Luke Hunt

Luke Hunt


You recently wrote an article in The Diplomat discussing Laos’ construction of various dams along the Mekong River, despite objections from other members of the Mekong River Commission. What do you think will be the regional impact of such work? Do you see a compromise being reached or Laos backing off and/or cancelling the project at some point? Could this spark regional tensions between the various nations along the river?

The Xayaburi Dam is the first attempt to dam the mainstream of the lower Mekong River. Initially, Cambodia and Vietnam objected angrily, citing food security issues and independent reports which clearly state the adverse impact of the dams. Laos’ authorities are divided over damning the mainstream – not the tributaries — and 60 million people downstream face serious disruptions to their lives. Laos insisted it had stopped building at the site while it was addressing those concerns but in reality this was purely lip service and construction never stopped. Then Vientiane dropped all pretenses and said it was going ahead. Cambodia and Vietnam said little. Hanoi noted that Laos had said it had mitigated concerns, but nobody has said how, what changes have been made, nothing. There was plenty of opportunity at the recent ASEAN and East Asian summits to shed some light on whether or not Hanoi and Phnom Penh had shifted their positions but nothing was said, no questions were taken and leaders of all three countries did their best to avoid the press. This is most frustrating.

The regional impact will be significant in terms of the negative impact on fish stocks, food security and precedents set for future damming of the river – this can only lead to further regional friction, particularly with Vietnam, over the medium to longer term. In the short term, however, I do not think that those running the project in Laos, in particular the Thai companies funding it, will ever back-off because they stand to make a lot of money for themselves out of the project, valued at between U.S.$3.5 and $3.8 billion. They will press ahead with construction of another 11 dams and the prospect that friction will lead to open hostility and possibly conflict in the not too distant future is a very real prospect within ASEAN, a bloc that prides itself on non-interference when it comes to a neighbor’s affairs.

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Something you have reported on in the recent past is the trials of various members of Pol Pot’s regime. In what ways does his reign still impact Cambodia today?

Cambodians over the age of 40 remember the killing fields and Pol Pot’s 1975-79 reign. The wars continued until 1998 and right up until then, there were villages not that far from Phnom Penh, where the Khmer Rouge would simply march in and kill any and all ethnic Vietnamese. As a result Cambodia remains a deeply traumatized society. It is changing with a new generation growing up that is disaffected by war but for the most part this country is run by a government, a bureaucracy and filled with people whose thinking at the deepest of levels is defined by what happened here because of Pol Pot.

Given the sheer level of death and destruction that occurred during 30 years of conflict, the depleting ranks of senior Khmer Rouge figures through natural causes, the logistic and political realities, finding justice for ordinary Cambodians was always going to be an impossible task. However, what they have achieved to date with the Khmer Rouge tribunal, a conviction against the former chief of security while another three are before the bench of local and international judges, has surpassed the expectations of most people in Cambodia.

ASEAN and the EAS recently concluded two very major summits. The South China Sea was once again a major stumbling block for all parties concerned. Do you see a path forward towards an eventual compromise on the issue with Cambodia now vacating its chair of ASEAN? Is there a viable path forward that could ease tensions?

Cambodia vacating the 12-month rotating chair of ASEAN will certainly create some breathing space within the bloc and the inclusion of a new group of personalities with no desire to appease China must lead to a change in political strategies surrounding overlapping claims in the South China Sea between China and the four members of ASEAN, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.

Brunei has much at stake and as chair for the next 12-months will be able to wield its influence and this includes the backing of Singapore, also a chief ally of the United States. Additionally, Brunei should find a natural alliance in Le Luong Minh from Vietnam, who will serve as ASEAN’s Secretary-General for the next five years. Thailand, considered relatively neutral in the whole affair, will be the independent arbiter, and as such chances of a united viable path forward on the issue are now much greater. Objections from Cambodia on behalf of China to a multilateral approach to dispute resolution can be expected but Cambodia’s objections will be brushed aside and Phnom Penh will become increasingly isolated within the bloc if it continues to act in China’s interests as opposed to those of ASEAN.

As such the days of Cambodia pushing China’s desire to establish bilateral negotiations with individual ASEAN members are over. This will disappoint Beijing which stood to strengthen its bargaining position through one-on-one talks and the momentum now appears to be with ASEAN countries opposed to Chinese claims in the South China Seas.

Burma has recently put in place a number of large economic and political reforms. Nations around the globe have praised such progress including the United States with President Obama recently visiting. You have indicated in the past that such praise might be premature. What measures would you see as demonstrating meaningful reform? The military completely leaving the government? The release of all political prisoners?

The reality is if an election was held tomorrow the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi would win with in a landslide. Until the military, which is given a minimum quota of 25 percent of all seats in Parliament, has been totally removed from politics and full elections held with the winner declared as the country’s new leader, reforms will bear little relevance. All political prisoners must be released, by their own definition they should never have been held in the first place. There also needs to be a day of reckoning, a type of war crimes tribunal, and justice found for those who perished under the junta. The 2007 crackdown on protesting Buddhist monks is one such example.

But having said that, prisoners are being released, elections are scheduled for 2015 and Thein Sein has proved himself an able performer on the international stage, responding well to the political cat and mouse game over reforms and the dropping of sanctions, which was highlighted by his handling of U.S. President Barack Obama during his recent visit to Burma. Cambodian leader Hun Sen could learn much from Thein Sein. Initially, I was skeptical about reforms in Burma and to a certain extent I still am but what has happened there over the last year or so is encouraging.

However, much will also depend upon on how the government responds to ethnic and religious bloodletting between the Rohingyas and Buddhists and what happens after Thein Sein steps down. He has indicated that his health could prevent him from taking part in the next elections and his replacement – who ever that might be – could then be responsible for a transfer of power to the opposition, and that will be the most difficult of jobs.

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