a substantial depletion in fish stocks for the region if plans to dam the Mekong go ahead.

Of the 12 dams planned for the lower Mekong Basin, Laos wants to build 10 as part of plans to become ‘the Battery of Southeast Asia ‘.

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According to an independent report prepared for the MRC by the International Centre for Environmental Management, if 11 mainstream dams are built, the total loss in fish resources would be 550,000 – 880,000 tonnes or 26 percent to 42 percent compared with the 2000 baseline. Not good for the governments who rely on the Mekong to feed millions. The decision even prompted a response from the US State Department, which welcomed ‘the recognition by riparian states of the need to consider fully the potential economic, environmental and social impacts of hydropower development and their efforts through the MRC's prior consultation process.’

No such common sense on hand around Preah Vihear where more Cambodian and Thai troops have died and have thousands evacuated in the latest outbreak of fighting. With elections looming in Thailand, the military brawling was as predictable as it was bloody.

It’s been on- going and well covered by The Diplomat since mid-2008 when Cambodia succeeded in winning the 11th century temple, which sits atop a 1,700 foot cliff, a listing as a World Heritage Site.

Broad international public opinion has tended to favour the Cambodians after the Thais objected to the listing and deployed troops into common ground shared by locals from both sides of the border around the site.

The move was seen largely as a diversionary tactic from the notorious troubles in Bangkok, however, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen didn’t hesitate in politicizing Thai military manoeuvres, using it to play upon nationalist sentiment during the July 2008 general election.

He further antagonized the Thais by employing ousted Thai Premier Thaksin Shinawatra as an economics advisor. Shinawatra is still on the lam, wanted at home for corruption.

Hun Sen’s Thai counterpart Abhisit Vejjajiva now appears set to follow through with his campaign strategy with elections due by July and a little help from the military. Abhisit has lamented that he remains unsure where he will be after the elections; victory is far from assured. Residents who live around Preah Vihear, meanwhile, are probably asking themselves similar questions.